For Love of Politics
Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years
One evening in the winter of 1998, Bill and Hillary Clinton invited a small group of friends to watch a movie in the theater at the White House. Since the beginning of the Clinton presidency, invitations to these evenings had become badges of status, and they promised an opportunity to spend informal time with the First Couple. Everyone gathered outside the luxurious screening room in the East Wing, grabbed some soda and popcorn, and then found places amid the rows of 51 beige upholstered seats.
Typically, the Clintons showed films that were about to open in theaters, making guests feel like insiders. But on this night, the film was a three-year-old comedy, Something to Talk About, starring Julia Roberts, Dennis Quaid, and Kyra Sedgwick.
The President and First Lady sat in two of the four large armchairs in the front row, and the guests settled themselves for a welcome respite from weeks of headlines about the President’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky, a twenty-four-year-old White House intern. Five days after the story had broken on January 21, Bill Clinton had stood before television cameras, wagged his finger, and emphatically denied having had sexual relations with “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” The next day, Hillary had blamed the accusations on a “vast right-wing conspiracy” of enemies. Since then, both Clintons had resolutely gone about their business and maintained silence on the subject, even as lurid and specific details of the Lewinsky story emerged in the press. The movie screening came as the Clintons socially “resurfaced following the Monica revelation,” recalled Mary Mel French, the Chief of Protocol, one of the guests that evening.
Something to Talk About began promisingly enough, with scenes of domestic bliss in a southern town, among them the bantering and earlymorning rituals of Grace Bichon (Roberts), the manager of her family’s prosperous horse farm; her husband, Eddie (Quaid), a real-estate developer; and their adorable preteen daughter, Caroline. But the plot took an ominous turn when Grace and Caroline drove through town and saw Eddie outside his office building, kissing a beautiful blonde and walking away with her, arm in arm. Observing her mother’s fury, Caroline asked, “Is Daddy in trouble?” “Big trouble,” said Grace.
“You marry a guy whose nickname in college was Hound Dog,” said Grace’s sister, Emma Rae (Sedgwick), “what did you think was going to happen?” In the inevitable confrontation the next day, Emma Rae kneed Eddie in the groin and called him a “lying sack of shit,” while Grace told him, “You don’t know how it feels to be made a big, fat fool of.” Grace’s revenge, from a recipe invented by her eccentric Aunt Rae, was a dinner of salmon with mint mustard sauce laced with emetics. “It’s not lethal,” explained Aunt Rae. “It will, however, make him sick as the dog that he is…. I call it homeopathic aversion therapy…. Sometimes a little near-death experience helps them put things in perspective.” On cue, Eddie fell violently ill, retching and screaming in agony as Grace rushed him to the hospital.
Afterward, in the White House Family Theater, “Bill and Hillary were completely silent. We all wanted to slide under our chairs,” recalled French, a friend of both Clintons from Arkansas who herself had been through a bruising divorce several years earlier. “Nobody said anything as we all got up to leave. I happened to be next to Hillary when we were walking out. She slipped her arm through mine and whispered to me, ‘I’ll tell you what. We should have that concoction. You should mix it up first and give me a portion.’ We burst out laughing and couldn’t stop.”
Hillary Clinton’s ability to laugh at such a moment of peril for her marriage – and her husband’s presidency – not only signaled an awareness of her husband’s philandering but showed that “she was trying to make the best of a lot of things,” recalled French. “She knew my circumstances, and I knew some of hers.”
That moment offered a revealing glimpse into a relationship that has fascinated and often mystified the American public. The intensity of the Clintons’ ambitions and the complexities of their marriage and political partnership had a profound impact on his presidency. In many respects, Bill and Hillary strengthened each other as “force multipliers.” Hillary’s mother suggested that for them, one plus one equaled “a third kind of entity.” Both had trained as lawyers and were equally versed in public policy. As President, Bill was the “principal,” and Hillary’s designated role as First Lady was to serve his interests. But they were equals in their personal relationship, and she had her own policy agenda, with sufficient resources and staff to pursue it. This created the impression, particularly in the first two years of the Clinton Administration, that the White House was the site of a copresidency, with overlapping agendas.
The Clintons’ temperamental differences and the tensions in their marriage intruded on policy, politics, and personnel in their presidential years. The Monica Lewinsky episode was the most egregious instance, but disquieting undercurrents were evident from the beginning. “There is a saying, ‘If Mama’s not happy, nobody is happy,’ ” said one top administration official. “You could read her weather forecast on his face.” Had the Clintons divorced, they would have been more fathomable. Instead, as Mary Mel French noted, “The Clintons are complicated because they stayed together.”
