Can this marriage be saved?

The latest White House firestorm is certainly testing Hillary Clinton's resolve to stand by her man.

Published January 23, 1998 11:55AM (EST)

Six years ago, when Bill Clinton's presidential bid was rocked by the first "bimbo eruption," the Gennifer Flowers allegations, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who responded first, saving his campaign with her passionate defense of their marriage. "That's an issue [faithfulness] that we are very comfortable with in our marriage," she said on the eve of the 1992 New Hampshire primary. "We love each other. We support each other ... We've stood by each other through thick and thin."

Wednesday, while the president awkwardly struggled to make his denial of the latest bimbo explosion, the Monica Lewinsky affair, stronger and more convincing as the day wore on, Hillary Clinton again stood by her husband, saying emphatically that she believed the latest allegations were false and politically motivated. But this latest controversy, involving a woman not much older than the first couple's daughter who worked in their home, may be the ultimate test of the Clintons' relationship.

Can this marriage be saved? Even if Kenneth Starr fails to dig up proof of adultery and perjury in the Oval Office, will the strain of battling through one more public scandal be enough to destroy the first marriage? Salon canvassed a range of Clinton intimates, observers and psychologists for their views of whether the Clintons will survive the latest barrage of media scrutiny and allegations.

The sheer number of stories about President Clinton's alleged womanizing over the years has led some to wonder whether the Clintons might have an "open" marriage.

"No, I don't really think so, and if they do, it's not formalized," said longtime Clinton observer
Meredith Oakley, a political columnist at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and
author of "On the Make: The Rise of Bill Clinton" (Regency). "I think
periodically (Bill and Hillary) butt heads. I think periodically she says, 'Enough,
fellow, we've got to correct this situation.' She is not a silent partner
in this marriage."

Another source familiar with the Clintons since their days in Arkansas politics, who spoke with Salon on
the condition of anonymity, agreed that the couple does not have an open
arrangement. "I don't think she's given him permission to stray, no," the
source told Salon. "I think [Hillary Clinton] is generally a conventional,
middle-class woman. I think she's tolerated a lot and forgiven a lot, but I
think she's concluded that comes with the package -- that Bill Clinton is
such an extraordinary person that she has to forgive him some things."

Some observers say Clinton's philandering is such a reckless and chronic part of his life that it must be characterized as pathological. David Brock, author of "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham" (Free Press), has asserted that Clinton "is a sex addict."

Salon's source in Arkansas said the long history of allegations about Clinton have raised similar questions in his mind. "Rumors about the president's affairs have been circulating for so long,
and have been so persistent, that most people would say that Bill Clinton has, in the past, been indiscreet. People here felt that [his
philandering] was a flaw, but not a fatal flaw." Now, in the wake of the latest scandal, added the source, "the Clintons are going to have to sit down and talk to Chelsea like a grown-up. If he did this, then he's a sex addict and they have to tell her that daddy is a sick man. If he is a sex addict, then it's like he's an alcoholic. His promises aren't worth a shit. He'll whip it out even if it brings the world down."

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But experts such as prominent San Francisco psychologist Lillian Rubin insist that Clinton's dalliances should not be considered a sexual pathology. "This is very speculative, of course, but I believe that with men like Clinton, it has more to do with power than with sex -- not so much power over women as affirming the power of his existence, making him feel whole, manly. And in that context, it is more readily accomplished with women who are his inferiors."

Feminist author bell hooks feels that the Clintons enjoy a solid, progressive marriage -- but one in which sex is beside the point. "Nobody understands that women can feel relieved sometimes when their husband is fucking someone else. It's hard to satisfy men with big egos. But there's no way that Hillary could come out and say, 'I don't care that Bill is fucking someone else. Sex is not the way we prove our commitment.'

