Wednesday, Aug 19, 1998 4:16 PM UTC

He should stay

The pundits blather about Hillary's "humiliation," but she would only be disgraced if her husband were forced out of office.

This year’s family vacation was women and children only. Where were the
men? Saving lives, crunching numbers, hiking the Alps, resisting child support while brandishing girlfriends who look like Christie Brinkley. As the lake-grubby kids built blanket forts at one end of the log cabin, the wives and ex-wives watched the
flaring, badly built barbecue fire and talked not about fidelity but about realism. Our reaction to the Starr investigation and President Clinton’s impending testimony could be summed up thus: Who doesn’t think that powerful men get blow jobs?

Now that the president has admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky and asked to get this behind him on national television, it’s stunning how quickly everyone from the indignant morality police to the Clinton family’s spiritual advisor are rushing to characterize Hillary Rodham Clinton. In Monday’s Salon, Arianna Huffington pitied the first lady as a victim of presidential abuse. And in Tuesday’s New York Times, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told us the president feels “embarrassed” while the first lady feels “humiliated.” Why is it that everyone thinks they know how Hillary should feel?

What did I feel when my husband was cheating on me? Well, desperate to believe his lies, at first, and later, desperate for him to admit the truth. If he would just tell me the truth, I thought, at least I wouldn’t feel crazy anymore. But I knew that even a sincere, contrite apology (which I never got, and I’m no longer married to that man) was useless against the hemorrhage of my trust in my husband’s concern for my feelings. Simply put, the deeds had been done, and nothing would ever erase my knowledge of them.

But that was my private experience of the great flaw in my marriage. In public, I had no desire to play the role of martyr and I likewise bristle whenever I hear some blowhard on TV declare that Hillary now wears the mantle of humiliated wife, wronged wife, unknowing victim. I’m also astounded at the vocal Americans — mostly men, it seems — who have somehow cast themselves in a wifely role, like the poor dope in one of the networks’ incessant interview segments who said, “Well, that might be enough of an apology for Hillary, but it’s not enough for me.”

Marriage is a slippery slope, and all of us who are married make deals of one kind or another. We vow to accept each other as the flawed human beings that we are, and we trade off companionship for bacheloresque sloppiness and poor task resolution, neurotic solitude for parenting partnership and the ability to get a decent barbecue fire going. The Clintons, it is clear, are no different from any of the rest of us, except for having chosen to conduct their family life under the intense scrutiny of the American voting public. (But they never agreed to subject themselves to the endless snooping of Ken Starr.) For more than two decades they have maintained a partnership that works for them, and their trade-offs are, as Clinton pointed out Monday night, their own business.

To suggest that the president should now leave office for “humiliating his wife and his family” is ludicrous. Surely this is the punishment the morality police wish on Clinton, but how would it benefit Mrs. Clinton or Chelsea or the nation? Whatever the implicit or explicit deal that she has made with her husband and his habit of philandering, she made it long ago and has stuck with it by her own choice — and it was not just her strategic brilliance and her counsel but also her loyalty that proved essential to getting Bill Clinton into the White House. Now that they are there, Hillary has the political authority to champion the causes most important to her, a role that would be instantly downgraded if her husband left office. While Hillary is first lady, she has the opportunity to rise above the label of “wronged wife” and help to repair the damage wrought to her husband’s presidency — a role she has never shirked in the past, and one that it is unrealistic to assume she would now reject. She would only feel true “humiliation” if the Clintons were forced to give up and concede defeat to Starr and their other political enemies.

“What are we telling the next generation of women?” asked Wendy Wasserstein in the New York Times after seeing Hillary at a recent Democratic fund-raiser. Though Wasserstein conceded that Mrs. Clinton was equipped with “the good kind of strength and dignity,” she fretted about the message conveyed by Hillary’s marital loyalty. I simply don’t share the concern of Wasserstein, who is neither married nor a mother. What Hillary is telling the next generation of women, including her own daughter, is that your sense of self-worth does not have to be dependent on a man. Yes, maybe Chelsea needs to hear also that Dad has a self-destructive streak, but the message Chelsea is getting from her strong, dignified, smart mother is that — even privately, perhaps even more so privately — sex and marriage are political, and maybe our American sexual values are archaic if they don’t admit the possibility of a resilient marriage that survives infidelity.

So how, privately, does a president’s wife cope with her husband’s public admission of adultery, dishonesty, selfishness, poor judgment? If she were Frangois Mitterand’s wife, she’d show up at her husband’s state funeral with the kids and stand, poised and composed, next to her late husband’s mistress and the daughter from that union. But this is America, land of the free and home of those sanctimonious enough to cast the first stone, and we
just don’t do things that way here.

The way we do things, we American wives, is by relative assessments, a sort of marital triage, and once you’ve decided whether he’s a good-enough father and a good-enough companion, it’s up to you to decide whether you can live with the hole that’s left where your trust used to be. So while America’s professional blatherers put their brains on mute when the president said, “I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes,” somewhere out of camera range Hillary was hanging on her husband’s words. That was the vow all of us wronged wives want to hear, though we know in our hearts there is nothing, really, that he or anyone — save for ourselves — can do about it.