June 2, 2008
With the primary season about to come to an end, I’m winding up a book I got from the Hoboken library, For Love of Politics, by Sally Bedell Smith. It’s an exhaustive rendering of the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, with flashbacks to days in Arkansas and side trips into the mechanics of one of the most interesting marriages of the 20th Century.
I lived through it all, but in reading the book I marvel at how little the public knows about all the factions and factors facing anyone in that office (the oval one) – all the daily decisions and near-misses that end up as legislation that will affect the nation. In Bill and Hillary Clinton, we have the added drama of a pas de deux that often resembled a folie à deux. In the former, there is the not atypical pairing of addict and codependent, a familiar footwork of relapse and recompense; the latter possibility being a tendency to cover up, accept a mutual coloration of the truth and come up with a comfortable self-deception for two. That the deception involved bringing the nation to the dance, and persuading us to believe that this couple deserved eight years of presidency apiece, and further, that this would be the best thing for the country and the world, is astonishing, all the moreso because they came close to making it happen. And it ain’t over yet.
Bill Clinton is not an unfamiliar type to Southerners. He has that slick salesman’s charm and the seductive style of a boy who never had and never could have enough love in his life, and the need to win over the opposition – if necessary by literally taking the words out of their mouths, reframing them, thereby convincing them that he is the smartest person they ever met.
I always wince when someone tells me how smart he is. I know smart people are capable of doing stupid things, but in his case the stupid things on the record far outweigh the smart ones. He may be gifted with the kind of memory that impresses people, and if so he uses that to his advantage in every situation, but he doesn’t seem to possess the ability to learn from his mistakes and make basic changes in his own approach in order to become a whole and balanced person. He seems to be driven by need to achieve far beyond his ability to function. It's not quite enough to have the mind that makes straight A's in school; being smart requires the ability to live in reality and make the decisions of daily life as well as the big ones.
I would never suggest that anybody other than the Type A Personality would make a run for the office of the Presidency, or that Bill Clinton didn’t feel that as President he would be the best thing that ever happened to the country. His respect for Hillary and their mutual commitment to power and prestige brought her on the trip for much more than any presidential wife has ever had the gall to assume. Her in the role of First Lady successfully eclipsed that of Al Gore as Vice President, and that was by design.
At first I liked Hillary far better than I did Bill, but her abrasive management style rubbed a lot of us the wrong way pretty soon, with the firings of people and the denying she did it, and the way she had of making herself seem above the fray when she clearly had been in the center of the dirty work. It all became tiring very soon for me, but I was not surprised when she ran for the Senate and that she won a seat against a very inexperienced and young opponent. She transformed herself from obnoxious wife of the boss to wronged wife, and then came out as if she herself were the politician with all the political gifts of her husband.
Through it all she has maintained that she is a candidate with great concern for women, and women seem to be buying that line. Yes, she is brilliant, yes, she is tough, yes, she is the type of Type A that would be found running for President. The two questions the book answered for me were “Why did she stay with him?” and “Why won’t she give up in this race since she is not winning?” Her explanation that Americans don't quit doesn't make sense to me.
She stayed with him because she had no choice. In the Monica Lewinsky debacle, Hillary emerged victorious once more by staying put and waiting until most of the thing blew over (there is some doubt if it all ever will). The pattern of that marriage is that of a long ongoing power struggle between two unbelievably strong personalities. They made plans together and worked together to achieve their goals. In his mind, it’s her turn now; after his ultimate dalliance, so painful and so public, his penance will not be achieved until she’s safely serving as President.
In a way, this is also the answer to the second question. There is a certain amount of delusion in her belief that she must win, but she has enough power and apparently enough I.O.U.’s in the superdelegate marketplace that she has been able to freeze them until she says it’s okay to go. She must be President. I don’t particularly look forward to that time, but my eyes are open to the reality that if it doesn’t matter how you bend the truth, if it doesn’t matter who you use to further your ends, if you take your time and build your constituency, male or female, you can become the most powerful person in the world.
Let's just hope it's not this Wednesday.