What Is Hillary's Deal?

Politics and policy.
Feb. 20 1998 3:30 AM

What Is Hillary's Deal?

What did the first lady know, and when did she know it?

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The key question may be not what Hillary knew but when she knew it. She surely is aware that her husband was unfaithful to her before he became president--he admitted as much on national television. She may have thought, however, that she was giving him another chance and that he was promising, in exchange, to do better. It may have come as an awful surprise to her to discover--assuming it is true--that her husband was still screwing around after he was elected. There are degrees of knowledge, of course. Hillary could have known in detail, known in general, not wanted to know, or truly had no idea. And she might not care, be hurt but not surprised, or be deeply hurt and surprised. Here is a grid that expresses the four basic possibilities.

43000_43489_hillary_grid
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Let's consider each of these, beginning in the northeast corner and moving clockwise. If she didn't know that her husband was still fooling around after his election in 1993, but does care, it seems to me she is in the most sympathetic of the available positions. She would be in the same spot as many members of the press and public, who thought that Clinton had made a tacit agreement to quit fooling around for the duration of his presidency, for the sake of common sense if not common decency. On learning that her husband had not lived up to his half of the bargain, Hillary would be very upset. But she would also realize that she couldn't leave him while he was in the White House, in part because her tenure is co-terminal with his. If she made a mistaken bet that her husband could reform, she is now in the position of a Siamese twin. If his presidency dies, her quasi-co-presidency dies with it.

If, on the other hand, she didn't know, but also didn't much care, that would suggest an immoral alliance à la JFK and Jackie. In fact, such a bargain might be deemed much more ruthless in the Clintons' case, as the wife's reason for tolerating her husband's misbehavior would probably be less a desire to keep up decent appearances than a desire to gain and retain power herself. If this is the way it is, Hillary has used her husband for the sake of her own career as much as he has used her to advance his. This wouldn't leave much ground for sympathy.

If Hillary knew what her husband was up to and didn't care, her position is even worse. If she knew her husband was going to continue to philander and agreed to help him pretend that he had reformed and become a good husband, she has been a party to a hoax. If accepting a faithless husband was her price of power, as Margaret Talbot recently argued in the New Republic, she would be his accomplice, not only in a fraud on the public but also, perhaps, in what most people would recognize as sexual harassment.

But what if Hillary knew (or at least strongly suspected) that her husband hadn't changed, and did care? She would be both victim and accomplice--furious at him, yet for reasons of the heart or reasons of power, or both, unwilling to bring him to book. She would be in the morally ambivalent position of the abused spouse, both deserving of sympathy and responsible for her own failure to act. If I had to guess, I'd guess that this is the contradictory position she is actually in. But I repeat: When it comes to what Hillary Clinton thinks, no one really has a clue.

Was Hillary Clinton surprised by the public's response to "the situation"? Click for her full answer.

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