After it was all over, I sat down for a chat with Laura D’Andrea Tyson and her husband, Erik Tarloff. They were back in Washington for the inauguration, having recently moved home to Berkeley. I wanted to hear how Tyson, who spent the last four years at the center of the Clinton administration’s economic policy-making team, was readjusting to civilian life in California. I was also curious to find out how Tarloff, a screenwriter who cast himself as a fish-out-of-water Cabinet spouse in a series of comic articles (including a “Diary” from the Democratic National Convention for S
), now felt about his time here. The buzz was that he wanted to go home, but that she didn’t, and that their decision to leave had been a wrenching one. Tarloff, in fact, moved back to Berkeley six months ago so that their 13-year-old son, Elliot, could begin the school year in Berkeley. Tyson stayed on in Washington, rejoining her husband and son just three weeks ago.
Two out of three of them seemed pleased to be home. Elliot, who had never fully adjusted to Washington, is much happier back in California, his parents say. Erik (who, according to legend, is the author of the great episode of All in the Family in which Edith has an orgasm) also misses Washington very little. “There’s a whole level of internal-politics questions that cease to matter,” he says. “And the fact that they did once is almost incredible. That they mattered so much–and one once cared so much, it seems almost childish. Of course, you’re back here three days and you’re caught up in it again.”
Laura, on the other hand, who describes herself as “less laid back than the environment” in Berkeley, is adapting more slowly, despite regular visits to Peet’s Coffee and a cold-turkey break with the Washington Post. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” she says. “When we first started to talk about it, I was resistant about leaving. But over time, as I’ve begun to put together this other life, I’ve realized that I should be able to do more or less what I want to, to continue to be involved in the policies I’ve been involved in.”
While she won’t be working 90-hour weeks anymore, Tyson plans to remain very busy, writing, making speeches, sitting on corporate boards, and resuming her teaching duties at the University of California, Berkeley, beginning in the fall. She also intends to learn how to use the Internet. “Elliot is 13,” she says. “In four years he will go away to college. For these four years, I should be with him more and experience his growing up, and being a family. Then at a later point, I can come back, or do something else in public life that allows me to get some of the enjoyment that I’ve had from this whole experience. I think in four-year increments now.”
Toward the end of their time in Washington, Tarloff was openly chafing, albeit in a humorous vein, about the strain his wife’s career was putting on their marriage. “I probably see somewhat more of her now than I used to,” Tarloff wrote in one of his Washingtonian articles, after his wife moved from being chair of the Council of Economic Advisers to being head of the National Economic Council. “Unfortunately, it’s generally on C-SPAN.” Now his problem is that he no longer has the whole house for his office. “The phone rings a lot. Every time I stepped out of my office, there was Laura in her office on the phone. For no good reason, it began to irk me a little bit that somehow my wife was in my house, working, and on the phone. I’m used to the house being empty during the day.”
In Washington, Tarloff was always good-natured about being the lower-powered member of a power couple. Now that they’re back in California, it seems to bother him a bit more. He marvels that Tyson is in such demand in her field, even though she is the same person she was four years ago. “Prior to all this government service, it was a marriage in which it would be very hard to say who was on top,” Tarloff says. “And now there’s really no question about it.” He jokes that he’s working on a book called I’m With Her, about the husbands of powerful women.
It seems like a good time to change the subject. I ask them both what popular misconceptions they would like to dispel about the Clintons. “Where do you start?” says Tarloff. “I certainly think the notion of what they’re like personally is totally wrong. Every time I’ve dealt with her, she is one of the warmest people I’ve ever met. And people think of her as Madame Defarge.” Tyson says people don’t understand that Bill Clinton makes big decisions on the basis of principle, not politics. Even in the case of the welfare-reform bill, which she urged the president not to sign, she believes Clinton truly believed he was choosing the best alternative. “Think about the Mexican bailout,” she says. “Everyone had very serious concerns. But the president actually never wavered on this, even though the polls were overwhelmingly against it.”
Are people wrong to think the Clintons don’t have much sense of humor? “Clinton loves to laugh, and so does she, and he’s a very good storyteller,” Tarloff says. “I wouldn’t say repartee is his stock in trade.” Working on funny speeches with Clinton for events like the Gridiron dinners, Tarloff says the president showed good comic aptitude. “He’s mastered it as a kind of foreign language,” Tarloff says. “You don’t get the feeling it comes naturally to him, but he’s sort of learned the rules as he’s gone along.”
What about the first lady? “Economists aren’t known for their sense of humor,” says Tyson, diplomatically. This may be true. For my benefit, Tyson tweaks her husband about something she finds funny, that he clearly doesn’t.
“Watch this,” she says. “Next week, Erik, I’m going to go to a board, a foundation, and a speech, all in the same week.”
He groans, and says they’ll have to discuss it after I’m gone. You can take your spouse out of the Cabinet, but it’s somewhat harder, it seems, to take the “cabinet” out of your spouse.