Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal
by William H. Chafe
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
“At Yale, [Bill] Clinton found an answer – another person, equally bright, just as driven to break barriers and change the world. She was almost as complicated as he was – perhaps even more so – with a family history that came close to his in its crazy dynamics. Hillary Rodham would change his life. He would change hers. And from the moment of their meeting, they created a partnership, both political and personal, that helped shape the course of the country.” (pg. 64)
I’m fascinated with the Clintons. You already know this. (“Play It Again, Bill”, 9/7/2012) So, it makes sense that this would be of interest to me – and it was.
I should say, however, that I haven’t read Bill Clinton’s memoir My Life. Nor have I read First in His Class by David Maraniss or The Clinton Tapes by Taylor Branch (a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary’s). I did read – and enjoy – Hillary’s memoir Living History, as well as All Too Human by George Stephanopolous.
Drawing from all of these (especially My Life) and accounts from Clinton associates (especially Betsey Wright), Chafe gives his reader the biographical details of both Clintons’ lives – their childhoods; their time at Oxford and Wellesley, respectively; and their years together at Yale Law School. In some ways, the biographical information seems slightly redundant. Perhaps that’s just because it is a narrative that most of us of a certain age know by now, having grown up not really knowing a time when the Clintons weren’t headline news for one reason or another.
Chafe does seem to emphasize their early years (especially Bill’s). That’s important to the premise of the book: the belief that, like many of us, Hillary and Bill’s personalities and character were each shaped by their upbringing and the family environment that they grew up in. Chafe takes pivotal moments in the Clintons’ political life together and examines them within the context of their personalities, their strengths and flaws, and the dynamics of their personal relationship.
In doing so, Chafe doesn’t skirt around the reason why most of us would probably be reading this book: to gain the ultimate inside scoop on Bill and Hillary’s relationship, and why and how, after all the womanizing and after all the scandals, they stayed together.
We see this pattern early and often in their relationship, and it is one confirmed by close friends. There are new names revealed in this biography; for example, I’d never heard of Marilyn Jo Jenkins before Bill and Hillary, but apparently Bill was in love with Marilyn Jo so much that he asked Hillary for a divorce in 1990, before deciding to run for President. (Obviously, she told him no.) Personally and politically, things would have been very different indeed, had that occurred. You could probably say that our very country would have have been different.
Make no mistake: Bill and Hillary isn’t a fawning love story to the Clintons nor no wistful look back at the way things were. Chafe reminds his reader of the six weeks of bombshells that the 1992 campaign withstood between January 23 and March 7 (Gennifer Flowers, Bill’s Vietnam draft dodger issues, and questions about Hillary’s work at the Rose Law Firm) followed by the dysfunction and chaos of the early days of the Clinton presidency – which was very, very much a co-presidency. The American people definitely got their “two for the price of one” deal that Bill Clinton infamously promised.
“For better or worse, the chemistry of this relationship suggested a degree of emotional attachment (and dependency) rarely on display in American public life. It was almost impossible to speak of one of the Clintons without having the other in mind as well.” (pg. 138)
It still isn’t.
All the rest of the scandals we’ve come to know are recounted too – Vince Foster, Whitewater, Troopergate, Travelgate, and of course, Monica Lewinsky. (There’s new information – to me, at least – on the latter, although it could be from her tell-all tome about their relationship; I haven’t read that one either.)
While Bill and Hillary could be viewed as a hatchet job, I didn’t read it as such. I thought Chafe presented the facts and historical events quite fairly – with a little inside baseball for those of us who remember those days. With each one of these scandals, Chafe successfully makes the case that the cause can be traced back to the dynamics of the Clintons’ personal relationship. It’s more than just having a crappy childhood and needing to win the approval of others. That’s a big part of it, sure, but
“[a]s one person close to Bill observed after the Lewinsky affair broke, ‘in deed and expression, you could see he was trying to do everything he could to make it up to Hillary…Whatever Hillary wants, Hillary gets.’ She, in turn, had something to give. Her forbearance and love permitted him to survive, even to ‘come back.’ No one else could rescue him as she could. No one else could make right what was wrong. The exchange even worked romantically. When she was in charge of defending him, they were a team once more, affectionate with each other, sensitive to each other’s feelings. ‘It was hand-holding,’ one of the White House lawyers said, ‘arms around each other, lots of eye contact.’ In some respects, their partnership achieved a new intimacy and camaraderie when she stood by him in the face of his misbehavior. Thus, in the strangest of ways, Clinton’s reckless sexual behavior actually enhanced their personal ties. It made their relationship more functional and productive. Arguably – and in the strangest irony of all – it was at the heart of their partnership, the centerpiece that made it work.” (pg. 299)
Depending on what side of the aisle you’re on, it could be said that that partnership did or did not work for America. I think it’s both, which is the position Chafe seems to take. It seems to be working for them, because they seem to be doing okay. But the fact remains that, whether we like the Clintons personally or not, their relationship and its dynamics not only had the power to influence a generation, but to change an entire country.
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