Strange Bedfellow

What Is Hillary’s Deal?

What did the first lady know, and when did she know it?

Last week, I was included in a group of journalists invited by Hillary Clinton for an off-camera but on-the-record “dialogue” about the administration’s plans for celebrating the millennium. This session attracted an unusual amount of interest, because it was the first time the first lady was going to have to face questions from reporters about the sex scandal. As we filed into the Map Room, familiar from the White House coffee videos, we were told that she would entertain questions that didn’t have to do with the millennium toward the end of the hour.

The first lady arrived, dressed in a pale but intense yellow suit, and proceeded to circumnavigate the room and greet everyone. She then sat down at the head of the table and for about 45 minutes explained, with help from a few others, what the White House Millennium Council has planned. It intends to perform a number of good works, mostly historical in nature, such as restoring the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Star Spangled Banner” and conserving the original Declaration of Independence and other documents. At last Helen Thomas of UPI, who had been looking rather agitated, piped up.

“How do you think the president’s bearing up?”

“I think he’s doing very well, Helen,” the first lady responded, a bit awkwardly.

“Is it hard?”

“Well, we’re working on a lot of very important things,” Hillary said. “He’s been spending a lot of time speaking to leaders around the world and consulting with his political and diplomatic and military advisers about the situation in Iraq. And that’s the primary thing on his mind right now.”

T he interview was going nowhere. Although Hillary was prepared to answer tough questions, reporters didn’t seem to have the stomach to ask them–or at least, I didn’t. To interrogate Hillary about the news of the day–a report in the Washington Post that a Secret Service agent had seen Bill and Monica alone together in the Oval Office–would have seemed to add insult to the injury she presumably had suffered at the hands of her husband already. But then someone pitched her a softball that elicited what I think is the most inadvertently revealing thing she has said on the subject to date. Hillary was asked whether she was surprised, and perhaps gratified, by the public’s response to “the situation.” For her complete answer, click.

This answer was most of all revealing for what Hillary, in a lengthy discourse, did not say. In explaining why the American people were supporting her husband despite plausible allegations of a sexual relationship with an intern, and perhaps of a cover-up, she did not claim that it was because her husband had done nothing wrong or that it was because the American people believed his denials. Indeed, the first lady did not even assert that she believed his denials. Rather, she made a version of the point that many pundits have made in recent weeks. The country has thrived under Clinton’s leadership, and the American people are “savvy” enough to weigh–and here the argument remained implicit–his character flaws against his record as president.

T his answer points to something many people have long suspected: that there is a psychological bargain, if not a literal one, involved in Hillary’s continuing to stand by her man. Reading a bit more into her answer, one might understand that she is furious at her husband but stays with him out of respect for what he is capable of, and out of calculated self-interest. In other words, Hillary’s “deal” with her husband may resemble what has emerged as the American public’s deal with him, writ small.

But what struck me during the interview is that for all the speculation, nobody really has any idea what she thinks. Does Hillary Clinton believe her husband’s denials? Does she love him, despise him, or both? Do they have an open marriage in which his extracurricular activity is accepted, or is each new revelation a painful surprise to her? We all project our own views and experiences onto the First Marriage. But there is no indication that anyone, including even close Clinton friends, has any idea what’s inside Hillary’s head. What she knows, and what she thinks, determines whether she is a victim or an accomplice, a long-suffering spouse or a kind of co-conspirator. Remaining an enigma lets her retain the benefit of the doubt. So long as we don’t know, we can’t really judge.

The key question may be not what Hillary knew but when she knew it. She surely is aware that her husband was unfaithful to her before he became president–he admitted as much on national television. She may have thought, however, that she was giving him another chance and that he was promising, in exchange, to do better. It may have come as an awful surprise to her to discover–assuming it is true–that her husband was still screwing around after he was elected. There are degrees of knowledge, of course. Hillary could have known in detail, known in general, not wanted to know, or truly had no idea. And she might not care, be hurt but not surprised, or be deeply hurt and surprised. Here is a grid that expresses the four basic possibilities.

Let’s consider each of these, beginning in the northeast corner and moving clockwise. If she didn’t know that her husband was still fooling around after his election in 1993, but does care, it seems to me she is in the most sympathetic of the available positions. She would be in the same spot as many members of the press and public, who thought that Clinton had made a tacit agreement to quit fooling around for the duration of his presidency, for the sake of common sense if not common decency. On learning that her husband had not lived up to his half of the bargain, Hillary would be very upset. But she would also realize that she couldn’t leave him while he was in the White House, in part because her tenure is co-terminal with his. If she made a mistaken bet that her husband could reform, she is now in the position of a Siamese twin. If his presidency dies, her quasi-co-presidency dies with it.

If, on the other hand, she didn’t know, but also didn’t much care, that would suggest an immoral alliance à la JFK and Jackie. In fact, such a bargain might be deemed much more ruthless in the Clintons’ case, as the wife’s reason for tolerating her husband’s misbehavior would probably be less a desire to keep up decent appearances than a desire to gain and retain power herself. If this is the way it is, Hillary has used her husband for the sake of her own career as much as he has used her to advance his. This wouldn’t leave much ground for sympathy.

If Hillary knew what her husband was up to and didn’t care, her position is even worse. If she knew her husband was going to continue to philander and agreed to help him pretend that he had reformed and become a good husband, she has been a party to a hoax. If accepting a faithless husband was her price of power, as Margaret Talbot recently argued in the New Republic, she would be his accomplice, not only in a fraud on the public but also, perhaps, in what most people would recognize as sexual harassment.

But what if Hillary knew (or at least strongly suspected) that her husband hadn’t changed, and did care? She would be both victim and accomplice–furious at him, yet for reasons of the heart or reasons of power, or both, unwilling to bring him to book. She would be in the morally ambivalent position of the abused spouse, both deserving of sympathy and responsible for her own failure to act. If I had to guess, I’d guess that this is the contradictory position she is actually in. But I repeat: When it comes to what Hillary Clinton thinks, no one really has a clue.

Was Hillary Clinton surprised by the public’s response to “the situation”? Click for her full answer.