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.

Bill, it was clear, had an array of gifts that most power-seekers would kill for, but even these were frequently undermined by the stunning array of his faults. He was wholly unfocused, completely disorganized, and prey to a set of adolescent compulsions that even he could not start to explain. In his first two years as president (or before the Republican Congress forced focus upon him), his White House was described as resembling a college dormitory, a kindergarten, a free-for-all, or a claque of small children engaged in a soccer game, in a tumultuous scramble to fall on the ball. For no good reason, he would stay up all night, and be so exhausted the following morning he would doze off the next day. ("He can barely stay awake at today's meeting," Robert Reich noted, of one early session. "His eyelids droop and his pupils move up under them, leaving nothing but a narrow sliver of white.")

"Bill's lifelong inability to set boundaries threw policy making into turmoil," Smith informs us. "Meetings scheduled for ten minutes routinely stretched to two hours as Bill pursued his favorite digressions. One session on Bosnia lasted seven hours without coming to a resolution. Rather than following a crisp checklist, Bill delayed decisions as long as possible," endlessly seeking new facts. Every day, said an aide, was "a long road with quite a few detours" as Bill veered off course and off schedule. Everything was delayed, and everyone was kept waiting, from world leaders such as Helmut Kohl and John Major to a group of elderly Holocaust survivors, who were left standing under a tent in a rainstorm for hours while Bill loitered elsewhere.

Then there were his frequent explosions of temper, categorized by George Stephanopoulos (who absorbed most of them) into at least six major types: the morning roar, the telephone nightcap, the slow boil, the silent scream, the last gasp, and, more complex than the others, the show "for the benefit of someone else in the room."

Later, Bill would say that he lived "parallel lives," one sunny and open, one dark and concealed, "where the secrets are hidden," among them a rage that grew "deeper and stronger" and whose sources he couldn't explain. Smith suggests it stemmed from his unsettled childhood, when he hid his household's disorder behind a façade of normality: "It was dark down there," he said of his inner life and its secrets--and a source now and then of erratic behavior.

With all of this chaos, Bill was in need of someone to restrain him in order to function, which led to his reliance on Hillary, and to a lesser extent on Al Gore. Bill needed a wife who would allow him to stray and not leave him, but would instead turn her anger against their joint enemies. This Hillary was; but she was also his opposite--disciplined, focused, intense, and pedantic--the essence of order, the Super Ego to his lively and rampaging Id. In Hillary, a woman who shared his intense love of politics but brought an entirely opposing set of skills (and deficiencies) to their joint quest for power, Bill found his corrective, his balance wheel, his apologist, and his true mate.

While they shared the same goals, she was his opposite in mind and in temperament: wholly controlled and rigidly disciplined, with a stolid, linear intelligence as opposed to his free-range, intuitive mind. At the same time, she had poor people skills, disliked campaigning, and found it grinding hard work.

"She is always on, like an assembly line," Smith quotes a fundraiser. "Every interaction we have had has been identical. .  .  . She is the most controlled and disciplined person I ever met." Her control slipped only in the case of his scandals, which, as part of their bargain, she was expected both to suppress and excuse. She usually finessed this by redirecting her fury toward Clinton's accusers, but she remained in a perpetual state of resentment and anger, which spilled over to Bill and his aides.

"Her dissatisfaction could curdle the atmosphere when she directed her ire at his subordinates," Smith informs us. "Washington advisers found it 'demoralizing.' .  .  . The most unnerving aspect .  .  . was their use of profanity, especially 'f--k' and 's--t.' "

"Rather than insult him directly, she used the staff," said Robert Boorstin. "People were scared of her because they knew she could chop off their testicles if she chose." And David Gergen had added, "She would launch a deadly missile straight at [Bill's] heart, and just before it hit, the missile would explode, the shrapnel hitting the staff." To Smith, "Hillary's anger was bound up in the intricacies of her marital bargain," which balanced respect and power on the political level with betrayal and humiliation on the personal side.

Yet the couple remained bonded and welded together, bound by their mutual passion for politics, which was like a third party inside the marriage, and a unifying force. Smith calls them "force multipliers" when it came to each other. "They were partners who could not get along without each other," said Eleanor Acheson, who had known Hillary since Wellesley, and served as assistant attorney general during the Clinton years. At a crucial moment near the end of her first run for the Senate at the end of 2000, as Hillary sat in her van, "Bill leaned in for an intense discussion, his long fingers pointing and gesturing, his eyes fixed on her and hers back on him. In the thrall of another race, they both seem[ed] in a kind of momentary rapture."

One can think of no other political couple of whom a similar thing could have been written. A Clinton presidency would be a bivalve, a two-headed being. And into this intense and bizarre situation stepped a largely unknowing Al Gore.

