Advertisement

From the Archives: Bill and Hillary’s United State

Bill and Hillary Clinton dance in January 1997.
Bill and Hillary Clinton dance in January 1997.
(Doug Mills / Associated Press)

In 1992, it was Gennifer Flowers. Paula Corbin Jones filed suit in 1994. And now it is Monica Lewinsky, an intern less than half the president’s age, whose alleged affair with him has forced Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton to hunker down and struggle to save his presidency and his place in history.

Not to mention their marriage.

Around kitchen tables and office water coolers, in classrooms, on the Internet and in the bleachers, Americans are pondering the state of the president’s marital union.

Why, if the charges are true, does he keep doing it? Why, if the charges are true, does she stay? What bond holds this couple together and lets them say, with straight faces, that theirs is a solid marriage?

Advertisement

Is it nothing more than an “arrangement"--a loveless, sexless marriage in which Mrs. Clinton accepts the humiliation of her husband’s infidelity in exchange for a seat at the table of power?

Many do not want to believe it. Weren’t the president and first lady just caught by surprise by a photographer as they danced happily on a beach?

In interviews over the years, Mrs. Clinton has said repeatedly that she loves her husband. With broad brush strokes, she paints a picture of a marriage rich with mutual respect, shared visions and playful affection.

Beyond that, she will not go.

Advertisement

“We’ve been married for 22 years,” she told an interviewer for NBC’s “Today” show last week. “And I have learned a long time ago that the only people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it. We know everything there is to know about each other and we understand and accept and love each other.”

::

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, one of Mrs. Clinton’s oldest friends and most vocal political allies, scoffs at the notion that the first lady Clinton has struck a loveless deal with her husband to stay close to power.

“I have to laugh every time I see these people . . . get on national TV and claim that the president and first lady have some sort of arrangement,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. “Obviously, these people haven’t been privy over the last 25 years to the incredible amount of physical affection, verbal jousting, humor, love, pride and excitement that goes back and forth between these two.”

Advertisement

Mrs. Clinton, adds Bloodworth-Thomason, “is not the spurned woman. She’s the woman.”

Marriages, she observes, “are complicated. Men are complicated. I don’t think she has one doubt about who Bill Clinton is madly in love with and has been for all their married life.”

Similar pictures are shared by others close to the Clintons. But for some, whose portrayals come with a demand for anonymity, there is a stronger hint of the union’s inner mechanics.

Asked why Mrs. Clinton endures infidelity--or at least a steady stream of reports of it--one close political advisor painted a portrait of a marriage with everything Americans have come to expect--including the compromise and the disappointment.

Advertisement

“First and foremost, the cornerstone of it is that she loves Bill Clinton very much,” this advisor said. “I firmly believe that. She loves Bill Clinton.

“Two, she knows that he has a wandering eye, and she has come to live with that.

“Three, there’s a strong dose of, ‘We’re doing good things for the country.’ There’s almost a sense of self-righteousness there.

“And finally, there’s, ‘We’ve had problems, but that’s between Bill and me. And that’s nobody else’s business.’ ”

Advertisement

::

Regular Americans, too, are probing these mysteries and struggling to disentangle their confused reactions to them. They deeply dislike adultery, with more than nine out of 10 condemning it as always or almost always wrong. But depending on whom you believe (regular Americans also lie about infidelity), somewhere between 18% and 70% of married Americans admit that they have cheated on a spouse.

Their feelings toward Mrs. Clinton are, to say the least, ambivalent. Roughly half have consistently expressed their admiration. But more than any first lady in recent history, she engenders strong dislike among a substantial minority. One in three tell pollsters they just don’t like her.

In 1992, when then-candidate Bill Clinton was accused of infidelity, Mrs. Clinton courted the scorn of many middle-class Americans (not to mention country-western music fans) when she appeared to deride the venerable tradition of standing by your man.

Advertisement

“I’m not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said.

But then Mrs. Clinton turned around and did just that. And Americans, reared on a diet of advice columns carrying such headlines as “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” appeared to respect her for it. Again and again, if the news accounts and book revelations are to be believed, she has stood by her man and kept their family together.

