Is Nina 'Kneepads' Burleigh the Ideal Reviewer of Hillary Books?

On the front page of Thursday's Style section, The Washington Post awarded its book review of Sally Bedell Smith's new book on the Clinton marriage to none other than Nina Burleigh (file photo at right), the former Time reporter who so memorably said she in 1998 that she would gladly offer oral sex to Bill Clinton just for keeping abortion legal: "I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs." Instead of a book review, Burleigh offered a feminist warning to women to avoid judging Hillary Clinton's choices. She surmised that everyone wants to blame Hillary for the adultery, that "A successful wife to Bill Clinton would have had to be a full-time, full-service, round-the-clock succubus, but that doesn't give Hillary a pass."

Her real lecture came at the end of the so-called book review, in which she says judging Hillary's marriage is an act of "cruelty" like judging other mothers, including those sad ones who give up a career:

Sally Bedell Smith is not the first and surely not the last to propose that the Clintons are in bed together (at least sometimes, presumably) "for love of politics" and nothing more. I suspect there's more to their relationship. But then again, I also think it's not for us to speculate. To do so is second in cruelty to that other favorite sport of American women circa 2007, judging other mothers. Who knows what demons dwell in the sleepless chasm at the edge of screaming Junior's crib that drive professional women to abandon all for the dubious pleasure of pureeing vegetables? Similarly, who are we to assess the path a heartbroken woman finds out of the darkest night of her soul? Judge not, sisters, lest ye...well, you've heard it before.

Burleigh began her feminist screed with the usual overgeneralizing notes on the deficiencies and disloyalties of the male half of humanity:

There's a bedtime story for girls of a certain age. It's called Hillary and the Horrible, Ghastly, Unconscionable Secrets and Lies of Men. We've heard it before, but somehow we never tire of it. The moral is that men find women less attractive in direct proportion to the strength of our careers. Every last one of our husbands might run off with the babysitter. To blunt a biblical fact of life -- men are different from women, and some are more different than others -- we like explanations that lay the blame for Bill Clinton's infidelity at least partly on his wife. A successful wife to Bill Clinton would have had to be a full-time, full-service, round-the-clock succubus, but that doesn't give Hillary a pass.

Burleigh was clearly uncomfortable with the notion that Hillary's marriage was (or became) a political arrangement, and she mocked the notion that Sally Smith is reporting "that Hillary is a cold fish who has her husband by the short hairs." She desperately wants to believe that there's love somewhere inside the train wreck: "Maybe I'm a clueless romantic at heart, but I always believed Hillary was truly in love with Bill -- for a long time, if not still -- and that he broke her heart." That's a weird sentence, because feminists usually despise the idea of women being "clueless romantics at heart." Burleigh is a romantic of a different sort, who glorifies Hillary's marital bargaining as a "strange alchemy" of suppressing her emotions on the behalf of the advancement of Working Womanhood:

The bargain she made was internal: She pressed raw emotion into drive and focus. That seems perverse in the age of marital therapy and Dr. Phil's couch. There is something alien about the strange alchemy she performed when making, in the corny commonplace of her middle-class, Midwestern upbringing (an upbringing, by the way, that could not possibly have prepared her for the charming, faithless son of a woman who sobbed the day Elvis died), lemonade from lemons.

The most avid consumers of the Clinton marital analysis are female because of what Hillary means to American women (otherwise, why not a shelf of books about the role of the silent partner in the most disastrous presidency in history?). Hillary is the Boomer Everywoman who came of age in a decade when classified job ads were still segregated by gender, when a leader of the civil rights movement to which she and her ilk were devoted could opine that the appropriate position for women in the movement was "prone." The mere fact that she had a law career and made efforts to retain her own name sent a hysterical and very vocal section of America into paroxysms in 1991. Not so long ago.

You can almost imagine Burleigh humming "I Am Woman" as she typed these paragraphs. For the record, while Bill Clinton announced his presidential run in October of 1991, the national media didn't really start the puffy profiles of Hillary (stirring the alleged "hysterical paroxysms") until the calendar turned to 1992.

But the conservative "paroxysms" are exaggerated. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates in 1992 had wives who were lawyers or professional women. Tom Harkin's wife, Ruth, was a lawyer for the high-powered Washington law firm Akin Gump. Paul Tsongas's wife, Niki, was a lawyer. Back in 1988, Bruce Babbitt's wife, Hattie, was a lawyer, and Bob Dole’s wife Elizabeth was a ground-breaking cabinet secretary and a lawyer. Dan Quayle's wife Marilyn was a lawyer. What made Hillary Clinton unique from the beginning was their marital spectacle -- and its odor of political calculation.

Washington Post Nina Burleigh
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