The award-winning performance of Hillary Clinton’s husband

January 16, 2013

They don’t have a Golden Globe award for politicians, so to appropriately honor Abraham Lincoln, former president Bill Clinton had to step up at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s event Sunday. Clinton saluted the 16th president’s legislative graces, his ability to compromise and his ideological courage to abolish slavery 150 years ago while reminding us that the job both men held is a tough one.

When the Bill Clinton Story is some day written as a movie (Primary Colors doesn’t count),  I hope Daniel Day Lewis is available for the leading role. If they did have award ceremonies to honor best political performance, however, the most undervalued and statuette-worthy roles would be in the supporting player category.  Like producing movies and television, real political impact comes out of collaboration. In the election-centered business of Washington, D.C., entire families are inevitably pressed into service.

It’s hard to remember sometimes that the retiring secretary of state began her career as a political wife, but the most fitting moment in the former president’s presentation last weekend came when he’d finished and Amy Poehler gushed, “That was Hillary Clinton’s husband!”

In the universe of Bill and Hillary, Bubba’s beacon was always way too high wattage to keep hidden under a basket.  (Bill is such a star, Leonardo DiCaprio just paid 6 figures to hang with him.) Though both members of the couple were committed to public policy when they met, his Arkansas elections (and the jobs in between) dominated many early years of their 37-year marriage — years when his brilliant better half was tacitly reminded to “stay home and bake cookies.”

Despite the fact that significant others in Washington often have their own big jobs and professional priorities, non-politician spouses typically keep their own spotlights slightly dimmer.

The perfect political spouse lives as an orbiting planet to the official’s sun — most effective when reflecting light back upon her partner. One is expected to be on best behavior when married to someone who goes by Senator, Commissioner, Chairman, Justice or Secretary.  (Even when one’s own title used to be “leader of the free world.”)

When it was his turn in the political spouse category, Bill was a bust.  Mr. Clinton was not adept at keeping his personal gravitational force on a low pulse. The man sucks all the oxygen out of every room he enters. His performance in the 2008 presidential primary election was painful to watch.  He came out for his candidate wife but refused to keep quiet and smile prettily. The ex-president embarrassed Hillary with his bad boy company, Clinton Foundation undisclosed money sources, inappropriate ladies man flirtations and racial undertones in criticism of his wife’s principal Democratic opponent.

(By that opponent’s 2012 re-election campaign, all was forgiven.  Indeed the former office holder on President Obama’s campaign was nearly as effective a vote getter as Bruce Springsteen. )

Marriage is a marathon not a sprint. Sometimes a relationship, especially one with so much trauma and drama, runs its course. Comparing the Gore marriage and the Clinton marriage is tricky because the two men also used to be married to each other. It seems to me, though, after 40 years of extreme coupledom Al’s marriage to Tipper wore out once the refrains and rhythms of political life came to an end. Yet, with barely a change of sheet music, the Clintons figured out how to keep waltzing as Hillary took her turn in a  public position.


In this 2007 file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and her husband former President Bill Clinton Dec. 23, 2007. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

Their most graceful pirouette happened fairly recently when the taller partner stopped leading and the one in the ponytail took over. Somewhere in their shared narrative, after the heart surgery, the vegetarianism, Chelsea’s wedding and rescuing those two journalist hostages from Korea, it happened. Somehow, Bill Clinton learned how to quietly fade into the woodwork.


Inauguration ball 1993

Of Hillary Clinton’s many impressive achievements, perhaps the most deft came when the outgoing cabinet secretary was able to get Bill Clinton to behave like a perfect political spouse.

If she can do that, it makes me believe she can be a remarkable president.

Bonnie Goldstein is on Twitter at @KickedByAnAngel

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Melinda Henneberger · January 15, 2013