First Mates

For Better or for Worse

Why the Clintons will stay married, win or lose.

Read more of Slate’s First Mates series about the marriages of presidential candidates.

When Bill and Hillary Clinton’s friends say they are exactly the same in public and private—well, except for the F-bombs—they tend to mean it literally: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard them talk about anything but politics,” says a friend who has known them since the McGovern campaign. Many a public person seems to feel cozier in crowds, abler at rope lines than at intimacy. But former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta describes the Clintons’ entire existence as the constant forward motion of two people who are “living, eating, drinking, and breathing politics”—to the point that Bill was always trying to line up recreational Democratic meet-and-greets even when he was supposed to be on vacation. “It’s very surreal. You see a lot of drive and ambition” in Washington, of course, “but never like the Clintons, where it’s ceaseless.” Asked whether the president and the senator are at all distinguishable in that regard, Panetta says, “Probably she more than he—she being a human being, after all—it takes a toll on her.” Yet even when the more flesh-and-blood half of the entity known as Theclintons does take a night off, it can turn into a busman’s holiday, as when, according to their biographer Sally Bedell Smith, they spent their 25th anniversary, in October of 2000, at home in Chappaqua, N.Y., watching a Bush-Gore presidential debate. Which is not at all to say that their marriage is the dispassionate alliance some critics take it for: Would you accuse two hard-core philatelists of only being in it for the stamps?

Before she announced that she was in the presidential race to the finish and would march on Denver if it came to that, the big Hillary questions were: Just how mad is she at Mr. Bigmouth? And would she finally throw him out if she lost? But she wasn’t and wouldn’t. In fact, neither of the Clintons has ever thought Bill did anything wrong in this campaign. In their view, any perceived missteps have been wholly manufactured by the media. And the two are never more in sync than when it’s them against the bad guys, which in this case includes the press, the Obama camp, and all former allies who have defected—whose stand-up, “I wanted to tell you myself, Mr. President” phone calls Bill Clinton refuses to take or return. “If anybody should know that changing horses doesn’t mean you didn’t like the person you worked for before, it should be them; they’ve done it enough,” says a Clinton loyalist taken aback by their fury at those who have switched sides. “But what nobody understands is that they’re a two-person wagon train that can circle all by itself. She thinks nobody can defend him better, and he thinks nobody can defend her better.” One of them is even right.

Hillary Clinton certainly propped her rescue ladder up against Bill Clinton’s house on fire and hauled out his 1992 presidential campaign, luring the nation into highly distracting debates about cookie-baking and Tammy Wynette after the Gennifer Flowers story broke. Later, she saved his presidency by blaming allegations that he’d run amok with Monica Lewinsky on a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” And it was she who made it possible for him to serve out his second term: In a dramatic personal appeal to Democrats on Capitol Hill on the day he was impeached by the House of Representatives, she rallied his defenders by presenting herself as “a wife who loves and supports her husband.” But the former president seems to have found that utility as a political helpmate is harder than she made it look—notably when he grinningly compared Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson in comments that were either flatly racial or evidence of an awfully late-onset tin ear. Either way, they wildly overshot the mark and damaged both her candidacy and his legacy as the “first black president.”

“The last thing we would have expected is that her campaign would fail because Bill Clinton became a liability in a Democratic primary. He was supposed to be a strategic genius and an asset on the trail,” says his former press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Instead, his performance has been so startlingly subpar that “[y]ou have to wonder, is he intentionally trying to undermine her? The answer I think probably is yes, but it’s also unconscious.” He both badly wants his wife to win—by some accounts, even more than she herself does—but also can’t seem to help sabotaging her efforts by making himself the issue. Just in the last two weeks, he went off on an anti-war heckler at a rally in Oregon (“Do you want to give the speech?”), accused his own party of a “new strategy of denying and disempowering and disenfranchising” in a speech in Indiana, and managed to revive the fading uproar over Hillary’s invented tale about landing under sniper fire in Bosnia: Hey, she’s 60 and it was late at night when she “misspoke,” the former president said not at all helpfully, suggesting that she’s so old and muddled she might not be sharp and on the case at 3 a.m. He also, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “had one of his famous meltdowns” in a private meeting with donors there. “Red-faced and finger-pointing,” he exploded in the face of a woman who’d murmured during a photo op that she was sorry to hear that James Carville had called Bill Richardson a “Judas” for endorsing Barack Obama. “It was as if someone pulled the pin of a grenade,” a witness to the tirade told the paper. “This was not the Bill Clinton of earlier campaigns.” Immediately after the meeting, the former president called on his fellow Democrats to “chill out” about the race.

