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The First: Female President, Male First Lady, Former President in the White House


The second belief about a Clinton revival, gauzily attractive to those who like the Clintons and terrifying to those who don’t, is Bill II: a White House with the former president bustling about, helping his wife to deliver a multilateral foreign policy, more progressive tax rates, and a velvet revolution in health care, correcting the biggest policy catastrophe of Bill I. (A poetic closing of the loop, considering the failure was in fact Hillary’s.) His charm would be the coin of the realm. It would also be her administration’s Achilles’ heel, as it was his, one so wobbly that her administration, like his, would always be haunted by the sense that the other shoe was about to drop.

Certainly a Clinton restoration would effect a return to Democratic principles. But it wouldn’t necessarily effect a return to Clintonism. What this theory ignores is Hillary’s genuine independence from her husband. From 1993 forward, she’s kept a separate and distinct staff—fanatically loyal, tight-lipped, mostly female—making it hard to imagine how he’d fit comfortably into the West Wing. Their leadership styles and characterological differences couldn’t be more distinct: Hillary runs a tight ship and has little tolerance for wiftiness; where he’s inclined to meander, she’s inclined to drill down. She listens better than he does. Yet she’s warier of people than he is. She doesn’t believe that everyone’s susceptible to reason and gentle persuasion. “Her personality is not his personality,” says Leon Panetta, the former California congressman who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. “He walks into a room and melts people, because that’s the way he is. She’ll walk into a room and impress people. So it’ll be interesting to see, How does that dynamic work if they go into the presidency? I think the crunch comes when there is that one issue that, for some reason, doesn’t look like it’s getting anywhere, and she’s taken a tough position. His nature is to believe he can cut a deal with anybody, anywhere, anytime. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily her first instinct.”

Bill’s words for her always run toward similar themes: Think big, and be big, because pettiness can diminish even the most serious candidate. Keep the emphasis on the future.

Particularly during a time of war—which, above all else, makes a comparison between the past and potential Clinton presidencies exceedingly hard. Recently, a Hillary adviser tried to make the case to me that she was more hawkish than her husband, which on the face of it seemed plainly self-serving (No, truly, she’s a wartime president). But the adviser protested, “She believes in good and evil. She really thinks that some people are bad.” When framed this way, the observation isn’t spin; the First Lady’s Manichaean worldview has been well documented since her early days in the White House. And she must be subtly telegraphing this view, somehow, to the world at large: Right now, a cult favorite among sci-fi buffs is a trilogy called Axis of Time, an alternate history set in 2021. The vessel that takes the main characters back in time is a giant aircraft carrier called the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton, so named for “the most uncompromising wartime president in the history of the United States.”

Watching Hillary and Bill these days, one could reasonably come to a strange conclusion: Never has their marriage made so much sense. Her campaign, in its way, suggests she’s more suited to be our chief executive than her husband ever was. Yes, he had all the magnetism. But she runs a far more disciplined operation than he ever did, and she’s running much further ahead in the early primary polls than he ever was. She may periodically deploy her husband as a charm weapon. But what he really is is her wartime consigliere—he’s a brilliant strategizer and tactician—and she’s the general.

One could even go as far as to say that Bill Clinton is already leading the life of an ideal First Lady. His foundation focuses on just the type of causes associated with presidents’ wives—fighting childhood obesity, urban renewal, stemming the spread of poverty and aids—and his most recent book, Giving, about the virtues and pleasures of philanthropy, is a First Lady topic if ever there was one. Certainly, as a candidate’s spouse, Bill is doing a better job at lending a traditional feel to Hillary’s campaign than she ever did to his (or Judith does to Rudolph Giuliani’s, for that matter, or Elizabeth Edwards does to John’s, or Michelle Obama does to Barack’s). Like campaign wives of yore, his approval ratings are considerably higher than hers, and one of his many functions on the trail is to blunt her corrugated edges. In his afterlife, Bill Clinton has become nonpolarizing, almost benign; if you look at recent photographs, you’ll notice he’s almost always off to the side, hands clasped behind his back, head tilted in the traditional posture of feminine fascination, looking on as someone else speaks.

Carl Jung theorized that people don’t become whole until they’ve had a chance to express both the masculine and feminine parts of themselves. And maybe that’s what we’ve been witnessing in the Clintons for the last seven years. Hillary has stopped baking cookies and joined the Armed Services Committee. And Bill, as he notes in his introduction to Giving, got out of the “getting business” of politics and into the nurturing business of philanthropy. “My wife,” he writes, “was my first role model for what it means to be a public servant without public office.”


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