The White House Years of Clinton—Hillary, Not Bill

Harvard alum details the N.Y. senator’s past as first lady, but avoids the present

With a possible presidential race ahead of her in 2008 and a second Senate term recently secured in the 2006 midterm elections, Hillary Rodham Clinton is long past her days as first lady in the White House. Yet, just like an annoyingly catchy single by a reinvented-for-the-new-decade star of 90s pop, they just keep bringing back Hillary, circa 1990.

“Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady” is a new book by Gil Troy ’82, named by History News Network as one of America’s Top 15 Young Historians. As one might expect from a historian, the book is less a contemporary look at Hillary Clinton and more a historical study that covers oft-tread terrain of Hillary’s upbringing, her years at Wellesley and Yale, and her stint in the White House.

Despite the press release’s claim that the tome “charts her unprecedented decision to run for Senate…and shows how Hillary used her White House experience to amass power in her own right,” the book has only tenuous links to Clinton’s current career as a senator and her future prospects as a Democratic presidential candidate.

In the conclusion entitled “Senator Hillary: ‘Compelling Public Figure’ or ‘Degraded Wife,’” Troy doesn’t actually mention the Senate race until about halfway through.

Then again, the book—removed from its press release—doesn’t purport to be a comprehensive review of the more recent years of Clinton’s career. Instead, it plays on that old historical maxim that to understand the past is to comprehend the future.

Troy seems to rely on the reader to connect the dots between past experience and present action, or at least to trust that learning about Hillary the first lady is important to understanding her in her current and prospective capacities.

While Hillary fans looking for a more up-to-date examination of the senator may be disappointed, Troy provides a detailed, thorough, and fair study for those interested in Clinton’s life.

In one of the more effective aspects of the book, Troy uses Clinton’s time as the first lady as a window to examine her position in the mindset of the American people.

Troy draws comparisons with women who tried to revolutionize the role of first lady (Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford), as well as their more cautious counterparts (Jackie Kennedy, Barbara Bush).

Troy does not only use Hillary Clinton as a way to discuss the past politics of America’s most powerful unofficial office: he also attempts to examine some more contemporary issues. Troy alludes to the idea that Hillary’s experience influenced, and was in turn shaped by, the issue of turn-of-the-millennium female roles.

Troy frequently refers to Hillary as a feminist first lady, and implicitly links what he views as Hillary’s struggle to find the perfect balance between wife, mother, and “co-president” to the discussion of a woman’s role in the United States. “She rejected the simple media polarities whereby traditionalists were happy homemakers and feminists were humorless careerists,” he writes. “Hillary Rodham Clinton set out to prove to feminists and anti-feminists alike that modern career women could be good old-fashioned moms.”

As interesting as these connections are, packing all of them into a 256-page book is tricky. The structure of the book can be difficult to navigate, and the narrative can jump suddenly from the push for health policy to Whitewater in the span of paragraphs. Often, the themes meander and get lost in the convoluted narrative.

Yet, there are interesting tidbits that should get laughs, especially from Harvard students.

When describing the Clintons’ moves from Arkansas to the White House, Troy, who earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Harvard, writes, “Like valedictorians from small Arkansas high schools who assumed they would ace their Harvard classes, both Hillary and Bill Clinton were surprised by how hard everything had become.”

Though an inattentive reader looking for a cleaner chronicle of Hillary’s stint as first lady might be frustrated, Troy’s account does allow for a comprehensive look at the rapid ups and downs of White House politics.

Similarly, the inclusion of sources and information from both sides of the bipartisan divide—Troy analyzes everything from political cartoons to poll numbers and text from speeches—means that readers get a detailed look at Clinton’s White House years. Troy’s approach, though at times overwhelming, is ultimately one of the books strongest points.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady
By Gil Troy '82
University Press of Kansas
Out Now