Once upon a time, a boy from Arkansas spotted a girl from Illinois across a crowded classroom. And on Tuesday night in Philadelphia, on the night Hillary Rodham Clinton became their party’s official nominee for president, Bill Clinton did his best to make one of the most-scrutinized marriages in the history of American politics fit into the contours of a fairy tale.
Okay, a revisionist feminist fairy tale, where the princess eventually saves the prince from the dragon, or the peasant girl ultimately tells the arrogant aristocrat to shove it in favor of lighting the castle on fire and leading a revolution. But watching Bill Clinton argue to the American people that they, too, should love his wife, and trying to narrate his marriage as a wonky fable, was both vexing and sweet at the same time.
The harder the Clintons have worked to preserve their marriage, the less easily that marriage has fit into easy stories about what true love should look like. And whenever the Clintons put their marriage at the center of the political cases they make for each other, the relationship becomes more vulnerable to criticism and dissection at the moments when it’s asked to carry the greatest public weight. That complexity is in part a testament to the highly unusual route the Clintons travel, and the unique place they occupy in American history. It’s also about our failure to distinguish between the courage it takes to tap a girl on the back and the effort it takes to stay with her, between persuading her to marry you, and convincing her to stay after you’ve metaphorically burned down that cute little un-air-conditioned starter house.
If I hated the choices Clinton’s husband, other politicians, the media and the American public forced her to make in the 1990s, the Clintons’ marriage also taught me that marriage is a mystery — not merely in that it’s perplexing, but that its power lies in part in the fact that any given marriage is not comprehensible to outsiders.
It may be true, as Dana Bash put it on CNN after Bill Clinton’s speech that in his version of the story “She was the object of desire…It actually is incredibly important for people to hear this.” But there is no explanation of their marriage that the Clintons can give in public that solves for the equation that makes up their relationship. It’s one of those strings of symbols and numbers that runs the universe, and yet is inaccessible to those who live in it.
I believe Bill Clinton loves his wife. I cannot comprehend that he has subjected her to the humiliations she suffered through the years.
In 1999, Elizabeth Wurtzel described the Clinton marriage as “the horror story of every woman who has lived right…only to find it all wrecked by some man who lives to make bonfires out of other people’s to-do lists, who makes her forget to do the laundry until he asks her to do his.”
Seventeen years later, however apocryphal the stories about Arkansans who thought they’d elected the wrong Clinton, or Bill’s insistence that she should put her own career first, she’s there, the Democratic nominee for president. And he‘s there, doing what political spouses have done for decades, and arguing that because she never quit on him, she’ll never quit on the voters. It’s a promise with extra frisson because we can imagine, from the outside, why she might have given up on that marriage.
So who’s right? Is it Clinton’s tortured journey that defines her, or her position on the threshhold of the destination? Her husband’s infidelities, or the stories he tells about being dumbstruck by her, his chronicle of decades of partnership?
The grand romantic drama Bill Clinton spun on Tuesday night didn’t answer those questions, or tell us how they navigated the heartbreak and tough going that he alluded to only in the most general terms. However fascinating it might have been to hear him explain not simply why Hillary deserves his love, but how he continued to earn hers, such a speech would have been politically catastrophic, not to mention a failure as a romantic gesture.
Bill Clinton has been one of the most gifted orators in American politics for two and a half decades. But even he has to obey the basic laws of storytelling. Just because mass culture and psychology confuse the two doesn’t mean that a lasting marriage can be easily reduced to a mere romance.