Hillary Clinton: The Better Half

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

  • Diana Walker / Time Life Pictures / Getty

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    It is possible, of course, that the false choices of August--Was this pain real, or was it all being staged?--obscured what was in plain sight. For a family braced for invasion, hardened to humiliation and threatened with oblivion, what more natural course than to take a moment of pain they could no longer avoid and try at least to put it to some use? By letting people see enough of the healing process, Hillary could let their imagination do the rest. Maybe it would help. Nothing could make it hurt more than it already did.

    Bill and Hillary had had hard conversations before, but friends of hers put their Martha's Vineyard talks in a category all their own. Up until then, her image was always shaped by his needs; don't be too visible, too feminist, too liberal. But however willing and complicit she was in all her physical and ideological makeovers along the way, the crisis in August went directly to the soul of her identity as a devout, practicing Christian. In the days following his confession, Bill Clinton left her with an excruciating choice. She might want to kill him for what he had done to her and their daughter, refuse to let him get away with it--but she could not do that and still call herself a Christian.

    And so when he raised this very question with her--the question of what it means to be a Christian--it went straight to the most basic requirement: God forgives a great many things, except being unforgiving. This is so much a part of who she is that she effectively had no choice, and they both knew it, and so there followed what several close friends describe as "a lot of Christian talk" between the Methodist First Lady and her Baptist husband.

    It has been said that the difference between Methodists and Baptists is that Methodists are always looking for a mission, while Baptists think they are the mission. Bill Clinton set out to pave a road to personal redemption with apology after apology after apology--all in his fashion, without saying precisely what he had done wrong. Hillary refocused on their life's plan. "Acting on our faith is never easy," she told the Methodist General Conference in 1996. "And it is often a test of our own resolve as much as anything else."


    Maybe Hillary had fought for her husband in January because her reflexes told her to. And maybe she had stood by him after his August testimony because a First Lady does not have the option of tossing her husband's things over the Truman Balcony onto the lawn. But as summer turned to fall, the state of their union was becoming a burning political question. Republicans didn't have to talk up the prospect of his resigning; Democrats were doing it for them. Even his most reliable friend, luck, was giving Bill Clinton a cold shoulder: Saddam was mocking him, Russia was collapsing, and so were the world markets.

    Once back on the job, Hillary found that her every shudder invited scrutiny. There was the way she ignored the President's touch at a speech in Moscow, and the way she charged half a block ahead of him while working a crowd in Ireland. She spent their 23rd anniversary at a women's conference in Bulgaria; he spent it in budget talks at the White House. But the First Couple danced together three times at a state dinner for Vaclav Havel. "Hillary and I, we're doing fine," her husband said.

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