But always, somewhere in the background, is the suspicion that there is a deal here. Why, both men and women wonder, would she continue to put up with the public humiliation that comes with such charges?

According to a recent CNN poll, 70% of Americans sympathize with the first lady--sympathy, she has made clear, she doesn’t want. Around water coolers, some loudly demand punishment for the offender. But through it all, they wonder about “the arrangement.”

Advertisement

All of this, say psychologists and marriage experts, tells us more about ourselves and our own hopes and fears about the partnership of marriage than about the Clintons’ union. It also tells us about differences in how men and women approach the subjects of marriage and public life.

Finally, it tells us about how the role and stature of women in marriages have changed. And about how they have not.

To those who believe in “the arrangement,” psychologist and couples counselor Shirley P. Glass says: You’re distancing.

“People want to distance themselves from something that is this upsetting,” says Glass, author of the forthcoming book “Treating the Trauma of Infidelity.” “One of the ways to do that is to say, ‘They’re not like me; their marriage is not like my marriage. She couldn’t possibly love him the way I love my spouse, and he couldn’t possibly love her the way my spouse loves me. Because if they are like me, and this could happen to them, then it could happen to me.’ ”

Advertisement

Similar fears also propel the thinking of those who insist that Bill Clinton be punished, says Peggy Vaughan, author of “The Monogamy Myth” (Newmarket Press, 1991).

“It’s primarily their fear and hope that they will be protected from having it happen to them if those who did it get theirs,” says Vaughan.

Vaughan has walked a mile in Mrs. Clinton’s pumps. After she learned of her husband’s seven-year affair, she decided to stay in her marriage. In the early 1980s, she established a national network of support groups and a newsletter to discuss the consequences of marital infidelity.

“Infidelity may not be as big a deal to the Clintons--whether or not it is true--in context of the important role they play in the world and their joint dedication to important causes,” says Vaughan. “They are both highly intelligent. They are both lawyers. They may have an ability to have a deeper love that does not rise and fall merely on sex.”

Advertisement

She adds: “If Hillary isn’t mad at him, we shouldn’t be mad at him on her behalf. She’s big enough to take care of herself.”

::

And how about the argument that feminist pride should have driven Hillary Rodham Clinton out of this marriage years ago?

This one makes Betty Friedan, by all accounts the mother of feminism, really, really grumpy.

Advertisement

Pronouncing herself “outraged” by the furor over Clinton’s alleged misdeeds, Friedan harrumphs that the state of the first marriage should be the last thing on feminists’ minds.

“She’s doing what she should do: standing by her husband, not just because he’s her husband, but because this is a political thing,” says Friedan. “What else would a smart woman do but stand by him?

“It’s nobody’s business,” Friedan adds. “A private life is a private life.”

According to pollster Celinda Lake, women in particular have a growing conviction that the Clintons’ marriage--and the president’s alleged trysts--are none of our business.

Advertisement

“For women, marriage is our personal thing,” says Lake. Because of that, women are more likely to take their cue from how the people directly involved are responding. Again and again in focus groups at which the issue of Bill Clinton’s adultery has come up, Lake says she has heard the refrain:

“If Hillary is OK, we’re OK.”

That feeling is especially strong at a time when women’s economic stature in families has helped right the long-standing imbalance of power between husbands and wives. In 1995, 55% of employed women said they provided half or more of their household’s income, according to a survey conducted by Louis Harris & Associates.

That has given more American women a more powerful say in the arrangement of their marital relations. And it has given more of them the economic freedom to leave a marriage that no longer lives up to their expectations. Today, according to Dalma Heyn, author of “Marriage Shock” (Random House, 1997), two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by wives.

Advertisement

“Women stay now because they want to, not because they have to,” Heyn says.

In the power equation of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s relationship, only Bill is the president of the United States. Yet in these times of trial, she is holding all the cards. As long as she is prepared to live with his weaknesses, a large portion of the American public appears willing to forgive them.

Emotionally, Bill Clinton may well need her now more than ever. Politically, there is no doubt.