Bill was forty-six years old when he entered the White House, and Hillary was forty-five. They declared themselves the Baby Boomer version of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but the way they operated was more akin to John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, who served as Attorney General and operated as a de facto Vice President while serving as the President’s eyes and ears and closest advisor. “Eleanor Roosevelt was strong, but she did not try to beat men at their own game,” observed former Kennedy aide and Roosevelt biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger. “Hillary does.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton came to the presidency with a long history of consulting each other on virtually every consequential policy and political decision. This pattern continued in the White House years, especially in areas in which Hillary had a strong interest. Mickey Kantor, a longtime friend who served as U.S. Trade Representative and Commerce Secretary in the Clinton Administration as well as as an informal counselor when the Clintons were embattled by scandal, said, “Their lives had been so entwined, both personally and professionally, it has always been hard to distinguish who played what role. In the end, she had the first and last word when it was something important. . .. There was no issue I was around that she wasn’t critical to.”
Hillary considered Bill a “force of nature.” Yet nearly everything about him was contradicted by something else. His wide-ranging intellect could be overridden by lapses in everyday common sense. He was by turns empathetic and self-absorbed, focused and undisciplined, cerebral and priapic, idealistic and cynical, honest and evasive, inspiring and mortifying. Above all, he was intuitive.
“He was capable of constant emotional scans of everyone in the room in real time while he was thinking,” recalled one close Clinton associate. “He could recognize, quantify, and calibrate a response to the emotional state of the person with him.” With his “Iron John misty look” and lipbiting contemplation, he resembled a “girly man. . .. Part of his personality is sissy and womanish,” observed Gene Lyons, a sympathetic Arkansas journalist. Yet another side of him was classic alpha male, supremely selfconfident and exuberant with political power. In the Oval Office, he could display toughness and a fearsome temper. Political consultant James Carville warned against being misled by Bill’s “quarter inch of softness. . .. You’ll break your finger if you mistake that for going all the way through.”
The downside of Bill’s magnetism was his compulsive need to seduce. For example, he made several lame plays for Laura Tyson, the fetching chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers. “Once we were talking about an article I had written,” Tyson recalled, “and he said, ‘You should come over and show me your article.’ I thought, ‘This is bizarre.’ So I said, ‘I’ll just send it over.’ ” Another time at a White House dinner he commented on her alluring evening gown, saying, “You’d better not wear that to work,” to which she replied, “Of course I’ll never wear this to work.” Said Tyson later, “It is pretty good protection if you don’t let on any sign that this [a play] is happening. It will go away.”
Bill also had a propensity to dissemble that earned him enemies across the political spectrum. But he yearned to please people and win their approval, and he had a gift for conciliating and placating. Even friends who shunned him after the Lewinsky revelations eventually relented. “For six months I didn’t speak to him,” said Tunkie Riley, the wife of the Secretary of Education. “Then he got me again. I forgave him.”
The ability to win forgiveness, which seemed to perpetuate his reckless behavior, had its origins not only in Bill’s charm but in his own forgiving nature. “He so much needed forgiveness from others that he made lots of down payments,” said a longtime friend. “He knew the interest on these payments was going to come back to him.”
With her cool manner and formidable will, Hillary had to work harder to win people over. Her extreme earnestness conjured up images in the press of a high school “hall monitor” and the “Salvation Army sister” in Guys and Dolls.Early in the 1992 campaign, The New Yorkerran a cartoon of a woman shopping for a new jacket and saying, “Nothing too Hillary.” Many men were put off by her give-no-quarter nature. The pollster Frank Luntz once said, “She reminds most men of their first wife – or mother – inlaw.”
She was as unsentimental as Bill was mushy. She once wrote to a college friend, “Unthinking emotion is pitiful to me.” When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sent a check to Bill’s presidential campaign in 1992, he immediately said, “We can’t cash this.” Hillary’s reply: “Make a copy, and then cash it.” Said Ann McCoy, a friend from Arkansas, “You get a hug from Bill and a solution from Hillary.”