But what if this really isn’t the Bill Clinton of earlier campaigns? Myers, for one, sees Hillary as giving her husband a pass—again—in part because of concerns about his health; she suggests that some of the “not presidential and not particularly effective” flashes of Clintonian temper we’ve seen lately might be the Dick Cheney-style cloudbursts of the heart patient Clinton now is. “His health—after a quadruple bypass? After your heart is out of your body for 75 minutes? He doesn’t have the emotional resilience he used to, and he got too emotionally worked up.”

Not only because he’d love to move back into the White House, but because he’s still in awe of his wife, in his way. Though it’s hard to think of a relationship that’s been more pawed over, this is no time to look away from their unorthodox but mutually oxygenating setup, in part because the whole rationale of her candidacy is predicated on her symbiotic relationship with, and experience alongside, her husband.

And his fidelity, or lack of it, has loomed over their public relationship. Hillary has more than implied that no Lewinsky-style dramas will derail her campaign or damage her White House. When asked by a voter whether history might repeat itself with a “business or personal scandal” involving her husband, she did not equivocate: “That’s not going to happen. None of us can predict the future.” But “I’m very confident that will not happen.” After all their years in public life, Hillary Clinton advertises herself as a known quantity—overexposed, if anything.

But the truth is that the press has been running away from Bill Clinton stories for years—to the point that the Obama campaign has even done some not-too-slick whining about it. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote months ago that “at a campaign event in Iowa, one of Obama’s aides plopped down next to me and … wanted to know when reporters would begin to look into Bill Clinton’s postpresidential sex life.” Could be we’ve had more than enough of such reports, particularly after the unhappy spectacle involving Eliot Spitzer, to whom Hillary sent a vanilla-gram of “best wishes and thoughts.” Could be that adultery isn’t what it used to be. While Clinton was still president, on Super Tuesday in 2000, I was with a bunch of other reporters at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas, when somebody came by with word that, hey, some woman in the bar was claiming she’d had an affair with Bill Clinton! And nobody even got up. So all I know is this: Not one of the post-Monica rumors about the guy Maureen Dowd calls Frisky Bill has ever been substantiated. But also this: If Hillary Clinton gets the nomination, we will wind up fully briefed.

An official in the Clinton White House who strongly supports her and is highly skeptical of Obama says that when Hillary promises there won’t be another Bill Clinton sex scandal, that’s not just hope talking. This wasn’t some pro forma assurance, either, or a Scarlett O’Hara-style, we’ll-worry-about-that-another-daysort of remark. No, there’s a reason the candidate feels, as she said, “very confident” on that score: Her husband has been “put on a diet for the last year,” the former Clinton official told me, referring not to cheeseburgers but to women. “And he’s stuck to it, as far as we know.”

In a long, and at times rather loud, interview in her Senate office four years ago, I asked Hillary Clinton whether she might hesitate to run for president to avoid having her private life rummaged through all over again, and she either took offense or pretended to: “I’m never going to get out of scrutiny” in any case, she snapped. “Here you are talking to me, and it never ends.” As things were going so well, I went on and asked her how it was going on the homefront. “It’s the same as it’s been,” she said coolly, drawing out the words, “for 32 or 33 years.” And though she said this in pique, it’s true that the dynamic between the two of them hasn’t varied that much over the decades.