“God save him,” says pollster Lake, “if Hillary goes against him.”

Advertisement

So it is that when the president’s political advisors have looked positively shellshocked, Mrs. Clinton has been simply radiant. On the day when Bill Clinton thumped the podium and reddened as he denied the charges against him, she stood beside him in a sunshine-yellow suit, a great new hairstyle and a grace and confidence that set off murmurs of admiration. Around her neck she wore a twisted pearl choker that managed to evoke the glamour of Jacquelyn Kennedy and the solidity of Barbara Bush all at once. She stood closer to her husband than the setup had prescribed and, after his denial, she followed him out the door beaming and clapping.

And the next morning, still wearing her pearl choker and a gracious smile, she told the world, in effect, to butt out.

“She doesn’t feel like a victim. She doesn’t feel like a victim at all,” says Bloodworth-Thomason, who has told reporters before: “They’ll never make her cry in public.”

::

Advertisement

For those who have strongly supported Clinton in the past, independent pollster Ed Sarpolus says there is another powerful reason to accept Mrs. Clinton’s judgment of Bill Clinton’s fitness as a husband: We do not want to believe we could have been so wrong.

“Americans want to believe in the good of a person in whom they have a heavy investment,” says Sarpolus, whose company is headquartered in Michigan. “He is their president; he represents them. He has enjoyed their support. He’s who we are. And we’re all hurt when we hear these things.”

In her bravura public appearances last week Sarpolus said, Hillary Clinton “was telling us, ‘It’s OK to feel good about Bill. I do.’ ”

Mrs. Clinton, says Sarpolus, is like a widow who goes to her husband’s funeral and comforts the mourners who have come to comfort her. And Americans, for now, are returning the favor. They are grateful. They admire her strength.

Advertisement

Increasingly, wives whose husbands are publicly caught in--or charged with--adultery are unapologetic, even in-your-face, about their decisions to stay.

In late 1996, attorney Eileen McGann, wife of Clinton’s disgraced political advisor Dick Morris, lashed out at “press creatures” who pursued reports of her husband’s infidelity, much as Mrs. Clinton has. After helping her husband launch a full-scale public relations campaign, explaining over and over again how strong their marriage was, McGann herself wavered and announced she would seek a divorce. But she has since stepped back from that precipice, and the couple are together again.

Then, too, there was talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford, who stood resolute after her husband was caught by tabloid photographers in the arms of another woman. She issued a statement calling the experience “painful” but asserted flatly: “We will get through this together.” As impeccable as ever, she showed up every day for work and assiduously avoided the issue.

“There is nothing like the incredible bond a couple can feel when they are confronting a public outcry together,” says “Monogamy Myth” author Vaughan. “It feels like you and me against the world.”

Advertisement

But there is another possibility. It may be that these women who, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, have many other personal and professional options, balk at having other people’s expectations of their marriage dictate their own choices.

As McGann is reported to have told the managing editor of Time magazine just hours after her husband’s resignation, “I am an adult.”

That process--by which grown men and women decide whether to stay or go--has become the subject of vigorous debate among Americans since Clinton’s latest alleged transgressions surfaced. In the process, many Americans have come to a stark but simple realization: If the Clintons have an “arrangement,” they are little different from any American couple that sticks together in spite of a million mutual offenses, from leaving dirty socks on the floor to having a wandering eye for the opposite sex.

Advertisement

Marriage, say experts, is always an “arrangement.” It’s just the terms that differ. In these days when “do your own thing” coexists uneasily with a resurgence of “family values,” each married person is responsible for deciding when the arrangement doesn’t work anymore.

Until that time, we think, it is a good thing to stay together.

In a sense, says “Marriage Shock” author Heyn, Americans are assessing their support for Bill Clinton in much the same way. We are, she says, looking at the relationship we have with our president as a package, weighing the behavior we abhor against the performance and the qualities that we admire.

“We are,” says Heyn, “growing up.”

Advertisement

Times staff writers Faye Fiore, Alan C. Miller, Jodi Wilgoren and David Lauter contributed to this story. This article was published in The Times on Feb. 11, 1998.


Advertisement