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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.