Hillary has often said that she learned about constancy from her own mother, Dorothy Rodham, whose early life was nothing short of tragic. After Dorothy’s parents divorced, she was, at the age of 8, packed off across the country to live with grandparents who didn’t want her, either. She left home to become a nanny when she was only 14—and when her mother finally reached out to her, years later, it turned out that she didn’t really want to reconcile; she hoped Dorothy would come to work as her housekeeper. Though Hillary has disputed reports that the man Dorothy married, her father, Hugh Rodham, was emotionally abusive, as Carl Bernstein wrote in A Woman in Charge, and her mom’s life “painfully demeaning,” her own account of her upbringing in her autobiography, Living History, supplies plenty of evidence that her home life was not, as she chooses to see it, like something out of Father Knows Best:

My father could not stand personal waste. Like so many who grew up in the Depression, his fear of poverty colored his life. My mother rarely bought new clothes, and she and I negotiated with him for weeks for special purchases, like a new dress for the prom. If one of my brothers or I forgot to screw the cap back on the toothpaste tube, my father threw it out the bathroom window. We would have to go outside, even in the snow, to search for it in the evergreen bushes in front of the house. … To this day, I put uneaten olives back in the jar, wrap up the tiniest pieces of cheese and feel guilty when I throw anything away.

She also learned to keep marching, achieving, and upholding standards that no one else even knew about while standing on one foot and denying that anything was amiss—just as she’s done in her own marriage and in her presidential campaign. Smiling her brightest smile, even as she’s most harshly criticized during presidential debates, she sometimes seems as inured to actual insult as she is alive to strategic opportunities for umbrage. Though big-old, huggable Bill Clinton must have looked like just the antidote to her hypercritical, cheapskate dad, it’s funny how often a thing and its opposite wind up at the same damn place. When Bill and Hillary met at Yale Law, she—even more than he—was considered the one with the big political future. Back then, it was Bill who was suspected of ulterior motives in hitching his wagon to Hillary’s star. And after all this time, who can say whether he would have ever made it to the national stage without her—any more than she would have made it without him? After all this time, their well-established MO is to process the political information they live on as a team of two, constantly looking to each other for both the validation and the correction they never fully trust from anyone else. When he was president, Hillary was not what you’d call beloved by his aides, because she regularly took her anger at him out on them, berating his advisers in front of him as a way of getting under her husband’s skin. Yet his aides also had a running joke about how the president felt he had to consult her before rendering any real decision—just as, in her current campaign, she looks to him as to no one else.

Since the death of their mutual friend Diane Blair, no one is more of a confidant to either Clinton than the other—along with their grown daughter, Chelsea, who works for a hedge fund in New York. And though there are many people in their orbit, intimacy does not come easily to either of them: “I am not the sort of person who routinely pours out her deepest feelings, even to her closest friends,” Hillary wrote in her autobiography. “My mother is the same way. We have a tendency to keep our own counsel, and that trait only deepened when I began living my life in the public eye.” Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who first introduced the couple at Yale but who has been disillusioned with them for some time, is one of several former associates who described their current circle as mostly money people: “The world for them tends to be divided between those who are useful to them, financially or politically or both, and those who aren’t. So many of their friends are accordingly very wealthy, and they associate informally with a fairly wide circle of extremely wealthy people.”

Yet though there may be considerable turnover on the Clintons’ Christmas-card list, friends past and present are in near-perfect agreement on what keeps the couple together: Mysterious as they are to us, even now, Bill and Hillary Clinton do get each other, and that is no small thing.

Again and again, what their friends circle back to is that both Bill and Hillary truly believe no one on this earth is smarter than the person they married. Progressive evangelical pastor Tony Campolo, who counseled the Clintons after the Lewinsky affair, says, “They are two people who are perfectly fit for each other; I’m not sure she could be married to anybody else, and I’m not sure he could be married to anybody else. They feed off each other” and get along better than we think. “Everybody knows he has a problem in his personality,” Campolo says, referring to Clinton’s past indiscretions. “And he’s trying to deal with it, and I think he is dealing with it.”

While their union is unconventional, it also remains intense in ways a lot of more traditional marriages just aren’t after 30-plus years. Sally Bedell Smith, who spent three years researching her book on the couple, For Love of Politics, says their relationship still boils down to what Bill Clinton told his mom about why he was marrying Hillary: “I need someone I can talk to.” Barging in on the two of them in the heat of a political discussion is, by some accounts, almost like walking in on another couple having sex. “The one scene that sums it up for me,” Smith says, “is one day in September of 2000, when they had both just given speeches, and she was in the campaign van and he was leaning in and they were staring into each others eyes” in a way that made aides who witnessed the scene wish they were anywhere else. “They were staring into each other’s eyes, and it was described to me as a moment of rapture. It’s always been a different kind of marriage, but if you define your passion in those terms, yeah, it’s there.”