Unlike most running mates, Al Gore had been Bill Clinton's equal and, until the moment that Bill was elected, Gore seemed the senior partner of the team. Son of Senator Albert Gore Sr., born to one of the first power couples in American politics, he had been a Washington insider since childhood, dandled on the knees of vice presidents, sent to elite schools with other heirs of political figures, helping his parents host political soirees at the capital's Fairfax Hotel.

He took his father's old seat in the House in 1976 at age 28, and his father's old seat in the Senate eight years after that, where he distinguished himself with hard work on serious technical issues. He ran for president at 39 in 1988, in a campaign in which, running on his own for the first time in his life, he proved a terrible national candidate, with his wonkish credentials unmatched by political skills.

But running as the underside of Bill's ticket, with Bill there to strategize and carry the brunt of campaigning, even Gore's dullness gave strength to the ticket, and the normality of the idyllic Gore marriage tended to rub off on the Clintons, and made the pairs seem like two of a kind. Looking ahead to his own run eight years later, Gore was determined to establish himself as a full partner to Clinton, negotiating a written contract before taking office that gave him a weekly lunch with the president, on which he insisted, plus authority on a wide range of issues--national security and foreign policy, as well as communications and the environment--in which he had shown expertise.

In the administration, Gore served the same function as Hillary in some ways, imposing order on "Bill's panoramic but haphazard intelligence" with the rigors of his more formal and orderly mind. But he could never begin to equal the influence that Hillary had built up over years with her husband, and in any contest between them for Bill's attention, the vice president would be a poor second. Turf wars first broke out between them on the campaign bus, and after the election an article in the New York Times Magazine quoted a friend of Hillary's saying that Gore "would have to adjust to a smaller role" in the administration, and that "Al Gore hasn't yet realized there is going to be a co-presidency but he's not going to be part of the co."

By the second year of the administration, reality had begun to set in: "When people ask me what it's like being number two at the White House, I tell them, 'she seems to enjoy it,' " Gore had joked at the Gridiron dinner in 1994, at a time when Hillary's role as health care czarina had overshadowed not only himself but the president. What this meant was that the administration had not one, but three, major centers of power: one president, and two potential presidents who intended to follow him, a first lady and vice president, both of whom were empowered as never in history.

Canny advisers sensed the tensions inherent in this unforeseen set of developments. David Gergen "called the 'three headed system' a 'rolling disaster.' " In Bruce Reed's words, having " 'three forces to be reckoned with' added yet another layer of perplexity and rivalry" to an already contentious West Wing. Bill not only had two people battling to become his adviser, he had two ambitious and putative heirs as well.

"It was an open secret that some of Hillary's advisers .  .  . nurtured dreams that Hillary, not Gore, would follow Bill," Smith tells us, quoting Betsey Wright, the Clintons' chief aide in Arkansas, saying, "There are a great many people talking very seriously about her succeeding him. Friends, Democrats, people out across the country think it is a very viable plan." As early as 1974 Bill had been saying, "She could be president someday. She could go to any state and be elected to the Senate," and during the 1992 campaign he had said to Gail Sheehy, "It doesn't bother me for people to see her and get excited and say she would be president too."

At the Democrats' 1996 convention, some party elders had put forward her prospects of running for the Senate from Illinois, her home state. But Hillary preferred New York as being bigger, richer, and the home of big media, and when Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced his retirement, Hillary seized her main chance. At a White House Christmas party in December 1997, New York Democratic state chairwoman Judith Hope, a native of Arkansas, first raised the issue, saying to Hillary, "I wish you would run." Bill embraced the idea as a way for Hillary to step out on her own, to extend his legacy, and to prolong his political life.

After 1998, with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment that followed, a Senate race took on new importance as an added reward for past suffering. According to Madeleine Albright, Bill "was eager for Hillary to win .  .  . to recompense her for all she had to put up with .  .  . and also [as] a way for him to get back into campaigning," which would have otherwise come to an end. -Others thought that they had to keep on campaigning, as it was their raison d'être, and they could imagine no other life. "The Senate race kept them in public life," said Bill's friend Tom Siebert. "They grabbed the brass ring early in their lives, and running for elective office was in her DNA as much as his."

Oddly, Bill's impeachment and scandal were, in the long run, a blessing for Hillary, as they won her immense sympathy as the loyal, long-suffering, and put-upon partner, and her successful stint as the party's leading campaigner in the 1998 midterm elections made her a political star. The glow and the impact carried into 2000, long enough to safely elect her, and Monica Lewinsky did little political damage in one of the bluest of political states.

It was less of a blessing, however, for Gore, who was embarking on the campaign he had been planning since Clinton's election, and on whom the scandals would take the steepest toll. There was no sympathy for a betrayed and embarrassed vice president, and while Hillary campaigned only in Bill-friendly country, Gore had to carry his case to 49 other states of the Union, where affection for Bill ran less high. Too effusive in defending Bill when the scandal first broke and later during impeachment, Gore switched to an awkward condemnation when he made his announcement, and never found a coherent way of addressing a political legacy which was, far more than most, mixed.

