Deciphering the Clinton Marriage

Never mind the man she's married to, Hillary Clinton isn't big on feelings. "Unthinking emotion," she wrote a friend in college, "has always been pitiful to me." In "For Love of Politics," Sally Bedell Smith's new book on Bill and Hillary Clinton's marriage during their White House years, the First Lady is a woman determined not to surrender to emotion, even when her husband and the nation have. While President Clinton idles away an hour hugging his way through a rope line at a Democratic Leadership Council fund-raiser, his wife, backstage, waits patiently to depart. As the president admits on TV to an affair with Monica Lewinsky, the First Lady waits in the White House solarium and greets staffers with a smile. Chelsea, the dutiful daughter, tries hard to mimic mom: "Emotions aren't rational," she tells friends.

Now Senator Clinton is moving toward the Democratic presidential nomination, and emotions have little place in her campaign. Even discussions about her marriage, that gripping, grating psychodrama, come off as cerebral and qualified—when the candidate and her staff choose to have them at all. The Clintons' marriage is important, they say, because it gave her the unparalleled experience of seeing a presidency up close. Except not "up close" in the dynastic sense; Clinton, they say, is an accomplished senator and an independent woman. Except not "independent" in the separate-lives/marriage-of-convenience sense; theirs, they say, is in every way a real marriage. Either way, the Clintonites contend, all that is irrelevant now.

Smith does not agree. A biographer who's written on Pamela Harriman, Princess Diana and Jackie and Jack Kennedy, she has a keen instinct for history made inside of marriages. She knows the irrational is often most important. Her book is narrower than other recent Clinton biographies, which deal with the nuts and bolts of her career, but is perhaps more relevant. Certainly, it is more subversive. Homing in on "the push and pull" between them and their love of politics, Smith presents a story Clinton isn't eager to remember: how her marriage made and then nearly wrecked her career.

Smith's Hillary Clinton wants only to be a public woman, a wonk and a warrior for the Clintons' noble causes. Arriving in the White House, she and her husband make her status clear; staffers call her "the Supreme Court," mindful that the First Lady had the final say. She strives for cool detachment, but her husband's coterie sees the cracks. They are "wimps," she tells them in tirades, men who "don't have balls" and "don't know how to fight." (Neither Clinton talked to Smith.) Quickly, her real target emerges, the president himself. "She knew how to push his buttons," a senior official tells Smith.

The president seeks comfort, often in the wrong places. Smith dispenses with the global do-gooder Bill Clinton of recent years in favor of the old rake known so well in the '90s. He is dazzled by Harriman, his septuagenarian ambassador to France—"seventy-five years old, and she has really nice legs"—and he fiddles with the seating chart at a New York City fund-raiser to sit next to the fawning actress Sharon Stone. Hillary hears talk about alleged infidelities, but takes "refuge in denial," even in the storm of Lewinsky. "She knew intellectually there was a problem, an addiction," a close friend tells Smith, "but she still believed he could never be that insane."

Some of Smith's juiciest material concerns the supporting cast trying to make sense of Hillary and Bill's dynamic. Most intriguing is the portrait of Chelsea, informed by rare reporting inside her circle of friends. Smith's Chelsea is a serious, self-conscious girl who worries over her diet and appearance and struggles in school during the dark days of impeachment. She adopts her parents' worst coping mechanisms, feeling the pressure to be "always grown up." During Monica, "she couldn't say, 'This is awful and I hate you'," one friend tells Smith. "She had her image to preserve."

Senator Clinton's rule—don't compromise goals for the sake of emotion—has served her well in her presidential campaign. So far. But Clinton may still need her feelings yet. Near the end of her time in the White House, the First Lady watched as Rudy Giuliani, her expected opponent in the New York Senate race, dissolved amid personal scandal. "Now I know why he likes opera," Clinton told confidant Sidney Blumenthal. But the opera lover would redeem himself with a passionate performance on 9/11 and now may end up as Clinton's opponent in the general election. In that scenario, the Clinton campaign would work hard to move beyond the "unthinking emotion" that burnished Giuliani's 9/11 image, focusing instead on the mayor's real record. It will not be a simple task. Emotions aren't rational, but they do count.