No one who has paid even glancing attention to American politics is likely to be unaware that Bill Clinton has been deeply affected by the death of his father before his birth, by a childhood in a household “racked by alcoholism, child and spouse abuse, and the tyranny of marital jealousy,” as well as by the smothering presence of his larger-than-life mother. But it is useful to be reminded by Chafe of the lasting effects of his labyrinthine and at times dishonest maneuvers to avoid military service and of his “euphoria at having escaped the draft and the gnawing doubt that perhaps he had done an unethical thing.” Chafe also is at pains to document Clinton’s long history of “placing women into two categories — those who fit the ‘beauty queen’ image he had learned at home [from his mother], and those he saw as serious lifelong companions.” Though his bizarre relationship with Monica Lewinsky is the most famous instance of his proclivity for the beauty queen type, Chafe makes plain that this is a pattern dating back to Clinton’s adolescence, exposing him to risks that endangered his marriage, his political career and his presidency.
As for Hillary Clinton, her childhood in the Rodham family of Chicago scarcely fit the “idealized portrait” she painted in her memoir, “Living History,” and elsewhere. “Far from nurturing an environment of love and mutual support,” Chafe writes, “the family often was dominated by hostility and authoritarianism. Rather than provide a model of mutual affection, it frequently degenerated into a brittle verbal truce between avowed combatants.” On one side was her father, a fierce disciplinarian and unloving parent, on the other her mother, encouraging the girl’s ambitions and her assertiveness as well as her commitment to Methodism. Growing up in a conservative household, Hillary gradually moved leftward as tensions over Vietnam increased, but she maintained a delicate balance, wanting to maintain communications with all parties just as, presumably, she had wanted to be a bridge between her warring parents.