Hillary Clinton: The Better Half

During her husband's greatest crisis, Hillary has come into her own

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Diana Walker / Time Life Pictures / Getty

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Throughout Hillary's public life, people have looked at these moments, and at her whole partnership with Bill Clinton, with a jaded eye. As far back as 1992, when the couple emerged as a unique partnership in American politics, more than half of those surveyed thought the union was some kind of stock swap; only 22% thought it was a "real marriage," according to a poll done for Vanity Fair. But critics who dismiss her as a faux feminist, someone who craved power and got it the old-fashioned way--by marrying it--miss the point: she didn't need to. At Yale Law School, it was Hillary who was the star, not the husky, glad-handing boy from Arkansas. Her classmates were struck by her fervor to go out and do good, a specific Methodist view of her life as a chance to express her gratitude by serving others. So when she left Washington in 1974 to join Bill Clinton in Arkansas, she probably thought the move was only temporary; he was, after all, already running for Congress.

She maintained her Washington profile, lobbying for children's issues, serving as chairwoman for the legal-services corporation, enjoying a dual life right up until the day it helped cost Governor Clinton his job in 1980. Arkansas voters had had it with the charming, unfocused boy Governor who stayed up all night playing pinball in the basement of the Governor's mansion. And what was that business of his wife's keeping her name? Bill lost to Frank White, a savings-and-loan executive who acted grown- up and had a very shiny, inseparable spouse.

It was Hillary Rodham--soon calling herself Hillary Clinton--who understood the price that would have to be paid. She scraped off the identity she had forged, began applying makeup, bleached her hair, fired Clinton's operatives and recruited Dick Morris to help run an operation that would bear Hillary's stamp of decisiveness and discipline. "She kind of pegged [her husband] as a woolly-headed dreamer who would get killed in the world of practical politics," Morris says. "She acquired a role as his guardian."

Here enters for the first time the Lady Macbeth view of Hillary that has followed her since. But to assume all her efforts were designed to save his job misses the point that she also had to save her marriage. It was at just this time that the rumors of Bill's affairs were rampant, the days when Clinton, according to his masterly biographer David Maraniss, would soothe his 1-year-old daughter with the lullaby, "I want a div-or-or-or-orce." Once Clinton acquired his reputation as a serial philanderer, the questions about the marriage took a very pointed turn: Was she his co-conspirator, who kept cleaning up after him because she was so intent on holding on to her power? Or was she the ultimate family-values conservative, holding her family together for better or worse and in denial about how much worse it could be?

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