Votes and Vows: The Marriage Of Bill and Hillary Clinton

By Nina Burleigh,
who covered the Clintons for Time and whose "Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt" will be published next month
Thursday, November 1, 2007


Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years

By Sally Bedell Smith

Random House. 572 pp. $27.95

There's a bedtime story for girls of a certain age. It's called Hillary and the Horrible, Ghastly, Unconscionable Secrets and Lies of Men. We've heard it before, but somehow we never tire of it. The moral is that men find women less attractive in direct proportion to the strength of our careers. Every last one of our husbands might run off with the babysitter. To blunt a biblical fact of life -- men are different from women, and some are more different than others -- we like explanations that lay the blame for Bill Clinton's infidelity at least partly on his wife. A successful wife to Bill Clinton would have had to be a full-time, full-service, round-the-clock succubus, but that doesn't give Hillary a pass.

Sally Bedell Smith retells the Clinton marital tale with a twist that soothes the chord of unease it strikes in American women. Her premise is in the title: Hillary stayed with Bill "For Love of Politics." Smith has some juicy new interviews with West Wing wags confirming that Hillary's a cold fish who has her husband by the short hairs. Just like the "bimbos" we already know about, but on a much more ambitious scale, in this analysis the leading Democratic presidential candidate has emotionally blackmailed her husband into helping her get the best job a girl from Park Ridge, Ill., could ever dream of. She stood by her man, but not like forlorn little Tammy Wynette. Standing by Bill kept her in the game she loved more than the man. One "old friend" even told Smith that Bill's peculiarities had their roots in "the difficulties of being loved by [Hillary] and forgiven by her."

Maybe I'm a clueless romantic at heart, but I always believed Hillary was truly in love with Bill -- for a long time, if not still -- and that he broke her heart. The bargain she made was internal: She pressed raw emotion into drive and focus. That seems perverse in the age of marital therapy and Dr. Phil's couch. There is something alien about the strange alchemy she performed when making, in the corny commonplace of her middle-class, Midwestern upbringing (an upbringing, by the way, that could not possibly have prepared her for the charming, faithless son of a woman who sobbed the day Elvis died), lemonade from lemons.

The most avid consumers of the Clinton marital analysis are female because of what Hillary means to American women (otherwise, why not a shelf of books about the role of the silent partner in the most disastrous presidency in history?). Hillary is the Boomer Everywoman who came of age in a decade when classified job ads were still segregated by gender, when a leader of the civil rights movement to which she and her ilk were devoted could opine that the appropriate position for women in the movement was "prone." The mere fact that she had a law career and made efforts to retain her own name sent a hysterical and very vocal section of America into paroxysms in 1991. Not so long ago.

Smith rehashes the Monica Lewinsky year, and she's got some illuminating interviews with Clinton insiders who feel at last able to talk. There's John Podesta describing Bill angrily telling him that Lewinsky did not perform a sexual act on him and revelations from that keeper of the keys to Bluebeard's Cave, bimbo patroller Betsey Wright, on Bill's therapy, "addiction" and the no-longer-mystery woman who almost broke up the marriage. The details are riveting as ever. Who can get enough of POTUS sweating on the phone at 2 a.m. with a love-addled 24-year-old woman, placating her with job promises, knowing his world is about to explode as surely as a Sudanese powdered-milk factory?

Meanwhile, what to make of the prospect of Clinton II? Must we watch if an errant husband cuckolds the Leader of the Free World? With the Clintons in office, the Shakespearean tragedy of modern womanhood would play out on the world stage, and humiliation would be experienced en masse. The only possible ray of hope is that the Ole Hound Dog doesn't have it in him anymore.

Sally Bedell Smith is not the first and surely not the last to propose that the Clintons are in bed together (at least sometimes, presumably) "for love of politics" and nothing more. I suspect there's more to their relationship. But then again, I also think it's not for us to speculate. To do so is second in cruelty to that other favorite sport of American women circa 2007, judging other mothers. Who knows what demons dwell in the sleepless chasm at the edge of screaming Junior's crib that drive professional women to abandon all for the dubious pleasure of pureeing vegetables? Similarly, who are we to assess the path a heartbroken woman finds out of the darkest night of her soul? Judge not, sisters, lest ye . . . well, you've heard it before.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company