Additional problems came from Bill Clinton himself, a prima donna who would not leave center stage. "For all his praise of Al Gore in scores of speeches," Smith tells us, "Bill's behavior throughout the year--making passive-aggressive remarks, belittling Gore .  .  . grabbing the spotlight .  .  . and continuing to argue his innocence .  .  . betrayed ambivalence about a Gore victory, at least one earned on the Vice President's own terms."

Annoyed at mistakes made by Gore in his first months of campaigning, Bill complained in comments to friends, and then in leaks to reporters, which led to cover stories that described the campaign as "off and stumbling" in Newsweek and the New York Times. Where Ronald Reagan, the last two-term president to hand off his torch to a loyal vice president, had gracefully relinquished the spotlight at the 1988 Republican convention to George H.W. Bush, Bill kept on hogging the stage. In the four days leading up to the Democrats' 2000 convention in Los Angeles, Bill and Hillary soaked up airtime and newsprint, monopolizing the attention that ought to have gone to the nominee of their party. On the Saturday and Sunday before the Monday of Bill's choreographed "farewell," there was a non-stop orgy of celebration and fundraising, in which they raked in millions of Hollywood dollars, "distracting attention from the presidential race, siphoning off Democratic money, and further angering the Vice President and his team."

Even worse was Bill's habit of wrenching the public's attention back to things and incidents most Democrats wished to forget. On the Thursday before the convention opened, "Bill made headlines by engaging in a soul-baring conversation with .  .  . one of his spiritual counselors." Appearing before a crowd of 4,500, "the President revisited his experiences as a 'sinner,' at a moment when Al Gore least needed such a reminder. Bill once again insisted that he had sufficiently apologized for his 'terrible mistake.' "

Worse still, only a few days before the election, he would appear as the Esquire cover boy, looking every bit the Bill of the Lewinsky affair, legs spread wide apart, hands splayed on his knees, a leer on his countenance. In the interview, Bill "mentioned Al Gore just twice in passing, defended himself against the controversies of his presidency, castigated his critics, and said the Republicans owed him an apology," just the thing his vice president needed to win independents in crucial swing states. It was no wonder that Gore "essentially left the White House and played down his relationship," did not seek Bill's advice even when it might have been helpful, and resisted references to the genuine accomplishments that he and Bill Clinton had racked up.

A related development was Gore's competition with Hillary, whose race for the Senate took on the dimensions of a national, even presidential, campaign: "With the Hillary and Gore campaigns revving up at the same time, the three-way tensions evident .  .  . since 1993 became a more serious problem," Smith tells us. "Not only was Hillary unavailable as a campaigner, she was poaching top Democratic fund-raisers and donors who would normally concentrate on the Vice President .  .  . [and] began directly competing with the Vice President for money, sometimes at his own fund-raising events."

One sign of this was that, starting in 1999, White House events that could have been used to boost Gore were shunted to Hillary, who began to preempt more and more of the spotlight. "In 1997, Hillary's office had listed thirty-one major speeches on the White House website. Two years later, that number had jumped to eighty-six--four times as many as those listed for her husband and Gore together."

Hillary was given the rollout of popular government programs, including the September 2000 violence-in-media report of the Federal Trade Commission, over which the two campaigns wrangled for days. Raising 60 percent of her funds from out-of-state sources, Hillary went head-to-head with the vice president in competing for money from the party's big donors, who would normally have focused on the presidential campaign. On the Saturday night before Gore's convention, Hillary collected $1.1 million for her Senate campaign from a star-studded crowd at a "Gala Salute" to her husband, the president, who later collected a similar sum for his library the next day at Barbra Streisand's Hollywood residence.

At another time, Hillary insisted on crashing a fundraiser held for Gore in Los Angeles by a friend of his family, and then "shocked the Vice President's supporters by soliciting donations" in front of a stunned Tipper Gore. As a result, the couples, and the campaigns, became estranged at a critical moment. As Smith says, "The colliding agendas of the President, First Lady, and Vice President were gifts to the Republicans, whose efforts to tag Gore with his boss's weaknesses were paying off."

On November 7, 2000, the Clintons watched the election returns from their suite at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan, Bill watching with the fascination of a fan at a ball game as Hillary won by a 55-43 margin over her hapless opponent, while Gore's triumph at eight o'clock that night turned into a Bush victory at two in the morning, which turned into a dead heat around dawn. While Hillary preened, Gore descended into electoral limbo, 36 days of recounts that clarified nothing, lawsuits seeking to void or certify thousands of ballots, and innumerable court rulings that favored one side or another and were, in turn, overturned by new courts the next day.

