The marriage worked. The Clintons fulfilled their long-ago promise of “two for the price of one.” Measured by worldly accomplishment, the most dissected, confounding, maddening and surprisingly lasting union in the politics has prevailed, yielding one president and now poised to yield another. Huzzahs.
But this model is the last of its kind. Hillary broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to receive the presidential nomination from a major party. Still, aspiring politicians should not try this at home. No woman will again climb the political ladder on a husband’s shoulders.
Exhibit One is the, at best, mixed reaction to Bill’s high-wire act to celebrate his wife at the Democratic National Convention by extolling his seduction of her. It worked with some but caused many others to cringe. Even for her ardent supporters, the Clintons’ personal life is best kept out of sight and out of mind. For those on the fence, the marriage provides more reason to doubt her honesty, trustworthiness and her willingness to make trade-offs in the service of ambition.
Why bring up your own baggage? When Clinton said he almost touched Hillary on the shoulder to get her attention at Yale, it was an invitation to remember all those accusations of sexual harassment and the impeachment that tore the country apart for a year. It gives Donald Trump more grist to chew on. He’s already brought up the fraught relationship and exploited Hillary’s complicity in shaming the victim of her husband’s misdeeds.
Which brings us to the future. The next female contender won’t be carrying the baggage of a husband who requires handling. A woman candidate will get no quarter for tolerating a bad-boy husband, even if he is a help to her career and even if he’s, otherwise, a supporter of the sisterhood. Just because your official acts elevate women doesn’t give you a pass to demean them, whether as perpetrator or enabler. Women will do it on their own, or not at all.
Presently, the Clinton model is iffy. Bill’s effort to humanize Hillary was a lot about his pursuing and catching her and less about her record as senator and secretary of state. The millennial women who are most grudging about supporting Hillary don’t buy derivative power, nor are they willing to accept the type of compromises Hillary had to make in her personal life. They’re a little unrealistic about how much a woman’s world it is, but attention must be paid to their assumptions that they don’t need any man to give them a leg up. It’s a model they affirmatively dislike. The idea of the first woman president is old hat to them, a certainty. To surprise them, it would have to be someone who’s single, black or Hispanic or transgender, and preferably vegan.
The Clinton camp may be toning down the woman angle from now on. They scrapped plans to screen a movie by Harry and Linda Thomason, who produced the most effective convention video ever, “A Man from Hope,” in 1992. Their follow-up for the 2016 convention, “Shoulders,” about all the women who have risen on the accomplishments of those before, was killed, apparently on the grounds that this convention had “too much estrogen.” No doubt a man did the killing.
What about Bill? He will remain an enduring problem. It’s hard for Hillary’s staff to say no to the Big Dog. A frail, white-haired, vegan grandfather doesn’t look like a serial adulterer, but why let him use Hillary’s night to not just prove he’s beloved but an admirable husband, innocent of all charges. That’s the last time he’ll get a platform for that or much else. For the rest of the campaign, Bubba will be in the hinterlands, places where he can peel off the white working-class vote by talking about all the jobs he created.
Win or lose in November, Hillary will be the last gasp of yesterday, of making your way in a man’s world by turning a blind eye to the unacceptable. Her successors will be judged on all their choices. They won’t get a pass for compromises they made because “that’s just the way things are.”
Still, Hillary has accepted the nomination of her party to be president.
The marriage worked.