Long before Barack and Michelle, Bill and Hillary were icons of a political era, a couple who needed no last name to be recognized. America watched with zeal as the Clintons battled through controversy and criticism in the 1990s. Many, however, have not been privy to how this couple met and created a union, nor considered what author William H. Chafe says held them: insecurity and imperfection.
Chafe’s book Bill and Hillary, is a voyeuristic description of a fascinating marriage and political relationship. He writes of the Clinton era as a “co-presidency” and gives readers insight into Hillary as the main force behind Bill’s surprisingly meek personality. This bold investigation into their relationship shows that chemistry may have been the single most important factor shaping their place in politics.
Chafe writes of their inability to communicate and the domino effect that had on not only their marriage but the presidency. Playing off one another’s faults, Hillary defends Bill as he was caught again and again in his sexual affairs. Bill, almost irritatingly weak, responds to Hillary’s forgiveness by giving her more power in his executive decisions than his vice president, creating a tension that reached beyond the White House.
This book is written in a similar fashion to a coming-of-age novel. Brief backgrounds of their childhoods are given, then we dive immediately into Bill’s first moral dilemma over the Vietnam War as a young Rhodes Scholar. The pattern of his crippling insecurity over making his own decisions becomes even more evident throughout the book, highlighting both his faults and strengths as a leader. Hillary, on the other hand, is described as closed and emotionally cut off from others. As a couple, their passions flare in fight-or-flight responses to one another’s actions. Hillary had her own controversies: Known as difficult to work with and even more difficult to reason with, she resisted criticism with powerful persistence. Chafe writes, “Hillary was the only person in the White House that people were afraid of.”
Chafe also describes Bill as “uncontrollable,” except by Hillary: “For nearly two decades—when their relationship was intact—the person most able to strike that balance had been Hillary. Arguably, she alone had the power and the ability to control Bill.” No matter how damaging it would be to his political career, Bill would bow to his wife’s commands only after he was caught, making it seem as if he were begging to be caught and that she enjoyed this power over him.
As the reader journeys towards the end of the book (it stops in 2000—before Hillary) and the climax of the Clinton presidency—the Lewinsky scandal—Chafe flips a switch to a calm conclusion. After two decades of fighting, lying and running away from his actions, Bill admits his wrongs publicly, and Hillary goes through her own epiphany of self-awareness.
From Kenneth Starr to healthcare, Chafe very purposefully lays out all the personal and professional faults of Bill and Hillary. Any mention of peace between Bill and Hillary in this book has a sense of doom lurking beneath it, and the reader comes out of each chapter exhausted, but dying to know more. Through the actions of the Clintons and the proof of their career successes, Chafe is able to create evidence of how the most basic human emotions—love, anger and passion—can influence the rise, crashing fall and amazing comebacks of the most powerful players in modern politics.