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Book review

‘Bill and Hillary’ by William H. Chafe

William H. Chafe notes that the Clintons’s marriage blends the personal and the political.

Ken Cedeno/AP FILE PHOTO

William H. Chafe notes that the Clintons’s marriage blends the personal and the political.

There was a time when she couldn’t keep her eyes off him, and vice versa. That was true more than a third of a century ago. It may even be true today. But one thing is incontestable. We cannot keep our eyes off Bill and Hillary. Their story beguiles us, bewilders us, obsesses us.

It began as a story of admiration, matured into one of ambition, whipped into another of forgiveness, and aged into a parable of redemption. In its interstices were love, lust, loss — and the price of loyalty. Their greatest triumphs and most mortifying trials were played out before our eyes.

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They still are. Down-market, the supermarket tabs carried lurid stories about the fate of their marriage as recently as early August. Up-market, one of America’s most distinguished publishing houses just released a chronicle of their marriage called, inevitably, “Bill and Hillary,’’ and written, improbably, by a Duke University historian who holds an endowed chair, has a dozen books to his credit, and argues that his subjects are “two people who even more than Eleanor and Franklin speak to the intersection of the personal and the political.’’

That notion is the principle, or perhaps the pretext, of William H. Chafe’s examination — sometimes reflective, sometimes raunchy, always riveting — of a power couple worthy of the name, for between them they have accumulated one term as state attorney general, four terms as governor, two as president, one as senator, and one as secretary of state.

Ranking with the Adamses, Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Bushes, the Clintons have quietly become one of the most important families in American history, and there is substantial reason to think their final chapter is yet to be written.

So Chafe’s volume does not qualify as the final word, though it prompts us to question again how the role of childhood, the dynamics of a marriage, and the cross-currents of appetite for power and personal betrayal mold a public figure or, in this unusual case, a public couple.

This joint biography opens with a quick look at their disparate early lives — his certainly more chaotic and undeniably less suburban than hers but no more defining — and follows each through youth and their meeting at Yale University, the point at which the book fully achieves traction.

“Bill and Hillary brought out the best in each other,’’ Chafe writes. “She helped impart discipline and rigor into his quest for making a difference. He helped soften and humanize her.’’

Their styles were different — that’s an understatement — and yet they complemented each other, and still do so. “Bill was gentle, affable, averse to conflict, and loath to attack people,’’ Chafe says in a meditation on the couple’s law-school years. “Hillary was tough, direct, willing to fight and take the battle to the other side.’’

But just because they were complementary doesn’t mean their passage was smooth, even in their early married years, when their dreams and ambitions were more robust than their resumes. The couple seemed discordant in Arkansas eyes. His mother couldn’t fathom Hillary. I remember visiting Virginia Clinton myself, well before her son became president, and as we walked around the house she showed me a particularly unflattering picture of a young woman and asked me whether I could guess who it was. I was stumped.

Her answer: “My lovely daughter-in-law.’’ Then she added: “She’s come a long way, hasn’t she?”

Chafe writes that Hillary decided to marry Bill — it’s one of the irritating tics of this work that the two are referred to by first names, but it’s almost unavoidable in a book like this — mostly out of love but partly out of the calculation that if she wanted to change the world, he could be one of the change agents. “[T]his relationship,’’ he argues, “might be the most realistic way to achieve what her heart told her to do and also what her mind wanted.’’

This, of course, is speculation, and in truth much of this book is speculation. Only two people know what goes on in a marriage, and even they cannot be fully sure, as the two principals have separate perspectives. So while the reader might jump into these pages with abandon — there’s some juicy stuff here, though not much that camp followers don’t already know, or suspect — some skepticism is warranted. If the rationale for this book is analysis (how the personal and political intersect) then the reader must remember that this book is one scholar’s interpretation, based mostly on secondary sources.

It is, however, clear that the Clintons spent much of their adult lives on the same wavelength — and on the warpath. They fended off repeated questions about his infidelities and her investments; they struggled with keeping a marriage and a presidential administration together; they juggled personal and professional responsibilities, all while one was the leader of the free world and the other was a pathfinder for women living in the White House and for women with undaunted strong views and high hopes who often bumped into glass ceilings.

Time and again, Hillary defended Bill, often taking the lead when almost no one else in their circle had the taste or stature to do so, particularly when impeachment loomed.

But Chafe sees clearly what we who were there, chronicling the Clintons in real time, missed: Her intransigence fortified his indomitability, her denials buttressing his defiance.

“Hillary’s strength in that moment,’’ Chafe writes of the wall of denials that surrounded the president after the initial allegations about sex with a White House intern, “closed off any possibility that Bill Clinton would waffle on the [Monica] Lewinsky matter.’’

The rest, as they don’t say but probably should, is mystery.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.
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