"In terms of their relationship, they are the most progressive couple we've ever had in the White House. People want to make them pay for that. It would be the most positive thing for our culture if we respected the love between Hillary and her man. We need a love ethic at the seat of power. And these two people do seem to deeply care about one another. So in that way they are better role models than any previous couple in the White House. Their relationship is based on respect and love. Not necessarily on sex. People hate that."

The anonymous Arkansas source agreed that the Clintons' marriage was for real. "Everyone I know who is close to the Clintons describe them as passionate about
each other. I think they have been in it for the long haul together. They are very unusual people. They are brilliant. They are interested in a lot of the same things. And they are passionately committed to each other."

In a conversation last year with Salon, David Brock recalled that everyone he interviewed for his book who knew the young Clintons when they were students at Yale Law School in the 1970s believed Hillary was very much in love with Bill. As their marriage progressed, he added, "There seem to be these periods in '81 and '82, and again in '88 and '89, when there is consideration by one or both of them of divorce, and then (Hillary) reenters the marriage." Still, Brock conceded, "You talk to people even today who say, if you look at her, if you look at the way she looks at him ... she's still in love with him."

Columnist Meredith Oakley adds, "He needs her, he needs the strength that she offers, he needs the focus that she offers. Because he can go off on tangents. And when he goes too far astray, when he gets his mind or attention off the gold, she pulls him back in line. He relies on her very much to keep him on the track, on the path that they're following. I think she is, in some respects, a source of inner strength, because he knows regardless she's going to be there.

"Whatever you think of them, you have to admire the fact that they both seem to hang in there. Theirs has lasted longer than many, many marriages -- in fact, longer than most marriages that I'm aware of."

Oakley believes that Hillary Clinton may have overlooked her husband's sexual peccadilloes because he brought her closer to power. "He has brought her things that she could not have accomplished on her own. He had the power that she wanted but could not get, because the times were not right for her. She was not going to be president. In fact, Hillary is not even cut out for elective politics because she doesn't like having to be accountable to people. She would make a good dictator, but she'd be lousy if you elected her to an office. She wouldn't abide the news media and things like that.

"So there were places Bill could take her that she couldn't go herself, and that was the White House. He could put her in a position to accomplish the things she wanted to, like the children's issues, health-care reform and so on. He could put her in a position to have influence and she couldn't get that on her own. It's a man's world and she had finally accepted that he might be president but she would not."

In psychologist Rubin's estimation, Hillary Clinton has "made a deal with the devil. It's something like women who put up with violence. She is a person who wanted to be president and knew she couldn't be. He's charming enough and bright enough that she's hung in with him."

But, adds Rubin, who is the author of "The Transcendent Child," Clinton's reckless behavior has now brought the Clintons' successful political merger to the brink of disaster. "He obviously has some kind of compulsion to self-destruct, or at least to push the edge of the envelope. It's something he's done his whole life. He's gotten away with so much in terms of the character issue, he lives on the edge the whole time.

"If I were to diagnose him, I would say he has a quintessential narcissistic personality disorder -- he swings from the grandiose to a little boy incapable of protecting his mother and himself. He also shows many of the worst qualities of the child of an alcoholic. In clinical practice, you see that male children of alcoholic families seem unable to fully commit to any woman, they are often very ambivalent about their relationships with women."

As the Monica Lewinsky controversy continues to rage, the question on many Clinton observers' minds is whether the marriage will survive the firestorm.

"They've made it through crises in the past and I know they have
extraordinary love for each other," said Gene Lyons, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "But love is based on respect, and if he did this, then she's got to lose respect for him. But I don't think she believes it right now."

"I think Hillary will accommodate," predicted Oakley. "What's she going to do, pack up her bags and move back in with Mama at the condo?"

But others aren't so sure that the president's alleged affair with Lewinsky won't be the beginning of the end of their marriage.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they divorce after he leaves office," said Rubin.

By Camille Peri

Camille Peri is the editor of Mothers Who Think.

MORE FROM Camille Peri

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Coupling Divorce Hillary Rodham Clinton Infidelity White House