Angelina and Brad, Kate and William, Hillary and Bill. We can't stop looking, and wondering — what's the magic? While People magazine and the tabloids have their tawdry approaches, distinguished historian William H. Chafe has a different angle. By looking at the couple, it's possible to understand the individuals.
In "Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal," Chafe suggests that by understanding Bill and Hillary Clinton's relationship, we can develop a clearer sense of them as politicians. Chafe, a professor of history at Duke University and former president of the Organization of American Historians, has written numerous prize-winning books on civil rights, women's history and politics, and his work is distinguished by its psychological nuance.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
He is the author of "Never Stop Running: Allard Lowenstein and the Struggle to Save American Liberalism," "The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II" and "Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America." While traveling to promote his new book, he took time to reflect on it.
Q: Why look at the Bill and Hillary relationship through the lens of gender?
A: I think gender is factor in any relationship, whether it be a female candidate and male spouse, or male candidate and female spouse, but I don't think there's anything quite parallel to what we see with Bill and Hillary. Clearly Rosalynn Carter was very critical to Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan basically ran the White House, but there has been nothing equivalent in terms of the personal chemistry between Bill and Hillary.
Q: What makes the Clintons compelling to so many people?
A: My sense is it's because they are so complicated, there are so many perspectives on their complexity as a couple. There's nothing that they do that doesn't speak to people's interest. The first, and most obvious, question: How could she stay married to a person who was a constant philanderer? The answer is, she made that decision herself and she knew it was a gamble.
But just asking the questions leads you to a new understanding of their personal dynamic. The other side, how could Bill Clinton have the eloquence to bring the nation together as a family after the tragedy of Oklahoma City and at the same time be playing nickel-and-dime politics with someone like Dick Morris?.
Q: Can any marriage ever really be understood? Isn't it the ultimate mystery?
A: (Laughter) Every marriage has its own distinctive chemistry, and every couple is going to decide what the limits and possibilities are for that relationship to grow or diminish. You have to get inside the chemistry ... between two people to understand how it takes the form it does.
Q: Direct access to sources is critical to journalists, but this kind of interviewing isn't necessarily important to historians. Why did you decide not to interview Bill or Hillary Clinton? Wouldn't you have gained something from the encounter?
A: Nothing would be gained. For obvious reasons, they are so scripted at this point that they will give you a predetermined answer, and it is very difficult to get inside those answers and really probe.
Q: Was there a central question or puzzle you faced in taking on this book?
A: The major puzzle for me was how to figure out how someone (Hillary) who had been so together in college and law school, so much of a consensus-oriented reformer, could become such a polarizing figure during the latter years in Arkansas and first few years in Washington.
She has returned to the persona she was before she met Bill — committed to making bridges across party lines.
Q: How did you navigate writing the book as an historian, yet one who was interested in psychological issues?
A: I shy away from using psychological jargon — I just don't believe in that stuff. I learned in my book on (Allard) Lowenstein that if you get deep enough inside of a pattern, you begin to see it in other terms.
Q: Do you ever think that the best writing about politicians is by fiction writers?
A: That's why the first part of Joe Klein's book ("Primary Colors") is the best thing written about Bill Clinton.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: So much of my work has been involved in civil rights. In a huge project in the 1990s, we collected 1,350 interviews in 22 different communities — 11 states in the old confederacy, the people who had lived through the age of segregation. What we're trying to do is write a book that significantly revises the classic interpretation of total white oppression and black submission and trying to put together a book that shows how the era of Jim Crow was constant struggle.
Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune literary editor.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times