I spent the weekend reading A Woman in Charge, Carl Bernstein's biography of Hillary Clinton (okay, I know I'm late) while being simultaneously bombarded with fresh evidence of the Bush/Cheney administration's pathological obsession with secrecy.
Historians will be debating for decades what the worst element of the Bush White House was -- but at the root of the entire cancerous structure is George Bush and Dick Cheney's shared fixation on secrecy. Their mutual contempt for the public's right to know knows no bounds -- witness the VP's absurd attempt to escape oversight by claiming he's not part of the executive branch, or the endless legal maneuvering to keep the administration's abuse of detainees hidden from scrutiny.
As a result, it's pretty safe to say the central question facing Democratic voters in the presidential primaries is: which candidate will be most effective at rolling back the Bush years? On issue after issue, the Democratic contenders are doing everything they can to highlight their differences with Bush.
But when it comes to the issue of secrecy and an administration operating in the shadows, there's an argument to be made that the candidate least likely to turn on the lights is Hillary Clinton. Her lifelong commitment to secrecy is one of the main themes of Bernstein's book.
"Hillary Rodham Clinton has always had a difficult relationship with the truth," writes Bernstein. "She has often chosen to obfuscate, omit, and avoid. It is an understatement by now that she has been known to apprehend truths about herself and the events of her life that others do not exactly share."
Or, as Bernstein summed it up on the Today Show, "This is a woman who led a camouflaged life and continues to."
It's not just that she's a private person. There are plenty of public servants who are zealous about guarding their personal lives and equally zealous about keeping their public lives -- and public policies -- transparent. But, like Bush and Cheney, Clinton seems devoted to secrecy for its own sake.
As Bernstein shows, what was most shocking about her handling of the health care fiasco during her husband's administration wasn't that she kept the plan secret from its critics, but that she kept it secret even from those who would have been champions of the plan had they known anything about it.
This passion for concealment is a pattern that, as Bernstein demonstrates, has been repeated throughout Clinton's life. It was there in the head-scratching decision to hide her college thesis from public view because it was about radical organizer Saul Alinsky. It was there in her refusal for 30 years to admit that she had failed the bar exam the first time she took it. It was there in the way she glossed over in her memoir her summer internship at the law firm of Treuhaft, Walker, and Burnstein -- one of the most renowned left-wing law firms in the nation. It was there in the way she handled the Whitewater and Travelgate investigations, which, as Bernstein told me, "ended up unnecessarily prolonging them."
Bernstein quotes Clinton lawyer Mark Fabiani as saying of Hillary and Whitewater: "She would do anything to get out of the situation. And if that involved not being forthcoming [in releasing documents and other materials] she herself would say, 'I have a reason for not being forthcoming.'" And he reports that then-White House advisor George Stephanopoulos described Hillary's responses to the various scandals of the Clinton presidency as "Jesuitical lying."
And it has been there in the way Hillary's camp has attacked Bernstein's book, saying, among other things, "Is it possible to be quoted yawning?" and deriding it as old news: "Nothing more than cash for rehash." This assessment stands in stark contrast to the majority of reviews, including the one in the Los Angeles Times by Ron Brownstein, who called it "a model of contemporary political biography... an excellent book: thorough, balanced, judicious and deeply reported."
"Hillary Clinton and her advisors apparently don't want people to know her real story," Carl Bernstein told me. "That is particularly sad because the authentic picture of her life is so much more compelling than the tired, airbrushed, and sanitized version they keep serving up and refining. The campaign's official response to A Woman in Charge -- even before they had seen the book -- is the kind of thing I would have expected from the Nixon White House or the Bush White House, not a Clinton presidential campaign committed to a new openness and transparency."
I actually found Bernstein's book to be a very humanizing portrait of Clinton, which is why her camp's reaction struck me as excessive and misguided. It's as if Hillary and those around her have such an idealized view of her they feel the need to vanquish anything that contradicts the faultless fantasy. No imperfection is allowed.
On the campaign trail, Clinton talks a lot about her experience in the White House -- clearly we're meant to factor those eight years in when evaluating her fitness to return. But reading the Bernstein book made me feel like she has taken away all the wrong lessons about being in power. Her tendency to hide and obfuscate appears to be a learned behavior.
So the question facing Democrats -- and, indeed, the country -- is whether we want another presidency cloaked in secrecy, deception, and denial.