William H. Chafe understands, as do too few historians and biographers, that the personal and public lives of political figures cannot be separated: “Public figures are shaped by private experiences. Their political behavior reflects personal values and choices as well as issues of public policy. Personal experiences infuse and inspire the choices that political figures make. What goes on in the family where a child grows up helps define in fundamental ways how that child responds as an adult to moments of political or moral crisis.” This may seem obvious, but it has not seemed so in the past as chroniclers of political life have, with only occasional exceptions, tended to regard that life as self-contained, only marginally connected at most to the personal side of these politicians’ lives.
Thus one of the reasons I especially admire Jean Edward Smith’s biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower is that in none of them does he shy away from exploring their boyhoods, their marriages, their extended families. Obviously no biographer of FDR can avoid the effect of polio on his subsequent political career, but that was only part of the many ways in which private pain and unhappiness affected what he did in public and how he did it. The same goes for Grant’s long struggle to rise out of poverty and Eisenhower’s deep roots in the Midwest of his youth.
True, as Chafe says, our new understanding of this grows to some extent out of the women’s movement — which gave us the phrase “the personal is political” — but it probably is connected as well to the easy access we now have to other people’s private lives through the Internet, access that unfortunately we seem to take for granted and too often abuse, but that has given a heightened awareness of the importance of other people’s personal and even inner lives.
Chafe is quite right to insist that the stories of Bill and Hillary Clinton prove the point: “No personalities in recent history speak more compellingly to the importance of understanding that the personal and the political are inseparable.” They both had childhoods that veered sharply from received notions of “normal”; dating back to childhood, both mixed rank ambition with genuine reformist zeal and idealism; both grew up with tangled senses of insecurity and entitlement; both were shaped by the Vietnam War and the protest movement it engendered; both found themselves in an exceedingly complicated and often bitterly quarrelsome marriage.
All of which makes the temptations of armchair psychologizing irresistible, and Chafe does succumb to them, but unlike some others who have written about the Clintons, he doesn’t wallow in them. A respected historian who has written much about African Americans and women and who holds a chaired professorship at Duke, he approaches the Clintons with academic dispassion occasionally mixed with pop psychology, though also with little original research; this is a book based primarily on secondary sources.