In the past two decades, much ink has been spilled, so to speak, recounting, explicating, analyzing, observing, discussing, gossiping and debating the lives of the world’s most visible first couple. The Clintons have become our royal family, complete with all that implies about our fascination, exasperation, derision, admiration of them. The title of this new book says it all, just plain Bill, but coupled with Hillary, it becomes media dynamite. The subtitle, however, promises more: The Politics of the Personal with all that implies about their public lives being inextricably linked with their not-so-private lives.
Taking his cue from the mantra of the second wave feminist movement that “the personal is political,” William Chafe, a distinguished Duke University historian, professes to freshly re-examine the Clinton story from that perspective. The problem is that the Clintons’ personal story has never been separate from their political narrative; it is front and center to the Clinton phenomenon. Chafe reminds us why.
The Clintons are different. Chafe makes the case for dysfunction in both their family backgrounds that provided the impulse to serve in the public sphere, despite the scars that in Bill’s case made him sensationally reckless and in Hillary’s, the opposite. Religion provided yet another powerful influence on them both. Still, the dynamic of their marriage made their rise in politics possible.
Central to the Clinton story is their relationship. They met and eventually lived together at Yale Law School. After graduation he proposed; she demurred. He returned to begin a political career in Arkansas; she to work first for the Children’s Defense Fund in Boston and later for the Senate committee investigating Watergate in Washington.
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Time passed before Hillary decided to link her fortunes to his by giving up her position and moving to Arkansas. And herein lies the critical “personal” circumstance that is taken for granted. With that decision, Hillary conceded her expectations for her own career to promote his fortunes.
Like everyone else who comments on the Clinton history, Chafe treats this decision as an unexamined love aspect of the story, and by doing so fails to underscore the salient, most transformative social movement, the most “revolutionary” phenomenon of “personal” lives that occurred in that era, the second wave of feminism, which advocated changing our most fundamental social arrangements in order to promote equality of the sexes.
And no one more than Hillary has become so visible an agent of feminism’s promise in the United States by reaching into the nation’s highest male-dominated ranks.
When she moved to Arkansas, Hillary cast her fortunes with Bill Clinton as his chief supporter and promoter; he would be the public face in their partnership. That she resisted, or why she resisted his marriage proposals for several years before conceding her career to his is the unexamined “personal” aspect of this marriage.
What is clear is that he had the talent, charisma, brilliance, mysterious qualities of buoyancy to become a president, but he was messy, disorganized, impulsive, uncontrolled. She provided the discipline and organization to harness his untamed and passionate nature.
And then to rescue him many times over. Chafe (here borrowing theory from Gail Sheehy’s and Carl Bernstein’s prior biographies) argues that within the internal power struggle of their marriage, Hillary continually rescued Bill from his transgressive debacles (mainly sexual misdeeds) and permitted him to survive. But that happened at a cost. That cost was power.
When Bill “sinned” and Hillary saved his career, she became the stronger partner in their relationship, and he became weak. Hence, his reliance upon her, but also his failure to intervene, when she overstepped her position by intruding “arrogantly” into his public sphere, for instance the health care fiasco.
It’s an interesting premise and perhaps it’s correct. It is also not complimentary to Hillary, and it lets Bill off the hook by becoming the classic sympathetic male victim of female aggressiveness.
Chafe faithfully records every episode of their colorful careers with clarity (no easy task, given the legal and political complications of events such as Whitewater), and his writing is gracefully readable.
In the end, the man most responsible for giving new definition to the term “personal” is, of course, Kenneth Starr, who zealously pursued the Clintons from Paula Jones, through Whitewater until he finally was handed the weapon he needed to nearly destroy them with the Monica Lewinsky tapes.
His report on that affair sank to the level of pornography in the judgment of people within the government and among the general populace. Still, the Clintons survived through the familiar device of Hillary rescuing Bill, though this time she was “liberated.” No longer was her role to be the supportive spouse, but she gained the opportunity to pursue her own political career. Chafe’s story ends here, and it’s a satisfying read.
Edith Gelles reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.