The XX Factor

Bill Clinton Has Finally Figured Out First Dudeship

Alongside all the finger pointing about bank failures and the collapse of the US housing bubble has come the slow puncturing of the legend of consequence-free 1990s economic growth. Peter Baker’s fantastic New York Times Magazine piece takes a good, hard look at the maker of that world: Bill Clinton. Like Hanna , I find the portrait both honest and poignant. The meat of the article-which follows Clinton on various travels, speeches, meetings, and duties related to the Clinton foundation-is naturally the substantive, frank, and reflective conversation between Bill and Baker with respect to the Clintonian economy. David Leonhardt, also of the Times , parses the back and forth , wherein Bill admits that he “should have raised more hell about derivatives being unregulated.”

That’s a big concession for a former president who in the past has been fairly prideful about his legacy. But of course, the real story is that, writes Baker, “No one has combined the roles of former president and cabinet spouse before, and the lines are blurry.” He begins the piece by narrating Clinton’s trip to a Peruvian crafts market:

Standing all by himself, the former president of the United States moved his eyes methodically across shelves of wooden carvings, jewelry and sculptures as he searched for something distinctive to bring his wife. “She used to look forward to me coming home from wherever I’ve been,” he mused with a laugh. “Now I’m afraid I’ll be second fiddle to whatever world leader she’s just met.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state, had in fact just returned home from a trip to Mexico, then rushed to the White House to help announce a new war strategy. “I saw her on CNN standing behind the president talking about Afghanistan,” her husband said. “Then she went to Dallas for something. I don’t know why.”

He spotted a turquoise bracelet. “Hillary likes turquoise,” he noted as he fingered the piece.

With all due respect to Linda Hirshman’s desire for more spinach in ladyblogging: What a divine lead.

Sure, the passage tactlessly preys upon dated gender norms (“Bill Clinton likes to shop,” it opens)-poking fun at the supposedly emasculated former leader of the free world. But I’ll forgive this transgression, merely because the imagery so finely evokes a man who is totally enjoying the “stay-at-home” life. (Which is hardly stay-at-home; Bill has just accepted a position as U.N. special envoy to Haiti.)

Reading the scene again, I realized this must be enormously different from the arrangement that the Clintons had in mind when Hillary first began her extraordinary campaign for president of the United States. Rather than campaigning as “two for one”-which they did in 1992, when it was pretty unthinkable that a woman could win higher office-the Hillary Clinton campaign was largely about her: her record, her solutions, her commander-in-chief threshold, her fluency in domestic policy. She kept the “white boys” of Bill’s circle out, and it seems her mistakes were her own. For his part, Bill was used as an effective surrogate in key swing states and remote, blue-collar areas of the country, but (and especially after the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries) allowed the Hillary who’d “found her voice” to shine.

That Hillary ended the campaign with an ability to barn-burn and kiss babes and rile a political base of her own, bigger (or, in the Internet age, at least more quantifiable) than her husband’s. That itself is a remarkable outcome.

But that doesn’t mean Bill wouldn’t have liked another crack at 1600 Pennsylvania. Yet in countless ways, the Secretary of State job has forced the titular “Mellowing of Bill Clinton” and kept the focus on Hillary alone-a good, if bittersweet gift from the president. Having had nearly six months to adjust, the naturally feminist (I await the howls on that one) Bill, who didn’t mind sharing the 1992 ticket with his pioneering wife, suddenly doesn’t seem to mind at all that he’s picking jewelry in Peru.

This is something of an instance of playing against type. The pink-faced “fairy tale” campaign Bill; the defensive “What’d you say about my economy?” Bill; the slavering “Oh, man, do I want another crack at Israel-Palestine” Bill-they are gone. Now, he tells Baker, “If [Hillary] asks, I tell her what I think … And if there’s something that’s going on that I feel that I have a particular knowledge of, I say that.” The boy genius who charmed his way into extraordinary power says this like it were no big deal.

Rather, I imagine, like having your children young so that you can start the Sandals Jamaication as soon as they leave the house.