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Complex portrait emerges in 2 books on Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted supporters at a breakfast meeting yesterday in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Two new books portray her as alternately brilliant and controlling, ambitious and victimized. (Charlie Neibergall/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON -- Two new books on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York offer fresh and often critical portraits of the Democratic presidential candidate that depict a tortured relationship with her husband and her past and challenge the image she has presented on the campaign trail.

The Hillary Clinton who emerges from the pages of the books comes across as a complicated, sometimes compromised, figure who tolerated Bill Clinton's brazen infidelity, pursued her policy and political goals with methodical drive, and occasionally skirted along the edge of the truth along the way. The books portray her as alternately brilliant and controlling, ambitious and victimized.

The Clinton campaign has nervously awaited publication of the books for fear they would include some new bombshell revelation or, at the very least, revive memories of less-savory moments in the couple's rise to power. The books, both by longtime journalists and both obtained by the Washington Post on Thursday, include a number of assertions and anecdotes that could confront her campaign with unwelcome questions.

"A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton," by Carl Bernstein, reports that Clinton as first lady was terrified that she would be prosecuted, took over her own legal and political defense, and decided not to be forthcoming with investigators because she was convinced she was unfairly targeted. While in Arkansas, according to Bernstein, she personally interviewed one woman alleged to have had an affair with her husband, contemplated divorce, and thought about running for governor out of anger at her husband's indiscretions.

"Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton," by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., reports that during her husband's 1992 campaign, a team she oversaw hired a private investigator to undermine Gennifer Flowers "until she is destroyed." Flowers had said publicly that she had an affair with Bill Clinton while he was governor .

The book also questions whether as senator Clinton read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in 2002 before voting to authorize war. The book also includes a thirdhand report that the Clintons made a secret plan in 1992 in which he would have eight years as president and then she would have eight years, although Thursday night a key source disavowed the story.

The Clinton camp hopes to brush off the books as mainly rehashing old news. "Is it possible to be quoted yawning?" asked Philippe Reines, her Senate spokesman. If past books on Clinton were "cash for trash," he added, "these books are nothing more than cash for rehash."

Howard Wolfson, a campaign spokesman, pointed to previous reports on some of the elements in the books to make the point that there was nothing new. "The news here is that it took three reporters nearly a decade to find no news," he said. He added: "Two overwhelming Senate victories in the toughest media market in the country demonstrated that voters have put these issues behind them."

Unlike many harsh books about Clinton written by ideological enemies, the two new volumes come from long-established writers backed by major publishing houses and could be harder to dismiss. Bernstein won national fame with partner Bob Woodward at the Post for breaking open the Watergate scandal, while Gerth and Von Natta both spent years as investigative reporters for The New York Times.

In the works for eight years, Bernstein's 640-page book is the more extensive biography and, while not unsympathetic, includes some damning observations from people once close to the senator.

Bob Boorstin, who worked for Clinton when she was pushing her plan to restructure the nation's health care system in the early days of her husband's presidency, blamed her for its collapse. "I find her to be among the most self-righteous people I've ever known in my life," he told Bernstein. "And it's her great flaw. It's what killed health care," along with other factors.

Mark Fabiani, who as White House special counsel played a key role in defending the Clintons, said she was "so tortured by the way she's been treated that she would do anything to get out of the situation. . . . And if that involved not being fully forthcoming, she herself would say, 'I have a reason for not being forthcoming.' " Her logic, he said, was: "If we do this, they're going to do this to me. If we say this, then they're going to say this. You know, [expletive] 'em, let's just not do that."

Fabiani said Clinton personally directed the White House defense, telling Bernstein that private attorney David Kendall dealt mainly with the first lady and met only rarely with the president until the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "He was easy to deal with compared to her," Fabiani said of the first couple. The only time he saw Bill Clinton lose his temper, Fabiani said, was when the president saw his Whitewater partner, Susan McDougal, taken to jail in an orange jumpsuit and shackles for refusing to testify.

At one point, Hillary Clinton was convinced she would be next, worried that Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr would indict her for perjury or obstruction of justice arising from statements she made under oath about her work for Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the Whitewater investment, or long-missing billing records. "When I say there was a serious fear she would be indicted, I can't overstate that," Fabiani told Bernstein.

Bernstein reexamines the most sensational aspects of Clinton's life -- and to his subject the most painful -- namely her decision to marry and remain married to Bill Clinton. She waited two years before deciding to become his wife and move to Arkansas, and Bernstein points to a little-known factor that may have contributed. Hillary Clinton failed the D.C. bar exam after law school, something she hid from her best friends for 30 years until disclosing it in her autobiography, "Living History." Bernstein suggests that blow to her ego may have played a role in her decision to move to Arkansas, where she had passed the bar.

The succession of women who also figured in Bill Clinton's life in Arkansas make a return appearance in the book, most notably Marilyn Jo Jenkins, a power company executive he fell in love with and almost left his wife over, according to Bernstein. Jenkins has been linked to Clinton before -- she was spirited into the governor's mansion at 5:15 a.m. for a final, furtive meeting with him the day he left for Washington to assume the presidency -- but Bernstein's account makes clear her pivotal role.

Bill Clinton wanted to divorce his wife to be with Jenkins in 1989, Bernstein reports, but Hillary Clinton refused. "There are worse things than infidelity," she told Betsey Wright, the governor's chief of staff. The crisis frayed Wright's relationship with Bill Clinton too, and she told Bernstein that she arranged for the two of them, Wright and Clinton, to see a therapist together.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, turned to her best friend, Diane Blair, obliquely raising the prospect of divorce during a long walk. "She was thinking that they had not made much money," Blair told Bernstein before her death in 2000, and she was concerned about her daughter. "Chelsea was there now. What if she were on her own? She didn't own a house. She was concerned that if she were to become a single parent, how would she make it work in a way that would be good for Chelsea."

The Clintons stayed together, but out of "anger and hurt" she considered running for governor in 1990, when he presumably would step down to prepare his 1992 presidential campaign. The idea ended after consultant Dick Morris conducted two polls showing she had no independent identity with Arkansas voters and compared her to George Wallace's wife, who ran to succeed him in Alabama, an analogy that offended her.

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