Hillary’s powers of concentration and rigorous self-discipline became legendary. “You can see her sometimes almost censoring the first, and second and third thing that comes into her head,” said her longtime friend Diane Blair. James Carville marveled that unlike Bill, Hillary was “attuned to the glory of the unspoken thought.” Even Hillary has acknowledged having an “obsessive personality.” One close friend referred admiringly to her “tunnel vision”-the ability to focus on a problem, analyze it, and make a firm decision. Her husband noted in the second year of his presidency with a wave toward his large Oval Office desk, “I might as well try to lift that desk up and throw it through the window as to change her mind.”
Nor did Hillary feel compelled to explain her certitude-or much else about her thoughts and emotions. “She could be moody, but she would never stop moving forward,” said Ann Stock, who served as White House Social Secretary. “Hillary has complex layers. What you see is not what you get.” This confounding opacity alienated the press and fueled a perception that she was withholding information during numerous investigations. In fact, playing the role of “hidden hand” was one she enjoyed. “She was extremely Machiavellian, a master of doing things that could not be traced back to her,” recalled one close colleague. “She would say, ‘Do this, but don’t leave any fingerprints.’ ” Hillary’s mother once observed, “She just does everything she has to do to get along and get ahead.”
When Bill Clinton met Hillary Rodham in the spring of 1971, each of them was already conspicuously successful. A student leader at Georgetown, he had arrived at Yale Law School after two years in England on a Rhodes scholarship. Hillary had won the TV quiz show College Bowlseveral times, and had landed in Lifemagazine in 1969 after making headlines as the first student commencement speaker at Wellesley. She was among only twenty-seven women in a class of 235 at Yale Law.
Early in her second year, Robert Reich, a Dartmouth graduate she had known for several years through anti�Vietnam War activities, introduced her to Bill, his friend from Oxford. “It didn’t take,” Reich recalled. Months later, Hillary seized the initiative in the law-school library, a now-mythic encounter with a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn flavor. Noticing Bill across the lounge, she first braced him for “staring” at her and then introduced herself.
Her directness and her impulse to force issues were to typify their relationship. Bill was “impressed and stunned” by her boldness. Looking beyond her unruly brown hair, unadorned features, Coke-bottle glasses, and baggy clothes, he found her “sense of strength and self-possession” alluring. “With Hillary there was no arm’s length,” he later wrote. “She was in my face from the start, and before I knew it, in my heart.” She offered the sort of intellectual sustenance and challenge Bill needed. He heatedly told his mother after she spoke disparagingly of Hillary’s looks, “I have to have somebody I can talkto. Do you understand that?”
To Hillary, Bill was a “big gangly guy” with long curly hair and full beard. She was drawn by a “vitality that seemed to shoot out of his pores,” and she thought he looked “very imposing. . . like a Viking” (“which is perfect,” comedian Jay Leno quipped years later, “because she reminded him of Iceland”). More than anything, Hillary sensed that unlike other men, Bill Clinton “wasn’t afraid of me.”
In some ways, they were an unlikely couple: the earnest Methodist overachiever who freely acknowledged “I don’t do spontaneity” and the instinctively affable and loquacious charmer who made everything look easy. “They are very different except in their values and interests,” said one of their oldest friends. “There are countless couples where opposites attract, but that is not what I would say about them. They just have different styles and manifestly intelligent and deeply political natures.”
With their compatible credentials and tightly aligned liberal views, they impressed their peers as a power couple even at Yale. Hillary recognized Bill’s raw talent and his potential for greatness. In 1974, while serving on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee’s inquiry into the possible impeachment of Richard Nixon, she told her colleague Bernard Nussbaum that Bill Clinton would be president someday. After Nussbaum scoffed at the idea, she fiercely told him, “Someday you’ll eat your words.” Hillary could have been a high-powered Manhattan or Washington lawyer, but she followed Bill to Arkansas, married him in 1975, and supported his political trajectory through five terms as governor. While pursuing a career as a partner in Little Rock’s prestigious Rose law firm, she oversaw Bill’s campaigns and advocated for his policies.
The flaw in the romantic picture was his womanizing. His tomcat tendencies emerged before their wedding and persisted over the years. “The rumors about him were so many and so pervasive,” said Arkansas journalist Max Brantley. “There is a saying in Arkansas: ‘You are on the second floor and you think you can stand in front of the window naked because no one can see you.’ Bill Clinton thought he was invisible. He had willing partners who didn’t say anything.”
