The More Things Change

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham imagines the world exactly as it always was.

Andrea Long Chu
July 8, 2020
Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton attends the premiere of the Hulu documentary Hillary at the DGA New York Theater on March 4th, 2020. Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP Images

Discussed in this essay: Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Random House, 2020. 432 pages.

THE YEAR is 1971. Hillary is a second-year law student at Yale, where she meets a charismatic classmate from Arkansas. Bill is leonine, a Rhodes scholar, voracious. “I have found a man who loves my brain,” she confides to a friend from Wellesley. For months, the two devour each other. The conversation is as vigorous as the sex. That summer, while interning at an Oakland firm specializing in civil liberties, she discovers him kissing her boss’s daughter. She forgives him, but she does not forget.

A few years pass. Hillary works as an attorney on the Nixon impeachment inquiry. Bill teaches law at the University of Arkansas and prepares to run for Congress. Three times he proposes to her; three times she hesitates. Then a former campaign volunteer approaches her in a grocery store parking lot, claiming that Bill raped her. “You shouldn’t marry me,” Bill confesses one night. “You should leave.” 

It is here that Rodham, the new novel from popular author Curtis Sittenfeld, departs from the historical record. Hillary Rodham takes a good long look at her life—and packs her things. The next morning, she loads up her car, hugs Bill Clinton goodbye, and drives north out of Fayetteville on Interstate 49. She is crossing the Missouri border, tears welling in her eyes, when a blazing tanker truck jumps the median and strikes her used 1968 Buick head-on, killing her instantly.

I LIED. But that’s fiction for you. From a falsehood, anything follows; in logic this is known as the principle of explosion. No, there is no fiery car crash in Rodham, nor does its eponymous heroine move to Maine, get a dog, and solve a string of opioid-related murders. This is a shame; if an author is just going to make things up, they might as well be interesting. Instead, the novel obeys what we might call the caterpillar effect: the principle that an apparently major change in the initial conditions of a complex system may, many iterations later, make almost no difference at all.

Here’s what actually happens: Hillary Rodham doesn’t marry Bill Clinton. Brokenhearted but determined, she moves to Chicago to teach law at Northwestern. In 1992, incensed by the treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination, Hillary decides to run for Senate; without the sex-addicted Bill to drag her down, she wins. That same year, without Hillary’s guiding hand, Bill’s presidential campaign quickly flames out following allegations of an affair with a cabaret singer. Over the next 20-odd years, which Sittenfeld largely elides, Senator Rodham develops a reputation as a pragmatic Midwestern centrist and mounts two unsuccessful bids for the Democratic presidential nomination. During her second rodeo, in 2008, she loses the primary to Barack Obama; as in real life, he goes on to serve as president for two terms. By 2016, when Sittenfeld’s Hillary runs for a third time, she is indistinguishable from the actual Hillary in all but circumstance: She is married to no one; she is a senator from Illinois, rather than New York; and—oh yes—she wins.

To call this speculative fiction would be an insult to that fine genre. Rodham, which seemed to top every must-read summer book list even after Covid-19 threw a wrench into Random House’s trusty hype machine, began life as a short story commissioned by Esquire. Published in May 2016, on the eve of Clinton’s real-life nomination, “The Nominee” found a fictionalized Hillary reflecting with patrician distaste on her unfair treatment by the press. For all Sittenfeld’s pretensions at alternate history, Rodham is an unabashed continuation of that project; it imagines the world not differently but rather, with smug admiration for its subject, exactly as it always was. The resulting book is nothing but a large commemorative stamp, dependent wholly in use and function on the reader’s willingness to lick it.

Rodham, which Hillary narrates, is actually the author’s second first-person foray into the lives of presidents’ wives. Her first was American Wife, a warmly received 2008 novel that fictionalized Laura Bush’s journey from librarian to presidential spouse with undisguised sympathy. That book, too, had its roots in a magazine piece, an unctuous 2004 Salon essay that Sittenfeld—a self-described “staunch liberal”—had penned in praise of the first lady’s quiet integrity and enjoyment of novels. “Laura Bush is a voracious reader of fiction,” she explained. “It’s the reason I believe she’s smart: For one thing, her favorite book is The Brothers Karamazov.” Incuriosity, disguised as its opposite, already shone through here, with Sittenfeld attributing her interest in Bush to her own artistic sensitivity rather than, as is more likely, the efficacy of the first lady as a political prop. “I love Laura Bush,” she wrote, too naïve to grasp that she was supposed to. 

