That little game of political chicken Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton played during the Senate vote on the Iraq spending bill Thursday night would not have surprised you if you had read Her Way, the new book by New York Times investigative reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr. which I've just finished.
Neither Clinton nor Obama were on the Senate floor when the voting began. Sources tell me that Obama was holding off to see if Hillary would go first. When it was clear she wouldn't, and time was running out on the vote, he headed into the chamber and voted no. Less than a minute later, Clinton barreled in and did the same.
It was yet another example of her instinct for "followership." Anyone willing to bet that if Obama had voted yes, Hillary would still have voted no?
The idea that Clinton is all tactics and calculation -- and would rather stick her finger in the air to see which way the political wind is blowing than actually take the lead on something -- is painstakingly documented in Her Way. Forget the stuff about Monica, Gennifer Flowers, Vince Foster, Hillary's record as a lawyer, or the Clintons' 20-year plan for both of them to become president. The money chapters are the ones on Iraq. When it comes to Hillary's shape-shifting stances, explanations, and votes on the war, Gerth and Van Natta offer a definitive and chilling portrait of a politician solely driven by political expedience -- even when it comes to life and death matters such as Iraq.
It's a portrait that will likely prove to be an anvil around her neck throughout the 2008 campaign, unless she can somehow transform herself from political weather vane to political leader.
Reading Her Way doesn't leave one optimistic that this will happen any time soon. Clinton's serial manipulations, prevarications, rationalizations, and calculations on the war are laid out chapter and verse. Literally. Starting with her vote authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq.
On the campaign trail, Clinton has said again and again that she cast her vote based on the best available intelligence. But Gerth and Van Natta show that, according to all evidence, Hillary did not actually read the "best available intelligence" on the war before the invasion -- the full, 90-page classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate -- even though Sen. Bob Graham, then chairman of the Intelligence Committee, had, according to the book, "implored his colleagues to do so before casting such a monumental vote." (After reading the full report, Graham voted against the war.)
What's more, "Hillary still had no one on her staff with the security clearances needed to read the NIE." So what, exactly did she base her decision on -- briefings provided by the administration? Gerth and Van Natta sum it up this way: "If she did not bother to read the complete intelligence reports, then she did not do enough homework on the decision that she has called the most important of her life." This is particularly shocking given Hillary's obsession -- well-documented in the book -- with being "always well-prepared." Her Way quotes a senate advisor saying, "In her downtime she inhales information and enjoys it."
Perhaps if she had read the NIE she might not have been so fast to buy into the Bush/Cheney talking point linking Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. But buy into it she did, taking to the Senate floor before the war authorization vote to accuse Saddam of giving "aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members." Gerth and Van Natta note that when it came to making the Iraq-9/11 connection, Hillary even out-hawked Joe Lieberman, who "tempered his words on the Senate floor about the connection by noting that the 'relationship between Al Qaeda and Saddam's regime is a subject of intense debate within the intelligence community.'"
In an effort to justify her initial support of the war, Hillary has repeatedly insisted that her vote to authorize Bush to use force was actually a vote for diplomacy, that she didn't really believe we would go to war, and that the president misused that authority by giving short shrift to additional diplomatic methods. The authors turn a fan on this smokescreen and show that this claim is contradicted by Hillary's own voting record, pointing out that right before she cast her yes vote on the use of force, she voted against an amendment put forth by Carl Levin that would have required the president to actively pursue diplomacy before going to war. According to Her Way, if Hillary had voted yes on Levin's amendment, "she subsequently could have far more easily argued that she had worked toward a multilateral diplomatic approach. Instead of voting for Bush to pursue more diplomacy, she voted to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq." What's your spin on that one, Howard Wolfson?
Her Way documents that the triangulation and shiftiness only increased once Hillary saw that the public tide was turning against the war. The book reveals how in June 2006, Clinton, having just been booed at the Take Back America Conference for declaring that she didn't think it was "a smart strategy to set a date certain" for withdrawal from Iraq, strong-armed Harry Reid into letting her become a last minute co-sponsor of a Democratic plan for phased withdrawal, even though Reid had said he wasn't going to politicize the legislation by allowing presidential hopefuls to join as co-sponsors.
And the book details how Hillary again tried to have it both ways in January 2007 by introducing legislation to cap existing troop levels which also contained giant loopholes that would allow the president to continue the war at whatever troop levels he chose. These poison-pill qualifiers seriously undercut the anti-war message she was now trying to put forth -- which is no doubt why they were not mentioned in the press release she issued about the bill or in her speeches.
The authors also show how Hillary inflated her newly-anti war stance earlier this month when she announced her intention to file legislation to "deauthorize the war." She claimed that those doubting her anti-war bona fides should look back to the fact that in 2002, the day before she voted for the war authorization, she had voted for an amendment that would have limited the war to one year. But she once again conveniently left out a crucial fact: that the amendment contained a loophole that allowed the president to continue the war indefinitely.
Here is the devastating verdict on this spin from Her Way: "Hillary had been against the war before she was for it -- before she was against it all over again."
For anyone who has not given up on facts, Her Way shows unequivocally that from her journey from one of 77 senators to vote for the war to one of 14 to vote against the latest round of war funding, Hillary Clinton has taken just about every position on Iraq possible, save one: out in front. For her, it's been one long and ultimately very deadly round of follow the leader.
Indeed, the book -- which examines Hillary's entire Senate career -- leaves the reader wondering when was the last time Hillary took the lead on anything. This may not be a problem if you are one of 100 senators but it is a major problem if you are the leader of the free world.
It's no wonder that Hillary Clinton did her best to quash the book by forbidding her friends and colleagues -- including Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid -- to speak with the authors. Nevertheless, more than 500 people spoke to them and the result -- annotated with 1,600 footnotes -- prompted a feverish Memorial Day weekend attempt by Wolfson et al to spin the truth as old news ("Is it possible to be quoted yawning?" said Clinton spokesperson Philippe Reines of the book).
This desperate dismissal is going to be believed only by those who don't read the book -- or the Iraq excerpts coming out in the Sunday Times magazine this weekend.
Just as the Bush administration is discovering, Team Hillary will find out there are limits to spinning reality.