On December 12, with constitutional deadlines approaching and no end in sight, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the Supreme Court of Florida, and froze the process in place with Bush holding on to a fragile majority. The next day, Gore conceded, putting an end to his decades-long quest to be president. On December 21, Gore and Clinton met in the White House at Gore's request for a bitter postmortem on the election, with Gore blaming Clinton's misconduct, and the president blaming Gore's numerous errors of judgment.

This time, both men were right.

Between the election in early November and Bush's inauguration the following January, the Clintons indulged in a nonstop orgy of self-celebration, in part a loving farewell to Bill's two terms in office and, in part, a triumphant launching of Hillary's Senate career.

At star-studded galas, millions were raised, for Bill's new presidential library in Little Rock, and to furnish Hillary's gigantic new houses, the one in Chappaqua, New York, she used for her run for office and her new one on Washington's Embassy Row.

On January 3, Hillary was sworn in in the Senate chamber by a stoic Al Gore, and went that night to a gala at the Mayflower Hotel, followed by a farewell party for Bill the day after; a bigger party for the White House staff on January 6; and a huge gala at Madison Square Garden the day after, "a celebration attended by nearly three thousand supporters .  .  . with prayers, songs (by Jessye Norman and Billy Joel), and a reading by Toni Morrison. Al Gore gamely joined Hillary in reenacting the oath-of-office ceremony in front of the 'swinging, swaying, celebrity-studded, standing-ovation-flooded' gathering as Tipper looked on."

Where Ronald Reagan departed quickly and quietly after the swearing-in of his successor, the Clintons led a motorcade to Andrews Air Force base, where they held a noisy rally for thousands of friends and supporters that shared television time with the ceremonies for the incoming president. It was not until an hour and 40 minutes after they got there that, at last, they took off for New York.

It is now eight years since the time that Sally Bedell Smith takes leave of her story, and in many ways, little has changed. Al Gore has left the political scene, gained weight, grown rich, and become a cult hero for the Hollywood left: an odd turn of fate for a man who began his political life as both a defense expert and cultural conservative and was picked as a running mate by Bill Clinton largely because he had once been a hawk on Iraq. For the Clintons, however, much seems the same. Once again, a political partner of William J. Clinton is running for president, and once again Bill appears a mixed blessing, a man whose legacy is open to different judgments, a star whose magnitude sometimes overpowers the candidate but who sometimes wanders off-message, with dire results.

There were tensions in 2000 between Clinton and the Gore campaign people, when Bill tried to prod them in different directions; there are tensions now between Bill and some long-term Hillary loyalists. In 2000, Bill was called passive-aggressive in his relations with his vice president; now he is called the same thing in his relations with his former first lady. In 2000 it was all about him; now in 2008 it is much the same story. In 2000 Bill seemed split between wanting a Gore win to vindicate him and establish his legacy, and reluctant to see a one-time number two succeed and perhaps supersede him; now he seems to have much the same problem. He is a huge draw, at least to a Democratic primary audience, but he can either outshine Hillary, or be an embarrassment. People wonder aloud how much he really wants to be only one of two different Presidents Clinton.

Perhaps Hillary wonders herself.

In a sense, however, these problems were and are unavoidable, baked into the nature of the complex relations between both Gore and Clinton, and Bill and his wife. With a keen sense of self-preservation, Bill Clinton picked his two most important political partners to help himself function, to compensate for his frailties, to atone for his sins. Intuitive, seductive, empathetic, and sometimes inspired, but wholly deficient in focus and discipline, he sought out partners with focus and discipline, and orderly, literal, minds. They served his needs, in that they helped him to function; but as he had his failings, they too had theirs.

With their rigor and discipline went a lack of intuition and nuance--the je ne sais quoi that makes a political talent, and that no amount of effort and diligence can ever supply. Bill loved campaigning; Gore found it a struggle, and his torment was obvious. Hillary is an unhappy warrior--at best, a grim one--and her description of the anticipated evisceration of Barack Obama as the "fun" part was a chilling moment that surprised no one who has looked into For Love of Politics.

Unlike Bill, Gore and Hillary have no sense of how they appear to others, and seldom fail to make the wrong gesture--Hillary's cackle, the grating "caw" she unleashes in efforts at levity, is on a par with the sighs, eye-rolling, and other strange efforts at intimidation that helped Gore lose the election in the 2000 debates. With their conspicuous lack of political talents, neither Gore nor Hillary would ever have reached the top tier of candidates if they had not been elevated by being chosen by Clinton. But if they had been more graceful, and less pedantic and heavy-handed, they would not have been chosen, as they would not have supplied what Bill lacked.

It was a bargain that worked well for Bill, but ended in heartbreak for Gore, and may do the same thing for Hillary Clinton. This story is not over yet.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.