Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine
By Daniel Halper
Broadside Books, 352 pages
In his richly reported debut book, Daniel Halper portrays the once and possibly future First Family not as a dynasty but as a wildly successful family business. Like any other conglomerate, Halper writes, “Clinton, Inc. embarks on a variety of potentially profitable endeavors,” adjusting strategies and cutting losses as it “fends off rival brands.” All the while it balances the ambitions of its co-CEOs, Bill and Hillary—with Chelsea readying her succession. Ever hungry to boost the political and monetary coffers of the empire, Halper describes the Clintons as “coldhearted” and “capitalistic,” their endless participation in politics “just business and one they happen to be very good at.”
According to Halper, online editor of the Weekly Standard, it took roughly a decade for the Clintons to restore their market value to its proper place following the conclusion of Bill’s second term. As they left the White House, Bill and Hillary were essentially bankrupt—not only financially but politically. Clinton ended his presidency with the last-second pardon of financier Marc Rich after Rich’s ex-wife donated $100,000 to Hillary’s senate run and $450,000 to the Clinton library. These and other late-breaking scandals, Halper says, “clouded [Bill’s] legacy,” causing his favorability to drop to 39 percent in the month after he left office.
But Clinton, Inc. was working on rebranding itself. Even as news of Bill’s reprieve from impeachment reached the White House in 1999, Halper reports, Hillary was huddling with one of Clinton, Inc.’s many long-serving lackeys, Harold Ickes, to plot a carpetbagging run for Senate in New York. She was not a compelling or subtle campaigner. In one of his characteristically colorful details, Halper notes that, to cast herself as a woman of the people, Hillary rode around New York in an armored brown van rather than a limousine. But she nonetheless displayed a Midas-like touch for transforming partisan attacks into political fortune. During a debate with her opponent Rick Lazio, for example, she spun his attempt to compel her to sign a pledge against soft money, during which he approached her with pen and paper, into a “threatening, invasive, sexist” stunt that stirred the sympathies of those already predisposed to the betrayed wife.
After Hillary won handily, the Clintons divided their holdings. Hillary busied herself with establishing her place in the Senate. After ruffling Democratic feathers early on, she opted, in Halper’s words, “for the role of dogged workhorse.” Bill, meanwhile, nursed his wounds in New York, poring over biographies of former presidents for insight into post-White House life. Settling on Jimmy Carter’s approach, he decided to found a nonprofit organization, the Clinton Foundation, which is now the power base of the empire. The foundation’s global do-gooderism would propel him to elder statesman status and help him “[cash] in on his time in public service to build a financial and political empire,” to the tune of $100 million in speaking fees over the next decade.
Its stock price stabilized, Clinton, Inc. launched an Apple-like campaign to regain its cool. Halper recruits a vivid cast of grudgingly admiring adversaries and tattling Clintonistas to tell this tale. First, the Clintons waged a “masterful” charm offensive and ensnared erstwhile Republican enemies. One-time GOP antagonists, from Trent Lott to Kenneth Starr, line up in droves in Clinton, Inc. to describe Bill as “lovable” and “mature” and Hillary as “always a joy.” Clinton Inc.’s most important coup was its mid-2000s courtship of the Bush family. Like a corporate Green Initiative, the bond with the Bushes gave Clinton, Inc. an enlightened polish.
The practice continued following Hillary’s collapse in the 2008 presidential primary—except this time with another rival clan, the Obamas. Indeed, accepting the office of Secretary of State would do for Hillary what the Clinton Foundation did for Bill: It washed away the grime of a mismanaged campaign. The author describes how, much as in the Senate, Hillary abandoned an early power play to embrace the role of tireless, devoted deputy. Snapping photos with leaders the world over, she became the subject of social media memes and brought sabermetrics to the State Department, turning the number of miles she traveled around the world into an accomplishment in and of itself.
While seducing their enemies, the Clintons policed their friends. Upon entering the Senate, Hillary assembled a legion of loyal minions that sources in Clinton, Inc. refer to as “muscular” and “aggressive” enforcers of her will. The roster included Senate aides such as Huma Abedin, Neera Tanden, and Philippe Reines, fellow-traveling journalists such as Sidney Blumenthal, and farm-team organizations such as the Center for American Progress and Media Matters. Over the decade, these aides would glide between various Clinton orbits, with Tanden later inheriting CAP and Abedin at one point working simultaneously for the State Department, the Clinton Foundation, and Teneo, the strategic consulting firm of Bill’s former body man, Doug Band.
Alongside longtime Clinton loyalists like James Carville and Paul Begala, these foot soldiers would keep Democrats in line. Certain Democrats, such as former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, would never recover from their “treacherous” endorsement of Obama; others, such as Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, would be made to absolve themselves by lining the primrose path of Hillary’s 2016 nomination with early endorsements.
Halper even suggests that President Obama, desperate for Bill’s charisma on the 2012 campaign trail, struck a quid-pro-quo with Clinton, Inc. Following his reelection, Obama staged a rare joint appearance with Hillary on 60 Minutes to call her “one of the finest secretary of states we’ve had.” Top adviser David Plouffe then declared her “probably the strongest candidate” for 2016.
The book’s interviews reveal a privately kind and gentle Hillary and “much less likable” Bill sometimes operating in unison, at other times “two rival business partners disagree[ing] on the best way to move their enterprise forward.” Court jesters jockey while scandalous rumors swirl, all at best jostling the Clinton machine. None of it truly mattered. According to Halper, by the time the Clintons swore in Bill De Blasio as the new mayor of New York, they had “successfully graduated from rehab. They were back.”
But Halper’s declaration raises the question, What have the Clintons truly accomplished? The author treats the Clinton Global Initiative gabfests, GOP endorsements, and jet-based diplomacy as milestones along the path to a restoration. But these are quintessentially insider victories—examples of elite players falling upwards through flattery and fear and reconquering a town they know all too well. Therein lies the true genius of Clinton, Inc.: It has marketed its mastery of Washington and Wall Street as an odyssey of national redemption.