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The Shadow of a Marriage

Hillary and Bill Clinton at a December dinner.
Hillary and Bill Clinton at a December dinner. (By Jason Decrow -- Associated Press)

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, May 25, 2006

The two sides of Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the opposites that make her potential presidential candidacy such a gamble -- came into sharp focus Tuesday morning at the National Press Club.

For the better part of an hour, the senator from New York held forth in a disquisition on energy policy that was as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach.

But the buzz in the room was not about her speech -- or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit -- but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning's New York Times.

The article, by Patrick Healy, was anything but unsympathetic. It touched only lightly on the former president's friendship with Canadian politician Belinda Stronach. It documented that despite their busy separate schedules, the Clintons had managed to spend two-thirds of their weekends together during the past 18 months.

The closing anecdote concerned a December fundraiser where Clinton praised his wife and bestowed a kiss on her forehead, after which she recalled their 30 years together and said, "I'm so grateful to you, Bill."

But for all the delicacy of the treatment, the very fact that the Times had sent a reporter out to interview 50 people about the state of the Clintons' marriage and placed the story on the top of Page One was a clear signal -- if any was needed -- that the drama of the Clintons' personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president.

The Clintons, according to the Times, urged friends not to answer questions about the relationship and declined to be interviewed -- except for a joint statement that "they do everything they can to be together." When the senator arrived at the Press Club, just moments before her breakfast speech was to begin, she was, as usual, poised and thoroughly prepared. For the next 45 minutes, she read a wonkish text that covered every aspect of the energy situation, down to and including a description of the "geologic sequestration" potential for reducing global warming and making better use of coal.

For those who remember the former first lady's effort at comprehensive health-care reform in 1993-94, the scope of her energy initiative is a throwback to those days. She called for the creation of a Strategic Energy Fund, financed in part by taxes on oil company profits, and a National Institute of Energy, with a multibillion-dollar bankroll for financing innovative conservation and efficiency plans.

She offered her proposal with the same self-assurance that she had brought to the health-care debate -- a tone that suggested that "if you just listen carefully to all the things I can tell you on the basis of the study I have given this subject, you will know exactly what to do."

It turns out that the senator has been thinking about energy issues for 35 years -- since she edited a fellow student's paper on OPEC at Yale Law School. And with her disciplined mind, she can fit separate pieces -- everything from mileage standards for cars to biomass and wind power -- into a rational plan that will, she says, not only move the nation substantially toward energy independence but improve living standards for almost every American.

The tone was not partisan; there were bows to Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana for his proposal to expand the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and a polite challenge to President Bush to help the U.S. auto industry meet its foreign competition.

At the end of her talk, little time remained for questions, and the first three simply asked for clarification of points in the energy plan.

The final moment of her speech had been interrupted by a woman shouting antiwar slogans, and the fourth question gave the senator a chance to respond. She said, as she had before, that "I regret the way the president used" the authority to make war in Iraq that she had joined in giving him, and now felt that, with a permanent Iraqi government almost complete, it is the Iraqis' responsibility to curb sectarian violence, end the insurrection and get about rebuilding the country.

Three times in the question-and-answer session, she referred to her husband as "Bill," praising him for seeing that his library in Little Rock incorporated a lot of energy-saving features.

Other than that, the elephant in the room went unmentioned.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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