The bookworm and the Viking

The defiantly dowdy Hillary met a handsome rube from Arkansas named Bill. The rest became a history that still enthralls us.


Tina Brown
June 13, 2003 12:08AM (UTC)

Hillary Clinton's book has revived that old dinner party obsession of the '90s, deconstructing her marriage. The early leak of the Monica pages was either a smart move or a lucky accident. It raised expectations that there might be other confessional scenes of Bill pacing beside the marital bed as he unloads his conscience. These expectations turned out to be false, but they moved product.

It's always puzzled me that any discussion of the Clintons' 30-year union turns polarized and shrill. The publication of "Living History" seems to have done nothing to change that. Hillary haters will never find her version convincing. For those who like her, though, it fills out the clues that were there in the early student photographs.

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When they met, in their Yale Law School days in the '70s, Hillary Rodham was almost defiantly dowdy: Coke-bottle glasses, bushy eyebrows, not a lick of makeup, and a clothes sense that was little short of tragic. In "Living History" Hillary recalls how appalled the false-eyelash-batting Virginia Clinton was when her son brought home this austere fiancée. She had to enlist Bill's stepfather to win his mother round. One can only smile at the con man in slick Bill when (as Hillary describes it) he followed her out of a lecture at Yale and admired "the long flowered skirt" her mother had made her.

Bill Clinton was confident because he was always a hunk. He was a big, tall, ruddy blond -- a Viking, she calls him -- purposefully charming, fizzing with ideas, dazzlingly articulate. One senses the frowning bookworm from the Chicago suburbs couldn't believe he fancied her. And, one might ask, why did he?

Because Bill Clinton was, and still is, wildly impressed by Hillary Rodham.

Thirty years ago he may have been a Viking but he was also a florid rube from Arkansas whose girlfriends tended to have bigger boobs than brains. Hillary was so sure, so smart, so opinionated -- so not Hot Springs. And so unlike his gaudy, flirty, loose-livin' mom. Even before Hillary got to Yale she was a star, giving such a fiery, controversial speech at the Wellesley commencement it landed her on the cover of Life magazine.

By the time he took her off to Arkansas, like a cave man swinging his cave girl over his shoulder, Hillary Rodham was fresh from the staff of the Senate Watergate Committee -- which, at the time, was the absolute, hydrogen-bomb-hot center of the universe if you were a liberal Democrat and a politics junkie like Bill. Watergate wasn't just the flavor of the month, it was the biggest, most exciting political eruption since the early New Deal. It was an orgasm of Democratic wish fulfillment. The only close comparison, hotness-wise, might have been JFK's White House staff a decade earlier, except that not all liberals liked JFK, whereas all liberals despised Nixon.

So for Bill, it must have been a gigantically satisfying, ego-enhancing victory that he could get this fiercely intelligent, ambitious woman to leave everything and everyone, including the nexus of political power and excitement, to come with him to Arkansas -- what? where? -- a backwater, a joke, a place known mainly for ramshackle outhouses with half-moons carved in their doors. What greater proof could there be of both his intellectual charisma and his male magnetism?

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Sometimes in a relationship the first formative insecurities fuse into an indelible imprint and become the DNA of a marriage. Hillary may be a power blonde now but she will always be secretly thrilled that anyone as gorgeous as Bill chose her. (There is a touching ode to his long fingers in the book.) Bill had already been a Rhodes scholar and would rise to the presidency, but he will never stop being in awe that an alpha woman like Hillary chose him. When she got up to speak at a dinner hosted by the former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke two years ago in New York the president watched her with mesmerized, possessive pride. Their marriage has been an ongoing drama of mutual conquest.

In the book Hillary admits that planning her campaign with Bill for the New York Senate race salved the marriage wounds after Monica Lewinsky. Politics has always revived the erotic charge. It's not her fault that Clinton remains a Hot Springs recidivist. Over breakfast his wife may be the most stimulating sparring partner in the world as she cuts up his grapefruit and argues about healthcare (as she told Talk magazine in 1999). But some nights the saxophone wails and Bill's psyche heads to the trashiest trailer park it can find.

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Sexual snobs from the Kennedy era always marveled at the 42nd president's terrible taste in women -- big-haired Gennifer Flowers, skanky Paula Jones, pillowy Monica Lewinsky. But terrible taste is the point. Has Clinton ever been linked to a woman who could remotely threaten Hillary? Washington was full of attractive, Harvard-educated, safely married policy babes who would have been far less embarrassing -- but to Hillary far more dangerous -- diversions. Blue dress or no blue dress, the irony is that if Bill had been arguing deep into the night with Monica about NAFTA, Hillary might have divorced him a long time ago.

To me, the most poignant scene in the book is on the evening in Aug. 17, 1998, when the president is preparing to make a statement to the nation coming clean about Monica. Hillary goes up to the sunroom at the White House where Bill is sitting miserably surrounded by his most trusted advisors -- James Carville, Rahm Emmanuel, Harry and Linda Thomason, et al. -- trying to craft his text. Few of his speeches were written without her input. "I didn't much want to help Bill compose his public statement on a matter that violated my sense of decency and privacy," she writes. "Finally, though, out of habit, maybe curiosity, perhaps love, I went upstairs."

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Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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