But though the circumstances are different, the question remains the same: What is it we want Hillary Clinton to do about her husband? Because however unfair or incoherent that desire is, Americans seem to want her to do something.
In a great post published last week, my colleague Greg Sargent got at the incoherence that lies behind the idea that Bill Clinton’s sexual history is “fair game” during the 2016 presidential election. Does “fair game” mean that “Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretions are a legitimate topic for political debate in and of themselves, as a way of discrediting Bill Clinton, in his capacity as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton, a role which he is undoubtedly playing? Or does it mean that,” Sargent asked, “Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretions are a legitimate weapon to use against Hillary Clinton, which is to say, as something that undermines Hillary Clinton’s claim to being a lifelong advocate for women and her argument that her policies are better for women than those of Republicans are?”
Rebecca Traister, answering the latter assumption and examining the Clinton marriage in the context of the saga of Camille and Bill Cosby, traced the long history of making women responsible for the private lives and private acts of their very public husbands.
“The position she is being put in is emblematic of the double binds placed on wives in all kinds of circumstances,” Traister wrote. “Husbands act; wives react to them. Husbands behave poorly; people look to wives for explanations of why. Wives pay prices for goods they never bought; they do time in publicity hell for actions they never took; they receive judgments for crimes they did not commit. They are offered impossible choices: Do they condemn their partners and thereby destroy the legacies and legitimacy they have helped to build, and if they do not, do they become culpable in those partners’ misdeeds?”
If we haven’t been able to articulate that in real life, fiction has imagined a number of ways Hillary Clinton might deal with her more frustrating half.
In both Joe Klein’s initially anonymous novel “Primary Colors” and the Mike Nichols 1998 film adaptation of the book, the answer seems to be that we’d like the satisfaction of knowing that Hillary Clinton is a mess.
In “Primary Colors,” the stand-ins for the Clintons are Jack and Susan Stanton (John Travolta and Emma Thompson), and their transgressions are rather more baroque than even the most dramatic things Bill Clinton has actually been accused of. Jack carries on an affair with Susan’s hairdresser. He sleeps with the 16-year-old daughter of a family friend, and when she becomes pregnant, there is some suggestion that Jack might be the father. Susan has sex with a campaign aide, Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), as revenge. And it later emerges that she has sometimes slept with Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), the family’s wartime consigliere, in similar moments of emotional pain.
Nobody in the novel seems to want Susan to leave Jack; at the beginning of the novel, her faith in him is part of what makes Jack seem intellectually credible. And for much of the novel, their marriage seems, from the outside, to be defined by what Henry refers to as “the mysterious emotional concavity of their bond: the most blatant transgressions often had to be ignored.”
But as Jack’s flaws become too obvious for us, and for Henry, to deny, Susan takes on a different role in the action. Now, her job is to be the person who acknowledges that terrible things have taken place, but that Jack is still worth supporting anyway. She slaps her husband, she comforts the mother of the young girl Jack had sex with, she has revenge sex of her own. Susan punishes Jack so that we don’t have to, and she suffers along with us. She’s the bridge between our moral horror over Jack’s actions and our emotional desire to fall for his charm and promise.
“Political Animals,” Greg Berlanti’s spritely 2012 miniseries, follows a former first lady, Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), who must confront her choice to stay with her philandering husband, Bud (Ciarán Hinds), after she loses her own run for the presidency. If “Primary Colors” was primarily concerned with Jack Stanton’s political fate, “Political Animals” prioritizes Elaine, its Hillary Clinton stand-in. If Susan had to stay with Jack to get him elected, “Political Animals” sees Bud as dead weight on Elaine’s promising career and still-vibrant sexual charisma. She dumps him, becomes secretary of state, flirts with foreign diplomats — and seizes her second chance at the presidency when it comes along.
Bud’s philandering doesn’t have victims, as far as we can tell; there’s no abuse of power, no allegations of statutory rape or rape. Rather, the question is one of self-respect: Why would a woman like Elaine — or Hillary Clinton — stay with a man who keeps putting her in a position to be embarrassed, who drags his mud all over her outstanding promise?
These questions might be easier to answer in fiction than in life, but only marginally. The only sure thing is that Hillary and Bill Clinton chose each other a long time ago and have been choosing each other ever since. What we project onto their relationship says as much about us, and how our thinking about marriage and gender roles has changed, as it does about the Clintons’ private feelings and compromises. And given how exposed and examined the Clintons have been during their decades in the national spotlight, that’s the only thing about them that may remain forever mysterious.