For Better or for Worse
Why the Clintons will stay married, win or lose.
Read more of Slate's First Mates series about the marriages of presidential candidates.
An official in the Clinton White House who strongly supports her and is highly skeptical of Obama says that when Hillary promises there won't be another Bill Clinton sex scandal, that's not just hope talking. This wasn't some pro forma assurance, either, or a Scarlett O'Hara-style, we'll-worry-about-that-another-daysort of remark. No, there's a reason the candidate feels, as she said, "very confident" on that score: Her husband has been "put on a diet for the last year," the former Clinton official told me, referring not to cheeseburgers but to women. "And he's stuck to it, as far as we know."
In a long, and at times rather loud, interview in her Senate office four years ago, I asked Hillary Clinton whether she might hesitate to run for president to avoid having her private life rummaged through all over again, and she either took offense or pretended to: "I'm never going to get out of scrutiny" in any case, she snapped. "Here you are talking to me, and it never ends." As things were going so well, I went on and asked her how it was going on the homefront. "It's the same as it's been," she said coolly, drawing out the words, "for 32 or 33 years." And though she said this in pique, it's true that the dynamic between the two of them hasn't varied that much over the decades.
Hillary has often said that she learned about constancy from her own mother, Dorothy Rodham, whose early life was nothing short of tragic. After Dorothy's parents divorced, she was, at the age of 8, packed off across the country to live with grandparents who didn't want her, either. She left home to become a nanny when she was only 14—and when her mother finally reached out to her, years later, it turned out that she didn't really want to reconcile; she hoped Dorothy would come to work as her housekeeper. Though Hillary has disputed reports that the man Dorothy married, her father, Hugh Rodham, was emotionally abusive, as Carl Bernstein wrote in A Woman in Charge, and her mom's life "painfully demeaning," her own account of her upbringing in her autobiography, Living History, supplies plenty of evidence that her home life was not, as she chooses to see it, like something out of Father Knows Best:
My father could not stand personal waste. Like so many who grew up in the Depression, his fear of poverty colored his life. My mother rarely bought new clothes, and she and I negotiated with him for weeks for special purchases, like a new dress for the prom. If one of my brothers or I forgot to screw the cap back on the toothpaste tube, my father threw it out the bathroom window. We would have to go outside, even in the snow, to search for it in the evergreen bushes in front of the house. … To this day, I put uneaten olives back in the jar, wrap up the tiniest pieces of cheese and feel guilty when I throw anything away.
She also learned to keep marching, achieving, and upholding standards that no one else even knew about while standing on one foot and denying that anything was amiss—just as she's done in her own marriage and in her presidential campaign. Smiling her brightest smile, even as she's most harshly criticized during presidential debates, she sometimes seems as inured to actual insult as she is alive to strategic opportunities for umbrage. Though big-old, huggable Bill Clinton must have looked like just the antidote to her hypercritical, cheapskate dad, it's funny how often a thing and its opposite wind up at the same damn place. When Bill and Hillary met at Yale Law, she—even more than he—was considered the one with the big political future. Back then, it was Bill who was suspected of ulterior motives in hitching his wagon to Hillary's star. And after all this time, who can say whether he would have ever made it to the national stage without her—any more than she would have made it without him? After all this time, their well-established MO is to process the political information they live on as a team of two, constantly looking to each other for both the validation and the correction they never fully trust from anyone else. When he was president, Hillary was not what you'd call beloved by his aides, because she regularly took her anger at him out on them, berating his advisers in front of him as a way of getting under her husband's skin. Yet his aides also had a running joke about how the president felt he had to consult her before rendering any real decision—just as, in her current campaign, she looks to him as to no one else.
Since the death of their mutual friend Diane Blair, no one is more of a confidant to either Clinton than the other—along with their grown daughter, Chelsea, who works for a hedge fund in New York. And though there are many people in their orbit, intimacy does not come easily to either of them: "I am not the sort of person who routinely pours out her deepest feelings, even to her closest friends," Hillary wrote in her autobiography. "My mother is the same way. We have a tendency to keep our own counsel, and that trait only deepened when I began living my life in the public eye." Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who first introduced the couple at Yale but who has been disillusioned with them for some time, is one of several former associates who described their current circle as mostly money people: "The world for them tends to be divided between those who are useful to them, financially or politically or both, and those who aren't. So many of their friends are accordingly very wealthy, and they associate informally with a fairly wide circle of extremely wealthy people."
Yet though there may be considerable turnover on the Clintons' Christmas-card list, friends past and present are in near-perfect agreement on what keeps the couple together: Mysterious as they are to us, even now, Bill and Hillary Clinton do get each other, and that is no small thing.
Again and again, what their friends circle back to is that both Bill and Hillary truly believe no one on this earth is smarter than the person they married. Progressive evangelical pastor Tony Campolo, who counseled the Clintons after the Lewinsky affair, says, "They are two people who are perfectly fit for each other; I'm not sure she could be married to anybody else, and I'm not sure he could be married to anybody else. They feed off each other" and get along better than we think. "Everybody knows he has a problem in his personality," Campolo says, referring to Clinton's past indiscretions. "And he's trying to deal with it, and I think he is dealing with it."
While their union is unconventional, it also remains intense in ways a lot of more traditional marriages just aren't after 30-plus years. Sally Bedell Smith, who spent three years researching her book on the couple, For Love of Politics, says their relationship still boils down to what Bill Clinton told his mom about why he was marrying Hillary: "I need someone I can talk to." Barging in on the two of them in the heat of a political discussion is, by some accounts, almost like walking in on another couple having sex. "The one scene that sums it up for me,'' Smith says, "is one day in September of 2000, when they had both just given speeches, and she was in the campaign van and he was leaning in and they were staring into each others eyes" in a way that made aides who witnessed the scene wish they were anywhere else. "They were staring into each other's eyes, and it was described to me as a moment of rapture. It's always been a different kind of marriage, but if you define your passion in those terms, yeah, it's there."
Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.