You will therefore not be surprised to learn that Sittenfeld is one of those writers who think they have discovered, always freshly and for the first time, that women are people. They are, obviously; the error resides in the belief that humanity—the sheer fact of someone’s having it—is grounds for a novel. Case in point: Much has already been made of the graphic sex scenes in Rodham, which invite readers to imagine, among other things, Bill fingering Hillary to orgasm while driving on the highway. But this is not juice; it is sugar in water. Such scenes represent only the affectation of candor, carefully calculated to bamboozle reviewers into admitting that the author, like Bill Clinton’s penis, has adequately plumbed her subject’s depths.

In fact, Rodham is a work of maddening prudishness, unwilling at every turn to flash its protagonist’s motivations above the ankle. “I’d never had difficulty understanding why someone would run for office,” Hillary blandly observes when weighing her first Senate campaign. “Changing legislation, improving people’s lives—both were hugely, indisputably important.” That’s it: as close as Sittenfeld ever comes to laying bare her heroine’s deepest desires. In an airport memoir, this would be mere pablum; in a novel, it amounts to dereliction of duty. 

One might object that Rodham’s prose is meant to recall the clerical, laborious manner of speaking for which Hillary is known in real life. Whether this is a literary accomplishment or not hinges on how well-written you think books should be. I know that only so much may be expected of a book whose epigraph is taken—as God is my witness—from the libretto of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Yet this is an issue of characterization, not just form. Of her Senate days, Hillary recalls, “I loved being able to tangibly and directly take on the problems I had spent my adult life thinking about.” How strange that readers, being trapped inside Hillary’s brain for 400 pages, should never encounter any of these adult thoughts. If only there were a way for a narrator to communicate directly with a reader! Alas, the plot of this book presumes at every point the reader’s acceptance of the idea, often touted by the protagonist, that Hillary Rodham is a woman of dazzling, breathtaking intelligence. Why, then, does she sound like Hillary Clinton? 

IT’S WORTH PAUSING to acknowledge that the real Hillary Clinton is a charming person of moderate intellect and ability whose true talent lies in convincing college-educated people that her ambition, and by extension theirs, is a genuine expression of competence. Among the striving professional classes there is no greater analogy for career advancement than the presidency, and Clinton’s bitter defeat at the hands of a mad pretender has only deepened their conviction, successfully branded as feminist, that the height of injustice consists in the withholding of privileges owed.

There is no question that Sittenfeld’s Hillary, like our own, believes that she deserves to be president. During her first run in 2004, after finishing at the back of the pack in New Hampshire, she snaps at a male TV reporter who questions why she’s running. “Why do you think it is you ask that of me but not of my opponents?” she retorts. “Why wouldn’t I run for president? I’ve been a senator for two terms.” Then she makes an unfortunate remark about how she could have been baking cookies; the media roasts her for hating other women.

Which brings us to the fictitious Hillary’s other reason for running. “I liked doing things I was good at, and I liked being recognized for doing things I was good at,” she admits. “But as much as I wanted to be president, I wanted a woman to be president.” That simple image—a triangle in the Oval—composes the entirety of Hillary’s vision for America in Rodham. Her platform is like one of Jay Gatsby’s unopened books: One must be satisfied simply to know that it exists. Late in the novel, while prepping for a debate, Hillary complains that her detractors don’t know the first thing about her voting record. Neither does the reader.

What readers do know is that in the 1992 Senate race, Hillary Rodham ousts former Illinois state legislator Carol Moseley Braun in the primary. In real life, Moseley Braun became the first Black woman elected to the United States Senate, where she served from 1993 to 1999; in Rodham, however, she exits public life after her loss, reappearing only in Hillary’s guilty conscience. When Carol calls to concede the race, Hillary assures her that she was only doing what she felt was best for the state of Illinois. “For goodness’ sake, Hillary,” Carol tartly responds. “Let’s not pretend that either of us really believes it.”

This is a decisive moment in the novel. Sittenfeld clearly intends to show that Hillary has done something ethically compromising, even racist, in her pursuit of political office. The reader is asked to form this moral judgment not on the basis of the two candidates’ political platforms or values—they have none—but because the prospect of the first Black female senator is simply more historic than that of the third white female senator.

