William H. Chafe's Bill and Hillary is a superior portrait of how the personal dynamic between the Clintons affected their achievements in public life. Here, Chafe outlines the private agreement between the couple.
When Bill Clinton declared in 1992 that his administration would be a "co-presidency," he heralded a new era of male-female political partnership in the White House. But in this instance, unlike that of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, it was a partnership based on an intense personal and political dynamic that shaped the ups and downs of the Clintons' entire career in Arkansas and in the White House.
From the beginning, Hillary Rodham knew she was taking a gamble by marrying Bill Clinton. Like everyone else familiar with Bill, she recognized his uncommon intelligence, his charisma -- and his penchant for womanizing. But Hillary's mother had exemplified the need to minimize marital conflict for the sake of keeping the family together. Ultimately, Hillary concluded that the benefits of working toward a common goal of political leadership was worth the risk of tolerating Bill's shortcomings. She loved him, shared with him a vision of transforming American politics, and would take her chances that the good would outweigh the bad.
Implicit in Hillary's commitment was the understanding that power would be shared. After Bill's crushing defeat in his 1980 re-electioon bid for Governor in Arkansas, Hillary took charge. She refocused his energies, secured expert political advice, and mapped a successful comeback strategy that resulted in their return to the Governor's mansion in 1982. In return, Bill put Hillary in command of the Clinton Administration's major legislative initiative, education reform. Setting up a task force, she held hearings across Arkansas, and publicly presented the adminisration's proposals to the state legislature. In everyone's judgment, Hillary became the single most important member of Bill's administration. The formula was simple. If Bill got into trouble, Hillary would come to his rescue. The result: a new level of political power for her.
Never was that dynamic more decisive than in the 1992 presidential race. Bill was running a strong contest in the New Hampshire primary when suddenly, Gennifer Flowers went public with claims of a 12 year affair with Clinton. Bill's womanizing had already been recognized as a key vulnerability. In the summer of 1991, Hillary and Bill went to one of reporter Godfrey Sperling's legendary political breakfasts to try to head off potential rumor-mongering. Hillary took the lead in emphasizing to the reporters gathered there that although they had experienced strains in their marriage, they were deeply committed to each other.
Now, with the Flowers story dominating both tabloids and the national press, Hillary came to the rescue once again. In a joint appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes, using almost exactly the same language she had used at the Sperling breakfast, she testified to the strength of her marriage, and portrayed Bill as a devoted, trustworthy family man. Within days, Bill was back in the race, coming in second in New Hampshire. From there, he galloped to the nomination.
Bill owed her for saving him from humiliation and defeat. Consistent with the pattern of their marriage and political lives, Bill responded by ceding power to her, though this time her influence rose to an unprecedented level. She insisted on securing an office in the West Wing alongside Vice-President Al Gore. All major decisions would be approved by the troika of Gore, Hillary, and the President. To secure her foothold, Hillary adamantly oposed appointment of a strong chief of staff who might threaten her power. And within five days of the new administration's beginning, she was appointed the czar of health care reform.
In a reprise of her role in reforming Arkansas's education system, Hillary controlled a large staff, shaped strategy, and dictated the politics of the new administration's single most important domestic initiative. But on the more complex and politically treacherous national stage, the outcome of Hillary's approach was very different. Hillary stifled dissent from administration insiders, and failed to consult either Congressional leaders who would have to approve her proposals, or administration officials with significant expertise in the field. Despite disagreement from member of his staff as well as his own skepticism, Bill Clinton refused to raise objections. Hillary had saved his political life. He owed her. It was part of the bargain.
Despite multiple opportunities to seek a compromise and pass a bill that would have covered 95 percent of the American people, Hillary remained adamant in insisting on total compliance with her own proposal. As it turned out, health care reform never even came to the floor of Congress for a vote. In the end, the debacle of health care reform, as well as other major setbacks -- the reaction to her barring White House reporters from the West Wing and what became known as "Travelgate" -- could be traced back to Hillary's intransigence, and the "deal" that had been struck after she had supported Bill through the Gennifer Flowers scandal.
On one more occasion Hillary saved her husband. After the Monical Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, Bill Clinton thought for a brief period he would be forced to resign in disgrace, just as Richard Nixon did in 1974. But for the last time, Hillary came to his rescue, standing by him even after he admitted his guilt and faced impeachment. Only this time, by saving her husband -- and their co-presidency -- she also liberated herself to become her own person in politics. Durong the Lewinsky scandal, she earned the right to "have her own turn." Amid the impeachment proceedings, Hillary responded to calls from New York Democrats to consider a race for the retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Senate seat. Fittingly, Hillary met with her New York campaign team at the same time that the U.S. Senate was voting to acquit Bill Clinton of the impeachment charges against him.
Hillary would soon win her Senate race, inaugurating a brand new era in the Clintons' personal and political relationship. But now she was the principal and Bill supported her behind the scenes. For Hillary, the gamble she had made when she decided to marry Bill had begun to pay off.