Bill’s extramarital activities nearly ruptured his marriage twice in Arkansas. After he lost his first reelection for governor in 1980, he was “recklessly chasing women,” recounted Hamilton Jordan, then a prominent Democratic party operative who had been Chief of Staff for President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, when their daughter, Chelsea, was one year old, a friend overheard Bill singing her a lullaby: “I want a div-or-or-or-orce. I want a div-or-or-or-orce.” Later in the decade, according to Bill’s former Chief of Staff Betsey Wright, there was a “serious threat” to the marriage, and the Clintons came close to separating. In 1989, he sought professional help for what friends called his “problem.” “I thought he had conquered it,” Hillary said a decade later. “I thought he understood it, but he didn’t go deep enough or work hard enough.”
Since Bill’s early days as Governor of Arkansas, Hillary had been dogged by rumors that she was a lesbian-based mainly on her assertive manner, her lack of interest in her appearance during adolescence and early adulthood, her indifference to flirting with men, her husband’s chronic infidelity, and her entourage of women staffers, who called themselves “Herc and the girls”-a play on her initials, HRC-during the 1992 campaign and who then worked in “Hillaryland” in the White House.
But there was no evidence of any involvement by her with another woman. Hillary simply came from a family where women stuck together, and “she was really into her women friends, into impressing them with her brains and feminism,” said Martha Sherrill, who wrote a series of astute profiles of Hillary early in the Clinton Administration. “You got the sense that men were complicated for Hillary, but women were not.” At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a friend of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted in a journal, “Madeleine connects with HRC. There is no discussion of topic A, only lots of girl talk, lots of kinship, along the lines of ‘we both know what assholes men can be.’ It was sort of like, ‘You don’t have to tell me. I know. I don’t have to tell you. You know.’ That sort of thing.”
Bill Clinton left a respectable official legacy by helping to balance the federal budget, reform the welfare system, promote democracy after the end of the Cold War, and expand American trade with the rest of the world. The United States enjoyed peace and prosperity that began to unravel only in the administration’s final year with the stirrings of a recession and a gathering threat of terrorism. Bill and Hillary’s biggest problems were personal, as they fought off accusations of misdeeds not only during the Arkansas years but in the White House as well. To be sure, they had rabid enemies eager to find fault, but they created many of their own difficulties.
He was the first President to give his spouse the lead role in one of his most important policies and install her in a West Wing office. But her proposal for a national health-care program failed spectacularly and led to a Republican resurgence on Capitol Hill. Hillary was the only First Lady to testify before a federal grand jury and to be repeatedly deposed as part of ongoing criminal and civil investigations. She joined the ranks of “those shiny divas who need only one name-Cher and Madonna and Charo and Ann-Margret,” in the words of New York Timescolumnist Maureen Dowd. Bill and Hillary were the only First Couple to be fingerprinted by the FBI and to have their private quarters searched as part of a federal probe. Most humiliating, he was the first President to have a description of his genitals appear in the press, along with sordid details of his sexual activities.
Bill Clinton came perilously close to losing his presidency in 1998 following the release of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s report on the President’s misconduct with Monica Lewinsky. That September, a number of key senators discussed asking him to resign. Democratic senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska even called him four days after the report’s release to tell him he should “begin thinking about leaving the White House” and that he had three options: “to resign, to plea bargain, or to await impeachment.” Kerrey told the President he would be “healthier and happier” if he stepped down. But Bill later said, it “never entered my mind” to resign. Kerrey, along with other pundits and politicians, underestimated Bill and Hillary Clinton’s tenacity as political warriors.
In the years since Bill survived his impeachment trial, a curious amnesia seems to have set in about the Clintons’ years in the White House. Bill used to complain to intimates that historical greatness would elude him because he was not given the chance to make great decisions. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, had the effect of confirming his prediction. The attack on the American homeland and the ensuing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq eclipsed the traumas of the Clinton years. They passed like the moon across the Clintons’ sun, and the blazing headlines that had tarnished Bill and Hillary-about Gennifer Flowers and Whitewater and Travelgate and the health-care fiasco and Monica Lewinsky and impeachment-wound up flickering on the penumbra, appearing in retrospect to be the mere peccadilloes that Bill and Hillary always claimed they were.
It was as if history skipped a beat, hurtling from the end of the Cold War under President Reagan and the first President Bush to the onset of the War on Terror under the second President Bush. As the bloody fighting in Iraq dragged on with no end in sight, the Clinton years underwent a revision in the country’s emotional imagination, shedding their tawdry aspects and becoming a halcyon interlude. After leaving the White House, Hillary became a serious-minded senator and wrote a bestselling memoir. Bill followed with a bestselling memoir of his own and took on the role of international celebrity, the Muhammad Ali of politics, leading good causes and dispensing advice to Democratic politicians and prominent world leaders.