Hillary’s comeuppance for this sin will take three forms. First, her mentor and mother figure, a fictionalized version of children’s rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman, coldly withdraws from their relationship; it is only two decades later, after police shoot a Black teenager in Chicago, that Hillary will send her a tepid apology. “I considered myself almost immune to racism, in part due to my work with you, and I thought that my dismissal of Carol’s candidacy was wholly unrelated to race,” she writes. “I have come to see that almost nothing is wholly unrelated to race.”

Second, she has the misfortune of running against fellow Illinois senator Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, during which media coverage of her campaign becomes more vicious than ever. As in real life, she loses, and Obama ascends. That November, as Hillary watches the returns come in from a donor’s 20,000-acre Taos ranch, a friend muses, “All these years I believed Americans were more racist than sexist.” “Did you really?” Hillary replies, wine glass in hand. “Given when the Fifteenth Amendment passed and when the Nineteenth did?” You may decide for yourself if that is supposed to be ironic.

Finally, in 2015, Hillary receives a phone call from an old flame. Bill—now a tech billionaire rumored to take part in Silicon Valley orgies—is calling to let her know he’ll be competing against her in the coming Democratic primary. She is filled with fury but keeps her tone calm. “If you actually care about your legacy, help put the first woman president in office,” she tells him. “Don’t stand in my way.” Bill fires back, “Says the woman who started her political career by cockblocking Carol Moseley Braun.”

This heavy-handed analogy between what Hillary does to Carol and what Bill does to Hillary forms the closest thing to a moral spine in Rodham. But the suggestion here—that it’s sexist to run against a woman, just as it’s racist to run against a Black person—is ridiculous, and frankly offensive. This is public relations, not intersectionality. It insultingly implies that such candidates are progressive without even trying, while also being so devoid of actual political content as to be interchangeable. Worse, it obscures the obvious fact that political contests are, by nature, exercises in exclusion. The day when the first woman becomes president will also be the day, and you may quote me on this, when every other woman in America doesn’t.

IN REAL LIFE, female politicians are just that: politicians. Apropos of nothing, it may interest you to know that the real Carol Moseley Braun endorsed Joe Biden early in the Democratic primaries last year. Weeks after her election in 1992, Biden showed up unannounced at Moseley Braun’s Chicago apartment to recruit her for the Senate Judiciary Committee. As that body’s chairman, Biden had allowed Republicans to vilify Anita Hill the year before; now, he was looking to rehabilitate the committee, and himself. Moseley Braun warily accepted. Today, she’s a surrogate for Biden’s flaccid presidential campaign—her first time stumping in 20 years. This May, a day after Minneapolis protesters heroically burned down a police precinct, she told The New York Times, “I just need voters to see the Joe Biden I know, who is very clear on race and racism.” And so he is: Biden opposed busing as a tool of desegregation, drafted the notorious crime bill that Bill Clinton signed into law, and has rejected the idea of defunding the police. 

Then again, in order to care about any of that, you would first need to care about politics. Rodham does not; it is an unpolitical book by an unpolitical author about—for all her ambition—an unpolitical person, one who is manifestly uninterested in justice beyond her own professional rewards. This is, against all odds, the book’s single insight into Hillary Clinton: She knew nothing of power except that she wanted it. The author, insofar as she senses this, is fine with it. Sittenfeld’s Hillary never promotes her husband’s crime bill or votes for the Iraq War—she is conveniently spared the opportunity—but the one thing you must understand about this book is that it was written by and for someone who doesn’t care that the real Hillary did.

The truth is, presidents are small potatoes in history’s larder. We can say with reasonable certainty that, were Hillary Rodham Clinton now president, millionaires and billionaires would still hold Washington in a death grip. The healthcare industry would still be bleeding millions of people dry. ICE would still be terrorizing immigrants. The novel coronavirus would still have struck the planet; the response would still have been grossly mishandled by officials local, state, and federal. Police would still be murdering Black people with the approval and encouragement of the state. The current abolitionist uprising, decades in the making, would likely still be underway. We would still have misery; we would still have hope. The only thing we wouldn’t have is this book.

Andrea Long Chu is the book critic at New York Magazine.