Their friends are split on how aware she ever really let herself be of his philandering over the years. Having developed a high threshold for pain before she ever laid eyes on Bill, Hillary learned from her mother both incredible toughness and coping strategies that mostly involved refusal to acknowledge unpleasantness. During their Arkansas years, one of her ways of sidestepping bad news of all kinds was simply refusing to read the papers. After the Gennifer Flowers story came out during her husband’s ‘92 presidential run, her response, according to Carl Bernstein, was to throw herself into efforts to discredit Flowers and to try to persuade horrified campaign aides to bring out rumors that Poppy Bush had not always been faithful to Barbara. She never so much as cracked open the Starr Report, according to her autobiography.

Strangely, what Hillary seems to have exaggerated about her marriage is not how well they mended it after Monica—but how serious a breach there ever was. Even when strains were visible—or seemed to be, as when they walked to Marine One with Chelsea in between them after the news broke—in private they for the most part seemed inconceivably at ease. So that if there was any posturing for public consumption going on, it was not in the way we might think. At the time, the word put out by Hillaryland was that the president was in the doghouse and had to win her back. But if that was true, his probationary period was over almost before it began. Peter King, the Republican congressman from Long Island who was working closely with Bill Clinton on the Irish peace process at the time, recalls dreading a trip to Moscow and Ireland that he, Sen. Pete Domenici, and Rep. Steny Hoyer were taking with the Clintons right after the post-Monica Martha’s Vineyard vacation that everyone assumed had been a disaster: “We were leaving from Andrews [Air Force Base], and they were coming directly from Martha’s Vineyard, and everybody was kind of nervous because no one knew what to expect. But they came on the plane like the two happiest people in the world, laughing and joking, and it seemed legit. They came holding hands and kidding each other. Steny likes to sleep on the floor on the plane, and she’s joking, ‘They’re going to say we’re sleeping with Steny.’ I’ve seen people trying to pretend everything’s great when it isn’t, and it wasn’t that; it wasn’t forced.”

King voted against Clinton’s impeachment and spoke to him regularly during that period. He says mending fences with his wife seemed like the last thing on the president’s mind. “I had maybe 20 conversations about impeachment and five seconds were about her. He’d say, ‘I’ve gotta work it out with this Senator and that one, and, yeah, with Hillary, too.’ ” Which King took not as evidence that the president didn’t care, but that she didn’t particularly need propping up: “He made it sound like she was being pretty decent about it. I’m not into psychobabble, but whatever complexities they have, it is not an arrangement; they seem to need each other’s reassurance.”

A friend of mine who is a therapist notes that for people who either were raised by a highly critical parent, like Hillary’s dad, or were inappropriately enmeshed in messy grown-up problems, as Bill was, it’s run-of-the-mill to wind up more comfortable in a relationship when triangulating—yes, that was the word she used—with some third party or crusade or common enemy to take the pressure off the primary relationship. At this moment in their lives, they are certainly united in their anger. Though in the past aides found him lighter and her less trusting, he’s grown more like his wife in that regard in recent years.

And in this campaign, they’ve come full circle, with him overreacting to perceived slights and her marching on, head aloft no matter what. Their longtime friend Max Brantley, editor of the alt-weekly Arkansas Times, even gives the press corps backhanded credit for lighting the candles, pouring the champagne, and locking them in the bunker—where they do best together: “My sense is they may be closer than ever. They’re embattled and really haven’t gotten a fair shake in the media, and that’s drawn them together. They’ve made a mistake whining about it—that’s not how the game is played. … But they’re in the Alamo, and it’s a common-purpose kind of thing.”

Should Hillary prevail, of course, Bill will have his restoration and she her turn. Should she lose, they will almost certainly try again in four or eight years. To ask what would keep them together in the absence of a presidential campaign is the wrong question. Because win or lose, the campaign for their dual, inextricably intertwined legacy will never be over. And, win or lose, they’ll fight on together.