Thomas: The Clintons' Marriage

If Hillary Clinton wins next November, on the day after she is inaugurated she should put her husband on a plane around the world and tell him not to come back until she's a private citizen again. At least that's what I couldn't help thinking as I read "For Love of Politics," Sally Bedell Smith's new book on the Clintons in the White House during Bill's presidency. Bill Clinton is already a great salesman for America in the world. He loves to travel, he loves crowds, he speaks with empathy and charm. Though by law Mrs. Clinton cannot formally appoint her husband to a federal job, she can make him an informal ambassador plenipotentiary.

She should send him to the Middle East, to Russia, to China, to Europe or South America or Africa or the North Pole—anywhere, just as long as she gets him out of the White House. Given modern communications, even the other side of the world may not be far enough away. It is clear from reading Smith's book (something that all political journalists need to do, and not just skim) that anyone who thinks he's voting just for Hillary on Election Day is naive. The Clintons are a political package, a two-for-one bargain, a duo inextricably intertwined. Judging from the evidence provided by Smith, they are also an unhappily married couple whose relationship would inevitably affect Hillary's judgment and actions. Bill will insist that he will be hands-off, but everything we know about him suggests that he will be meddling at every turn. He loves politics and being the center of attention too much. He will be America's first unelected vice president, also its first unconfirmed secretary of state, unconfirmed secretary of the treasury, etc.

As I read Smith's book I was strongly reminded of a notion I first read about in the Aubrey-Maturin novels by the late Patrick O'Brian. Capt. Aubrey's companion, the shrewd Dr. Maturin, perceived that moral superiority is corrosive in a relationship. It undermines the trust and intimacy that are essential to a good friendship, more so to a good marriage.

Bill Clinton is in almost every way a superior politician to his wife. He is in many ways a better leader. But he is morally inferior, not just because of his philandering but because of his natural inconstancy. The stress of not being able to trust the man she loves has had a strong negative effect on Hillary. It has made her harder, harsher, more brittle, and secretive herself. Certainly that is the way she comes off in Smith's thoroughly reported book.

Senator Clinton has had the good luck to have Barack Obama as her foil for the last nine months. She has been able to look steady, experienced, in control. Obama, by contrast, has seemed soft and, at times, weak or naive. He is, next to Clinton, the "Obambi" of unkind caricature. She is the one tough enough to be president—tough enough to overcome the Democrats' long-standing liability (at least among some voters) of appearing to be the Mommy Party to the GOP's Daddy Party.

But her real relationship is with her true partner, her husband. Next to him she seems less impressive—less warm and captivating than he is, for sure, but also a person whose fierceness betrays an inner hurt. Despite her recent attempts to laugh a lot, she often seems tense and somewhat hostile. The fact that at some level she is mad at her husband and wounded by him—and that she knows he might at any moment get her caught up in some kind of tawdry replay of Monicagate—is inescapable.

It is possible that the portrait of the two Clintons in Smith's book, locked in a tight but angry embrace, is dated and that they've worked out all their problems.

But I doubt it.