In Iowa, hand firmly in hand

Times Staff Writer

Hillary Rodham Clinton looked enviously at her husband’s malted milkshake at a roadside ice cream shop. Then, unable to resist, she dipped in a plastic spoon. Sitting side by side at the counter, cooing over the array of flavors, the Clintons seemed the picture of marital bliss, like any other husband and wife team that just happened to be running for president once again.

Elsewhere during nearly three days of campaigning across Iowa, the couple hugged, touched and whispered in each other’s ears. He would pat her back. She would touch his arm. In the Fourth of July parade in Clear Lake, they marched along holding hands, fingers interlocked.

Trotting out the spouse is a set piece of presidential campaigning, but when Hillary and Bill Clinton made their first joint foray on the campaign trail last week, there was more at stake than a ritualistic joint appearance. Like no other presidential candidate in modern times, Hillary Clinton declared for the White House knowing that her marriage would pose a central challenge.

As she acknowledged in her autobiography, “Living History,” she knows that people watch her every move and gesture when she is with her husband to gauge the state of their relationship.

After the fling with Gennifer Flowers and the affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, after impeachment and a special prosecutor’s report that described Bill Clinton’s sexual encounters with clinical precision, voters were bound to wonder whether returning the Clintons to the White House would mean another exhausting cycle of marital crises.


Moreover, the senator from New York recognized that her decision to remain married despite her husband’s infidelities and deceit had created a problem among well-educated, relatively affluent women: Many disapproved of her decision.

The Iowa trip was a test run for dealing with both sets of problems.

By presenting herself and Bill as a close, mutually supportive couple, she offered reassurance to those who feared further scandal.

And there was a two-pronged answer for skeptical women: The picture of a marriage saved by love and forgiveness suggested she had made the right decision after all. Her display of loyalty also tacitly appealed to what some have called the Tammy Wynette “Stand by Your Man” vote.

Whether the strategy will succeed remains unclear, but it provoked strong reactions in Iowa.

Lennie Carlson, 60, a retired attorney who came to the Clinton rally in Davenport, said: “They could have dissolved that marriage in the snap of a finger -- and they didn’t. They love each other. I’m not at all surprised she supported him through that, and he’s supporting her through this.

“I would expect my husband to do the same thing for me.”

Delia Ralston, 56, a Waterloo resident who attended a rally there, said afterward: “I saw people who loved each other. They were standing next to each other and he had his arm around her at one point, and it didn’t look phony. It looked like he’s actually supporting her 100%.”

Other Iowans were more skeptical. They see in the Clinton marriage an arrangement rooted in political convenience. A well-timed burst of affection is no reason to believe the marriage is sound, they said.

“It’s phony. They’re both good actors,” said Don Peterson, 69, of Clear Lake. “They were going this way” -- he moves his hands apart -- “and now they’re all gushy like they renewed their vows.”

At the start of an outdoor rally in Davenport on Tuesday, they stood onstage together, the former president’s arm draped around his wife’s shoulders. She put her arm around him. After his introduction, Bill Clinton gave her a warm hug and patted her on the back.

Taking the mike, Hillary Clinton seemed to acknowledge what many may have been thinking. Looking at her husband, she said, “We’ve traveled a lot of miles together over the last 35 years.”

In her memoir, Clinton wrote that she was shattered by the Lewinsky revelations, wondering whether the marriage could be salvaged.

In the same book, published four years ago, she also revealed that she is keenly attuned to the symbolism of how she and her husband appear in public.

A detail as innocuous as how far apart they stand can be interpreted as a strain in the marriage, she suggested.

In Iowa, there was no distance between them.

Bill Clinton introduced her at a rally in Waterloo, then wrapped her in a hug, patting her again and again on the side of her white jacket.

Whatever voters concluded about their personal relationship, Bill Clinton, who wore a Hillary Clinton lapel pin on his polo shirt, was a powerful magnet on the stump. Polls show that nearly 90% of Democratic voters have a favorable view of the ex-president.

That kind of popularity meant that campaigning with her husband enabled Hillary Clinton to effectively double the number of personal contacts made with voters at every campaign stop.

After the rallies, she and Bill would sometimes work the rope lines separately. Hillary would be on one side, shaking hands and signing autographs; her husband would work a separate part of the crowd, patiently posing for pictures and shaking hands, his face reddening under the hot Iowa sun.

With familiar energy, he signed every copy of his autobiography that was thrust in front of him, and nudged his wife when he spotted someone in the crowd waving a copy of her book.

When she disappeared from view, he could be overheard asking his security team, “Where’s Hillary?”

Soaked with sweat, Bill Clinton spoke briefly with reporters after he finished marching in the July 4 parade.

He doesn’t miss the scene for himself, he said, but “it’s fun to do it for Hillary.”