Many a wayward husband has tried to dig his way out of the doghouse by publicly professing his adoration of his wife. And many political spouses have warmed up fund-raising audiences by extolling the virtues of the candidate with whom they live.
But those roles never merged in the person of the president of the United States--until now. In a setting where his marriage seemed endangered a year ago, President Clinton is playing the part of a doting, even gushing husband and admirer of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the family member who has taken center stage with her expected run for the U.S. Senate from New York.
In his first appearance at a full-fledged fund-raiser for the first lady's campaign, the president sounded like a love-struck youth Friday night, recounting how he "stalked" his future wife at Yale Law School and saw her as "nothing but trouble" because he feared he would fall deeply in love. The president recalled that when she finally asked him why he kept staring at her, he was so flustered he couldn't remember his name.
This presidential sweet talk occurred in a place where, last August, people openly speculated on whether the Clinton marriage would survive the summer. The couple embarked on that 1998 vacation to Martha's Vineyard just after the president publicly acknowledged his affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. The Vineyard struck some as an unlikely venue to begin patching the damage, as video cameras a year earlier had captured the president at the Black Dog shop buying gifts that turned out to be for Lewinsky.
But a lot can happen in a year. This week the first family returned to Martha's Vineyard with the president having survived an impeachment trial, his wife having stirred the political world with her Senate bid and the couple apparently having reconciled their differences.
On the nearby island of Nantucket late Friday night, at the home of Democratic activists Elizabeth and Smith W. Bagley, the president recounted the courtship of his wife for about 100 people who donated $1,000 each to the first lady's campaign.
"She was an interesting, compelling-looking woman, so I followed her out of the class," he said of their first Yale encounter. "And I got right behind her and I said, 'No, this is nothing but trouble.' . . . And then I kind of stalked her around the law school for two or three weeks."
Later, he said, as he eyed her in the library while talking with a classmate, "Hillary slams down the book, and she walks across the library and she looks at me and says, 'Look, you have been staring at me for weeks, and I've been staring back. So at least we ought to know each other's name. I'm Hillary Rodham. What's your name?' I couldn't remember my name."
As the audience laughed, the president quickly segued to politics. "This woman has initiative," he said. "[That's] good in a senator."
Clinton has relayed the gist of this love story before, but not in the context of his wife's Senate bid, and not in such detail since the Lewinsky affair. Reporters were not allowed in the Bagley home to hear Hillary Clinton's remarks, but it's hard to imagine a spouse and candidate who wouldn't bask in such adoring words.
In 1973, "we were very much in love," the president told the audience, and he wondered if Hillary shouldn't "go to New York or go home to Chicago" rather than moving to his small state of Arkansas, because "she had such enormous potential for public service."
"I didn't want her to, of course," he said. "I wanted her to go with me."
On the short flight from Nantucket back to Martha's Vineyard after the Bagley fund-raiser, an animated Clinton drove home his point. He told reporters on Air Force One that he considered the young Hillary Rodham "trouble" because "I thought I would fall in love with her, and I didn't want to fall in love."
"I had a sense of it," he said. "Turned out to be right."