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.
When Bill and Hillary Clinton's friends say they are exactly the same in public and private—well, except for the F-bombs—they tend to mean it literally: "I don't think I've ever heard them talk about anything but politics," says a friend who has known them since the McGovern campaign. Many a public person seems to feel cozier in crowds, abler at rope lines than at intimacy. But former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta describes the Clintons' entire existence as the constant forward motion of two people who are "living, eating, drinking, and breathing politics"—to the point that Bill was always trying to line up recreational Democratic meet-and-greets even when he was supposed to be on vacation. "It's very surreal. You see a lot of drive and ambition" in Washington, of course, "but never like the Clintons, where it's ceaseless." Asked whether the president and the senator are at all distinguishable in that regard, Panetta says, "Probably she more than he—she being a human being, after all—it takes a toll on her." Yet even when the more flesh-and-blood half of the entity known as Theclintons does take a night off, it can turn into a busman's holiday, as when, according to their biographer Sally Bedell Smith, they spent their 25th anniversary, in October of 2000, at home in Chappaqua, N.Y., watching a Bush-Gore presidential debate. Which is not at all to say that their marriage is the dispassionate alliance some critics take it for: Would you accuse two hard-core philatelists of only being in it for the stamps?
Before she announced that she was in the presidential race to the finish and would march on Denver if it came to that, the big Hillary questions were: Just how mad is she at Mr. Bigmouth? And would she finally throw him out if she lost? But she wasn't and wouldn't. In fact, neither of the Clintons has ever thought Bill did anything wrong in this campaign. In their view, any perceived missteps have been wholly manufactured by the media. And the two are never more in sync than when it's them against the bad guys, which in this case includes the press, the Obama camp, and all former allies who have defected—whose stand-up, "I wanted to tell you myself, Mr. President" phone calls Bill Clinton refuses to take or return. "If anybody should know that changing horses doesn't mean you didn't like the person you worked for before, it should be them; they've done it enough," says a Clinton loyalist taken aback by their fury at those who have switched sides. "But what nobody understands is that they're a two-person wagon train that can circle all by itself. She thinks nobody can defend him better, and he thinks nobody can defend her better." One of them is even right.
Hillary Clinton certainly propped her rescue ladder up against Bill Clinton's house on fire and hauled out his 1992 presidential campaign, luring the nation into highly distracting debates about cookie-baking and Tammy Wynette after the Gennifer Flowers story broke. Later, she saved his presidency by blaming allegations that he'd run amok with Monica Lewinsky on a "vast right-wing conspiracy." And it was she who made it possible for him to serve out his second term: In a dramatic personal appeal to Democrats on Capitol Hill on the day he was impeached by the House of Representatives, she rallied his defenders by presenting herself as "a wife who loves and supports her husband." But the former president seems to have found that utility as a political helpmate is harder than she made it look—notably when he grinningly compared Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson in comments that were either flatly racial or evidence of an awfully late-onset tin ear. Either way, they wildly overshot the mark and damaged both her candidacy and his legacy as the "first black president."
"The last thing we would have expected is that her campaign would fail because Bill Clinton became a liability in a Democratic primary. He was supposed to be a strategic genius and an asset on the trail," says his former press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Instead, his performance has been so startlingly subpar that "[y]ou have to wonder, is he intentionally trying to undermine her? The answer I think probably is yes, but it's also unconscious." He both badly wants his wife to win—by some accounts, even more than she herself does—but also can't seem to help sabotaging her efforts by making himself the issue. Just in the last two weeks, he went off on an anti-war heckler at a rally in Oregon ("Do you want to give the speech?"), accused his own party of a "new strategy of denying and disempowering and disenfranchising" in a speech in Indiana, and managed to revive the fading uproar over Hillary's invented tale about landing under sniper fire in Bosnia: Hey, she's 60 and it was late at night when she "misspoke," the former president said not at all helpfully, suggesting that she's so old and muddled she might not be sharp and on the case at 3 a.m. He also, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "had one of his famous meltdowns" in a private meeting with donors there. "Red-faced and finger-pointing," he exploded in the face of a woman who'd murmured during a photo op that she was sorry to hear that James Carville had called Bill Richardson a "Judas" for endorsing Barack Obama. "It was as if someone pulled the pin of a grenade," a witness to the tirade told the paper. "This was not the Bill Clinton of earlier campaigns." Immediately after the meeting, the former president called on his fellow Democrats to "chill out" about the race.
But what if this really isn't the Bill Clinton of earlier campaigns? Myers, for one, sees Hillary as giving her husband a pass—again—in part because of concerns about his health; she suggests that some of the "not presidential and not particularly effective" flashes of Clintonian temper we've seen lately might be the Dick Cheney-style cloudbursts of the heart patient Clinton now is. "His health—after a quadruple bypass? After your heart is out of your body for 75 minutes? He doesn't have the emotional resilience he used to, and he got too emotionally worked up."
Not only because he'd love to move back into the White House, but because he's still in awe of his wife, in his way. Though it's hard to think of a relationship that's been more pawed over, this is no time to look away from their unorthodox but mutually oxygenating setup, in part because the whole rationale of her candidacy is predicated on her symbiotic relationship with, and experience alongside, her husband.
And his fidelity, or lack of it, has loomed over their public relationship. Hillary has more than implied that no Lewinsky-style dramas will derail her campaign or damage her White House. When asked by a voter whether history might repeat itself with a "business or personal scandal" involving her husband, she did not equivocate: "That's not going to happen. None of us can predict the future." But "I'm very confident that will not happen." After all their years in public life, Hillary Clinton advertises herself as a known quantity—overexposed, if anything.
But the truth is that the press has been running away from Bill Clinton stories for years—to the point that the Obama campaign has even done some not-too-slick whining about it. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote months ago that "at a campaign event in Iowa, one of Obama's aides plopped down next to me and … wanted to know when reporters would begin to look into Bill Clinton's postpresidential sex life." Could be we've had more than enough of such reports, particularly after the unhappy spectacle involving Eliot Spitzer, to whom Hillary sent a vanilla-gram of "best wishes and thoughts." Could be that adultery isn't what it used to be. While Clinton was still president, on Super Tuesday in 2000, I was with a bunch of other reporters at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas, when somebody came by with word that, hey, some woman in the bar was claiming she'd had an affair with Bill Clinton! And nobody even got up. So all I know is this: Not one of the post-Monica rumors about the guy Maureen Dowd calls Frisky Bill has ever been substantiated. But also this: If Hillary Clinton gets the nomination, we will wind up fully briefed.
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.