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Book Review by a Non-Reader

First off, I admit I haven’t read either of the books I’m about to criticize; in fact, I’m not criticizing the books themselves but rather a journalistic and media prejudice I believe they convey, a belief born of hearing the authors on several talk shows. It could be that the authors are not accurately characterizing their own work or that I’m making flawed assumptions about the work based on my failure to understand the authors’ statements and apparent attitudes. Et cetera, et cetera. Enough for the caveat.

So, in the last couple of weeks, two critical journalistic biographies of Hillary Clinton have come out: “Her Way,” by Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth, and “A Woman in Charge,” by Carl Bernstein. They may be the finest books ever written about any political figure; but not judging by the tone of the authors during interviews — Bernstein on KQED’s “Forum” program (broadcast from San Francisco) on Tuesday and Gerth and Van Natta on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” today. In both cases, there seemed to be an attitude that ran beyond reporting and criticism to reproach and condemnation. One of Bernstein’s theses is that Clinton is a phony; he deplores her for it. Van Natta and Gerth take her to task for failing to read the 92-page National Intelligence Estimate the Bush administration supplied to Congress before the vote to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq; only in passing do they mention that a) only six members of the Senate say they read that document, b) it was just one of myriad sources of information on the matter at hand, and c) Clinton, despite her vote, has struck an increasingly critical stance toward the war from the fall of 2003 (that last point is germane to Gerth/Van Natta’s claim that she reinvented her position last year).

The thing is: Yes, it’s good that journalists are looking hard at Clinton. One might be tempted to say they’ve learned from the free pass most of the media establishment gave our current president before he was elected. But looking again, it’s hard to believe that anything has been learned.

Sure, Hillary Clinton is an important candidate; aside from her gender, it’s fair to say we’ve never had one quite like her — someone with such close previous involvement with the presidency and such a long and complex track record in and near government. But the attention she’s getting now? It’s more than a little disproportionate. When”s someone going to track down 500 of John McCain’s closest friends and associates so we can get some insight into why he cozens up to the same people who smeared him in 2000? Or really get into John Edwards’s closets and turn them inside out? He’s a personal-injury lawyer, for Christ’s sake! How can there not be something there to get a reporter’s juices flowing?

But then, it’s a market driven type of inquiry. Writing something on her will generate an advance and a level of buzz that no other candidate can match.

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