Somehow Hillary Clinton morphed from an angry law student observing the 1970 Black Panther trial to a canny senator who makes coffee for her male colleagues with a "touch of self-mockery." Her dad called her "Miss Smarty Pants," and it was she, not Bill, who was chosen in 1969 by Life magazine as an emblem of her generation. Her background, though middle-class, may have been as harsh as Bill's. In a footnote in his new biography of Hillary in all her strange-hatted guises, Carl Bernstein states that she's never discussed how severely her father beat her and her brothers.

Bernstein's written a pro-Hillary salvo—he keeps on about her serious Methodism and ardent Sunday-school sermons, which will sound good to centrists, and paints her as still partly a Rockefeller Republican. However, actual politics bore the author. For instance, he says almost nothing about her fight to get New York more antiterrorism funding. (She won.) The wayward Bernstein, who generally plays crazy to Woodward's straight-man act, prefers Hillary's more wayward and interesting past. One reason to pick up this book is that it's Carl Bernstein, the famous journalist, who's writing it—there really isn't a better journalist out there at capturing a person's humanity. If all the facts you remember about Hillary concern universal health care and tragic hats, this book will get you reacquainted, but it won't give political junkies their policy fix. After 500-plus pages, I get that Hillary's been an advocate for children and women for decades, but have no idea what that means.

It's clear that Bill's the dreamer; she's the realist. Theirs was a rock-star presidency: deeply principled in its vision, lacking in decorum, and specializing in self-destruction, with a bit of abuse (she may have hit him) and womanizing on the side. It's also a song a lot of people can't get out of their heads. Leaving two suicides and a few jail terms in their wake, Bill and Hillary managed to piss off most of Washington with their hokey Arkansas friends and unwillingness to play games. She probably could have pushed through her health-care package had she and Bill bothered to invite the Washington elite to formal dinners. Somehow they thought they could solve the world's problems over spur-of-the-moment movie nights.

Bernstein's tidbits are wonderful. According to Madeleine Albright, Bill diddled Monica because "he had been in a rage for the past four and a half years," beneath the act he'd put on. Hillary likes to pray, and once belonged to an exclusive prayer group for the wives of congressmen and senators. She was head of the Young Republicans Club at Wellesley before being galvanized by Martin Luther King's assassination. And she was deeply into national politics at Yale while her future husband was still wearing a Viking beard and chatting people up about the size of Arkansas watermelons.

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The book does, however, look carefully at Whitewater, and finds it was, at worst, embarrassing. The Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers affairs, while true, were something Kid Rock might make up. And it's pretty clear that the Arkansas state troopers turned on their old boss simply because they were no longer feelin' Bill's luv. What really happened was that Bill and Hillary scared the holy crap out of the power structure by getting to the White House without insider help. Worse, they showed up in '60s power-to-the-people trappings. The Republicans nearly impeached a president in the name of revenge.

Washington is old South in a way that Arkansas isn't. It's "classy" old South, not egalitarian pickup trucks and putting salted peanuts in your Coke. Senators and congressmen talk about inclusion, then send their kids to the mostly white country day schools that popped up after Brown v. Board of Education. I grew up in the area, and remember going to white-glove cotillions sponsored by the Elks Club. (I still recall how badly the Elks reacted to the few black children and single Cherokee child from my private school who were invited accidentally.) The local elites now in their 30s and 40s are graduates of these cotillions, teas, and National Symphony Balls. Through lawn parties and gentile soirees, they control who has access to whom. They expect women to wear pastels and speak softly to smooth the way for the menfolk. The second-most disliked thing in the South is an uppity woman. (The first-most is an uppity, well....) One thing I fear about an Obama presidency is that Washington might decide to make him completely ineffective, but then, I fear that about a second Clinton presidency as well—though Bill would make one hell of a first lady. recommended