But as Hillary weighed her presidential prospects, a kind of reckoning approached. The Clintons could continue to live in their never-never land of political respectability, personal wealth, and relative privacy, shouting advice from the first row of the theater, or they could once again answer ambition’s call and seek a return to center stage by recapturing the White House. As the Clintons knew only too well, a bid for the presidency would dredge up the past in ways that promised to be painful and diminishing. The press would reexamine old scandals and yellowing depositions, and thousands of bloggers, unfettered by the conventions of traditional journalism, would let their imaginations wander into the Oval Office in the mid1990s and then wonder online, in postings that would be linked hither and yon, what Bill really did with his cigar and Monica Lewinsky. The American people would have to ponder a most unpresidential question: Did they really want Bill Clinton running loose in the White House, doing heaven knows what and influencing his wife in ways that could only be imagined?
When Hillary embarked on her campaign for the presidency in 2007, she and Bill knew it would prompt a reconsideration of their marriage and political partnership. Contemporaneous chroniclers had taken stabs at explaining their contradictory and fraught relationship, but they did so on the fly, while the sensational headlines were still fresh. Even if Bill and Hillary end up switching roles, their collaborative habits remain deeply rooted, and their years together in the White House offer strong clues as to how they would conduct themselves if they returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, just as stage directions for a theatrical production provide the outlines for its revival.
Regardless of whether Hillary’s bid falls short, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2008 will have to answer for the Clinton legacy because it is the last record of Democratic executive leadership. This is an opportune moment, then, to try to unravel the mysteries of the Clintons’ marriage and to assess the extent to which the country was governed by a copresidency from 1993 to 2001, a historical excavation that has not been undertaken to date.
The Clintons have volunteered information about their relationship when forced by circumstances, but otherwise they have declined to supply many details. Only in rare unguarded moments have some insights slipped out. After Bill published his memoir in 2004, he came close to defining their marital dynamic in a discussion with public-radio interviewer Terry Gross about the marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked in tandem in the White House but led separate private lives after she learned about his affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd.
Musing about Roosevelt, Bill Clinton said, “It is fascinating. . . how he and his wife had a very complicated relationship. They loved each other very much. They had a bunch of kids, but they had big pockets of estrangement between them and pain, and they rendered enormous service to this country because they stuck with what they had in common.” Years earlier, after Hillary told her friend Ann Henry that Eleanor Roosevelt was her role model, Henry replied, “That’s right, but Eleanor never found her voice until after that marriage was over-until she didn’t care about the marriage.”
This is neither a day-by-day account of the Clinton years nor a deep examination of the administration’s policies, although an essential part of the story is Bill and Hillary Clinton’s vigorous engagement with the issues of the day. Rather, the following pages will explore how two intelligent, ambitious, and complex people confronted the challenges they faced in the White House, how they worked together and separately, and how the push and pull of their marriage affected the presidency.
Although the Clintons years ago backed away from their “two-for-theprice-of-one” rhetoric, it remains impossible to consider either of them in isolation. The dilemma extends even to what to call them. Unless a publication uses the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” style, journalists struggle with awkward constructions, alternately referring to him as “Clinton,” her as “Clinton,” him as “her husband,” her as “his wife,” him as “President,” her as “First Lady,” then “Senator.” Hillary herself has tried to finesse the problem by inviting familiarity and calling herself “HILLARY” in her campaign literature. For the purposes of clarity and ease of reading, this book will refer to them as “Bill” and “Hillary.”
The key to understanding them is in their shared love of politics-the intellectual and emotional bedrock of their relationship. From 1974 onward, they have been united in a common quest: to win-and keep winning-political office. He savors the sheer joy of the political game, the energy he gets from the outstretched hands, the connections with people of every sort, the validation of a triumphant campaign, the ability to affect events, the applause and adoration that come with being a political star. For Hillary, politics has long been more utilitarian: a means to gain power and enact programs she believes would make a difference. For more than three decades, politics has bound them together when other aspects of their lives showed signs of crumbling.
Politics may seem an odd foundation for a marriage, but for the Clintons it has served as the defining factor not only of their careers but also of their friendships, their dinner table conversations, their intellectual interests, and, to outsiders at least, their emotional lives. While questions endure about whether the Clintons love each other in the way of most happily married couples, there is no doubt about their shared commitment to public affairs and the Democratic party, and ultimately, to the pursuit of political power.