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.
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.
Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham met at Yale Law School and quickly clicked. They “brought out the best in each other,” Chafe writes. “She helped impart discipline and rigor into his quest for making a difference. He helped soften and humanize her.” But soon a more complicated pattern emerged: “The only problem was that more often than not, their complimentary differences also generated outright conflict. Just as often as the two cooed and flirted, they fought viciously, using their superintelligence to rip each other apart.”
Though obviously no outsider can fully understand the dynamics of their relationship, Chafe leaves no doubt that it was a blend of genuine devotion and remarkable calculation. They loved each other, but each also understood that the other could help him or her politically. Hillary repeatedly rejected Bill’s proposals of marriage but finally relented: “It was not a simple decision. She knew by now exactly what she was getting in for. . . . As much as she appreciated the risks in marrying Clinton, she also grasped the uniqueness of what Bill had to offer. She was in love, he had unlimited potential, he would make a difference, and she could be part of that.”
Here’s where the long-distance psychologizing gets a bit deep. For all the love he felt for Hillary, Bill “was afraid of her.” The “fear of losing her ultimately became the critical variable in his response to their conflicts. He would not go against her wishes or alienate her.” No doubt that was intensified by her reluctant willingness to move to Arkansas and accept the role of loyal wife as he began his political rise. The result was not so much that this gave her leverage, though doubtless it did (especially when she stood by him amid charges of sexual misbehavior during the 1992 presidential campaign), as that he was always aware that he had to act within the limits sanctioned by her.
Much though his compulsive womanizing hurt her, she was committed to the marriage. This continued through his terms as governor of Arkansas and of course into the White House: “The pattern was by now familiar. Clinton, by his own admission, had a sex addiction. Hillary was an enabler who actually acquired power, and husbandly affection, when she came to his aid. Both features of their partnership were evident in the Lewinsky affair.” Chafe writes:
“In some respects, their partnership achieved a new intimacy and camaraderie when she stood by him in the face of his misbehavior. Thus, in the strangest of ways, Clinton’s reckless sexual behavior actually enhanced their personal ties. It made their relationship more functional and productive. Arguably — and in the strangest irony of all — it was at the heart of their partnership, the centerpiece that made it work.”
This may be a bit of a stretch, but surely Bill Clinton’s sexual forays, combined with other aspects of both partners — his “facile tongue” and “unmatched capacity for ambiguity,” her haughty attitude toward the media and all who disagreed with her — had much to do with creating the “political poison” that infused the country during the impeachment proceedings against him. It is no small irony, in a tale full of such, that as the country became ever more divided, tensions between the Clintons abated. Her decision to run for Senate in New York was liberating, making her “an independent figure” and “restructuring the relationship, but not on the same old terms.” He became “a supportive, not a dominant, presence,” while she in turn mellowed, returning to the conciliatory person she had been before their marriage: “Rather than defining herself by those she chose to do battle with, she created her Senate identity by reaching out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” which she has continued to do throughout her admirable service as secretary of state.
Peace — it’s wonderful.
BILL AND HILLARY
The Politics of the Personal
By William H. Chafe
Farrar Straus Giroux. 387 pp. $28