Hillary Clinton: The Better Half

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

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    But with those defeats, Hillary also began to accept what Dolley Madison and Lady Bird Johnson had taken for granted, and what Eleanor Roosevelt must have told her when the two communed. As her former chief of staff Maggie Williams put it, "One of the things she's learned about being First Lady is, it's not just about doing, it's about being a symbol." Whatever judgments voters were asked to make about the flaws they would tolerate in a reckless politician whose leadership they valued, she mirrored in her own decisions about a faithless husband whom she loved. She was his salesman, but also our surrogate.

    In a sense, it has been ever thus: the history of the Clinton presidency is and always has been the history of the Clinton marriage, which is why the distinction between public and private in this presidency has always been messy. From the start their union was a vessel not only of love but of ambition, a shortcut for two stars in a hurry to reach heaven. She signed on to be wife and business partner in the hope that they could have great fun and do great things by pooling her discipline, his charisma, her vision, his guts. And there was always the risk that if one stumbled, it would bring down the other too.

    So it should be no surprise that as the presidency is teetering, people are quick to look for hints that the marriage is too. Those who have socialized with them in recent months see signs both that healing is under way and that it will be a very long, steep climb. The President shows a new tentativeness when he is with his wife, looking to see if she thinks a joke is funny before he laughs, and for the first time deferring to her choice in what movies they select, watching fewer car chases and more dramas. Where she used to have to nag him to get his sleep, the night-owl President can now be persuaded to retire when his up-with-the-birds wife is ready.

    Their moments of open affection, when they happen, now have a sepia tone to them. "Flashbacks" is what one friend calls them, because they are brought on by a Christmas carol they both love or a recollection of a long-ago vacation. But those close to them also find reassurance in the fact that they talk of their future together in very concrete terms, musing aloud about where they might live and whether either might land a job that comes with a plane.


    There was some justice in the fact that Hillary saved her husband time and again, since her actions helped sow his troubles in the first place. She did not make him a philanderer, though even her allies argue about whether she may have enabled it. But she did help create the atmosphere that swallowed him whole this year. Until Monica Lewinsky came along, it was always Hillary who was Starr's prime target: Hillary whose fingerprints were all over Travelgate, whose resistance to releasing any documents or answering any questions helped make Whitewater a four-year saga rather than a two-day story, who opposed settling the Paula Jones case and making all those prying lawyers go away.

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