What Does George Packer Know About Hillary Clinton’s Book, Anyway?

George Packer: Fine, smart writer. But I’m curious about a section in an otherwise nice New Yorker piece this week about the contrasting political styles of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Take a look:

[In 1995], Clinton began writing a book about children and society called “It Takes a Village.” The thing that Washington insiders remember best about the book is Hillary’s failure to thank Barbara Feinman, the writer hired by Simon & Schuster, the publisher, as a collaborator. The truth, though, is more complicated, and shows Hillary to be less a Machiavellian liar than a woman whose guardedness leads to self-sabotage.

Editors at Simon & Schuster reacted to early chapters with dismay, and worried about the quality of Feinman’s contributions, but they kept their reactions private. Over the summer, a manuscript emerged, but neither the publisher nor Clinton’s aides—nor, especially, Hillary herself—were pleased with it. When Feinman left for vacation, Clinton, a Simon & Schuster editor, and a few key aides, working on their own time, continued on the book without her. (Feinman fulfilled the terms of her contract, and was never told by the publisher that her work was unsatisfactory.) In November, the Simon & Schuster editor spent three weeks at the White House, working intensively to expand and refine the material with the aides and with Clinton, who filled yellow legal pads with incorrigibly wonky prose, in “round, schoolgirlish handwriting,” the editor told me. In private, Clinton was strikingly relaxed, padding around the Book Room and Solarium in sweatpants and Coke-bottle glasses, the editor said, calling her “buttercup.” Clinton’s personality, the editor found, “is refreshingly sharp and clear—but she can’t show it.”

“It Takes a Village” appeared in January, 1996, with an acknowledgments page that mentioned nobody. Clinton had apparently given in to the urge to pay her ghostwriter back (as had Simon & Schuster, which considered withholding the last portion of Feinman’s hundred-and-twenty-thousand-dollar fee but quickly relented). Clinton’s omission aroused the enmity of powerful friends of Feinman’s at the Washington Post, and journalists began covering the slight, their suspicions roused by Clinton’s explanation that she had forgone names in the acknowledgments for fear of leaving someone out. Hillary’s triumphant return to the public eye became another embarrassment. As with so many other Clinton scandals, the press framed the story in the worst possible light, and got its essence wrong, suggesting that Feinman had written the whole book and that Clinton had stolen the credit. Instead, Clinton had micromanaged every aspect of the book’s development. The episode captures her habit of undermining herself, when the worst might have been averted by a little candor and grace—a tendency that has reappeared in the past few weeks, as her campaign has responded to the shock of Obama’s challenge.

Does this account seem a little, um, incomplete? How do we know this is what really happened? This is on the basis of the story of one, unnamed S&S editor who presumably did the work of rescuing a manuscript that neither Clinton nor the top editors at S&S were happy with. Really? What about the ghostwriter’s side of the story? We hear nothing from Feinman (and, if we’re to believe Packer, she may not have even known her editors were unhappy with her until reading about it in the New Yorker 12 years later).

T his is one of those stories that seems a little too self-serving to be entirely true, and there’s got to be more to it than this.

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