I tried to watch John McCain as he made his victory speech last week, but really, I couldn't take my eyes off his wife. So thin, so blond, so beautiful in her swept-up hairdo—my husband, slouched on the couch next to me, muttered something along the lines of, "She is not ugly." I had to agree. Also, she played her part beautifully. She knew when to step out of the frame and give the stage over to her husband. "I think the American people truly still want a traditional family in the White House," she told The Arizona Republic last year. Cindy McCain is a grown-up woman who has suffered her share of personal and marital setbacks—including an addiction to prescription painkillers that she hid from her husband—but she knows that what America wants in a First Marriage is something more mythic than real. Like my 4-year-old daughter, deep into the second year of her infatuation with the Disney princesses, people want to believe that "husband" and "prince" are synonyms.
Hillary suffers at the hands of her critics, in part, because we all know her husband is no prince and her marriage is no fairy tale. Bill is a reckless philanderer who disrespected his wife, his daughter and the people who elected him because he couldn't control his libido—and then lied about it. Much of the hesitance I hear about Hillary in my (admittedly small) circles is a hesitance over seeing that marriage (say it in irritated italics) back in the White House for four or eight more years. Who hasn't played the snarky but fashionable parlor game "What's up with the Clintons?" (I have.) Do they still love each other? Do they ever have sex? Critiquing the Clinton marriage is a favorite pastime of pundits, too. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times has derided the Clintons for having a "warped marriage" and chided them for living too much apart. More recently, when Bill was obnoxiously campaigning for his wife in South Carolina, Gail Collins, also of the Times, called for Hillary to push Bill into the background. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post accused Hillary of being a "creature" of her husband, while other columnists fretted that she couldn't "control" him.
To be fair, Hillary has encouraged this endless dissection of her marriage because she seems to want it both ways: she wants to run and win as her own woman and she wants to offer her years as First Spouse as "experience." She wants her impossible husband to be always an asset but never a liability. At the same time, I confess to a certain amount of unease when I hear that party game starting up yet again. In her introduction to "For Love of Politics," an exhaustive account of the Clinton marriage during the White House years, Sally Bedell Smith reminds us that "questions endure about whether the Clintons love each other in the way of most happily married couples." What a high-handed thing for any married person to say! What "way" is that? Is it best friends forever? Hot sex five times a week? Soulmates? Business partners? It's tempting to hold the Clintons—or any aspirants to the White House—up to some marital ideal, but, really, who among us could pass that test?
Marriage is a messy, intimate business and the Clintons have had the misfortune—admittedly, of their own creation—of having to make that mess in public. We have no idea what the Clinton marriage is made of, just as we have no idea what the Obamas or the McCains or our parents or our friends say or do in private. We know that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce and that a great many people experience the pain of infidelity and other kinds of betrayal. Hillary has been remarkably consistent in her comments about her flawed marriage: "[We have] a deep connection that transcends whatever happens," she told Talk magazine in 1999. There may be a million reasons not to vote for Hillary, but the quality of her marriage is not one of them. As Charlotte Lucas says in "Pride and Prejudice," after she makes a chillingly pragmatic union, "Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance." She might also have said that one woman's frog is another one's prince—or that the glossy illusion of perfection does not insulate any marriage against inevitable struggle. She might have added that the only people who know the truth about a marriage are the two people who are in it—but she didn't. Hillary said that.