The Magazine

The Natural and His Wife

Bill Clinton's partner - in life and politics - has yet to repeat his success.

Jan 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 17 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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For Love of Politics

Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years

By Sally Bedell Smith
Random House, 608 pp., $27.95

Between January 20, 1993, and January 20, 2001, the Clinton White House was home to three boomers of boundless ambition, high expectations, and vast self-regard, all three of whom thought that they ought to be president. Of these, only one--Bill Clinton--really was president. But the other two--his wife Hillary and his vice president, Albert Gore Jr.--firmly believed that they should be and viewed Bill's terms in office as the jumping-off place to their own.

Unfortunately, only one--Bill, again--was a born, or even a good, politician, making the two others dependent upon him, first to lift them to within striking distance of power, and then to help them campaign. But Bill, too, had his problems, and so needed them: to keep him focused and disciplined, to impose some sense of order, to reassure voters disturbed by his fast-and-loose manners, and at least in the case of Hillary Clinton, to help him suppress and/or cope with his bimbo eruptions, if and when worst came to worst.

Sensing his needs, Bill picked his running mates carefully, but the resulting arrangements were not without stress. Bill needed both Gore and Hillary, but often resented attempts to restrain him. Gore and Hillary needed Bill, and resented each other. Hillary was in a state of continuous rage over Bill's chronic adulteries. And Gore, a senator's son who had been pointed from birth at the White House, and was seen by his friends and possibly by himself as being "more presidential" than Clinton, was in a state of anxiety about his own run.

How this played out is laid out in hair-raising detail in Sally Bedell Smith's account of an administration and marriage like none other in history, and one that bred the highest level of dysfunctional angst ever seen in the White House--except for those moments when Richard Nixon dined alone.

At the core of it all was William J. Clinton, by all accounts an astounding political talent, a policy wonk who also loved people, a creature born and hardwired to seek and win votes. "He was a natural, with all the advantages of an extrovert born in a southern culture that emphasized human drama," Smith tells us, and then goes on to dissect and assess his appeal:

When working a crowd, Bill would lean forward and move in close to individuals. .  .  . When asked a question, he often responded with a question, which instantly flattered his interlocutor. He knew how to pause and let words sink in, and then took care with his answers, emphasizing points of agreement. .  .  . He had an unusual capacity to speak about complicated issues such as globalization in lucid and simple language, with an informality that prevented him from seeming preachy or pedantic. .  .  . The way he talked was an invaluable political tool.

So were his gifts for projection and empathy. As one aide said, he could make "constant emotional scans of everyone in the room in real time while he was thinking," and calibrate a response to the mood of each listener. "He tried to find out who you were in the audience and give you a sense he was like you," Eric Liu, a speechwriter and adviser once said. This set Bill apart from both Gore and Hillary, who had people skills in negative territory, found strangers difficult, and suffered greatly from their inability to read people's moods. But Bill seemed to thrive on these meetings, and even to need them, which was the key to his great gift for politics.

"He wasn't pretending to enjoy superficial relations. .  .  . This is what he liked. It is sincere phoniness," reported journalist Jonathan Alter. Added writer Benjamin Barber: "He has the narcissist's gift of making conversation about him feel like conversation about you." His mind was capacious, intuitive, wide-ranging, and supple, capable of absorbing facts and rearranging them in striking new patterns, of dazzling people with impromptu orations, of tackling two or three things with such virtuosity that childhood friends would frequently seek out his company for the pleasure of "watch(ing) him think."

At other times, he would "power down, like a computer going into sleep mode" to save energy, or slip into a trance-like state of distraction, the sign of a mind artistic in nature, as opposed to the legalistic or reasoned variety. But when he was "on" he could be irresistible. "Ultimately," as Sally Bedell Smith tells us, "his sheer brainpower and magnetism covered a multitude of sins," which also were there in abundance, as future events would make evident, when they would not quite cover enough.