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TIME: “John Kennedy said that after he was elected, he began to think in terms of who it was he had to have in the room when he made the really big decisions. For him, that was Robert Kennedy. Who is it for you?”
BILL CLINTON: “Hillary.”
With that simple one-word reply in december 1992, Bill Clinton adumbrated the complications that would bedevil his presidency. It showed his intention to expand his election victory—which he won with a mere 43 percent of the vote—to encompass Hillary, as if she had been on the ticket, too. Bill was giving her primacy even above his Vice President, Al Gore, a formidable politician with far greater experience. The President-elect was feeling understandably buoyant, and at such moments he could be incautious, saying more than he intended to. He was Time’s “Man of the Year,” and he was stating what was obvious to him and to Hillary.
Bill and Hillary had been using the first-person plural since his initial run for governor in 1978, when Bill told The New York Times, “Our vote was a vindication of what my wife and I have done and what we hope to do for the state.” They were such a “working unit” in Arkansas that they became known as “Billary”—a term of disparagement as well as admiration. The areas in which they deferred to each other, their private roles, their spheres of political expertise, the way they presented themselves to the public—all these were set during Bill’s long years as governor. So, too, were the habits and rhythms of their marriage: her tolerance of his philandering, for example, and his delegation of responsibilities to her. As in any marriage, each partner had domains of primacy. These arrangements traveled with them during the long campaign of 1992 and into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Bill Clinton’s run for the presidency was a triumph of political skill, luck, intelligence, deception, resilience, and sheer endurance. It was a flawed victory in some crucial respects. His behavior had created doubts about his character, and he antagonized many potential allies. National political reporters were dazzled by Bill and Hillary’s talent but also disillusioned by their apparent disingenuousness and inability to be forthright about themselves and their plans for the presidency. The Clintons were deeply shaken by the scrutiny of the press, an experience that colored their view of Washington and those responsible for telling their story. Bill doubtless would have lost the election without Hillary’s unyielding support when his character was under attack. Her rescue of his candidacy had enormous public consequences, as it made him beholden to her in ways that pervasively influenced his administration’s policies.
When Bill began thinking about running in early 1991, George H. W. Bush’s approval ratings were hovering around 70 percent in the aftermath of the successful Gulf War. But with his sensitive political antennae, Bill picked up softness in that support. It was a time of uncertainty, economic weakness, and anti-incumbent sentiment. Bill was also reaching a point of diminishing returns in Arkansas; John Brummett, a savvy Arkansas political columnist, said Bill had been bored with his job since 1987. When he was reelected in 1990, he had faced stronger opposition than before. “The voters were getting tired of him,” said political analyst Michael Barone. “For the Clintons it was up or out.”
Bill caught some lucky breaks when his strongest potential rivals among moderate Democrats—Tennessee senator Al Gore, New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, and Delaware senator Joseph Biden—decided not to run. The most formidable liberal opponent, New York governor Mario Cuomo, was the favored candidate, but Bill calculated that he could skillfully position himself for the 1996 campaign if Cuomo won the 1992 nomination and lost the general election. Bill got lucky again when Cuomo announced in December 1991 that he would not run, which left a small field of opponents Bill later described as “less than compelling.”
He shrewdly styled himself as a “New Democrat” who could broaden his appeal to include independent voters and Republican moderates by shifting away from the Democratic liberal orthodoxy that had consistently lost elections. As chairman of the Washington-based Democratic Leadership Council since 1990, he advocated ideological flexibility and a smaller but more open government that would provide opportunity for those who assumed responsibility—welfare recipients who took vocational training and found work, for example. Bill was in a sense turning the New Deal legacy around. Franklin Roosevelt had sought to use government regulation to save capitalism from its worst excesses. Bill was advocating a plan to rescue progressive government by using market forces to encourage economic growth.
The whispers about his reputation for womanizing continued, however, and Bill needed Hillary’s steadfast backing to fend off potential assaults. In July 1991, he told her that he had been called by Roger Porter, a Bush Administration official who had jokingly invited him to join the Republican party two years earlier. Bill recounted to his wife that Porter—a “mild-mannered policy wonk” who later taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government—had told him that the Bush White House feared a Clinton candidacy and warned the Arkansas governor to “cut the crap” because the Republicans would “do everything we can to destroy you personally.” Hillary took this threat as the opening shot in a declaration of war and later told the tale to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post as evidence of a concerted effort by the right wing to bring them down. The story became such an article of faith to the couple that Bill repeated a more elaborate version in his own memoir thirteen years later.
But the conversation never happened, according to Porter, who consulted phone logs and his “meticulous diary” to back up his emphatic denial. “Bill Clinton started telling other people about this phone call,” said Porter. “Human beings are interesting. When they tell something enough, they begin to believe it even though it is not true. It was the story about what was behind Hillary’s belief in a vast right-wing conspiracy. A lot of Bill Clinton’s life is moving people by telling stories that help them see things the way he wants them to. If truth is a casualty, it is for a good cause, in his view.”
In his own vivid account, Bill insisted that after their conversation that summer, “I never heard from or saw Roger Porter again until he attended a reception for the White House Fellows when I was President.” In fact, Bill phoned Porter several days after his victory in November 1992 “to talk process.” According to Time magazine’s Dan Goodgame, Bill “quizzed Porter on his 1980 book, Presidential Decision Making,” which recommended setting up a group similar to the National Economic Council—one of the Clinton Administration’s most noteworthy accomplishments. Robert Rubin, the designated head of that council, also received advice about White House operations from Porter—hardly the behavior of an antagonist out to destroy a Clinton presidency.
as bill continued to mull his candidacy, he sought out Henry Cisneros, the former Democratic mayor of San Antonio who several years earlier had disclosed an extramarital affair and later reconciled with his wife out of duty to his family. “You have handled it the right way,” Bill told Cisneros. “You are now bulletproof. Nobody can come back at you.” Recalled Cisneros, “He discussed it as a political problem: I offered a model for how to do it—versus the morality of the situation.”
Late in the summer of 1991, Bill was playing hearts with a group of friends in Little Rock when one of them asked how he would deal with the rumors about his extramarital activities. “Hillary and I have talked about it, and we know how to handle it,” Bill said. “Hillary is very strong. We know what to do.” Early in September, Hillary told Frank Greer and Stan Greenberg, two of their top strategists, that the “pervasiveness” of the rumors posed a danger and that their approach would be “acknowledging that past without confessing to it.” Bill and Hillary thought they defused the issue two weeks later by telling a group of Washington reporters, “Our relationship has not been perfect or free from difficulties, but we feel good about where we are. . . . We intend to be together 30 or 40 years from now.” Shortly afterward, Bill officially entered the race.
In an effort to divert attention from personal matters, Clinton campaign aide George Stephanopoulos memorably said, “Specificity is a character issue this year.” He meant that Bill should be judged on the particulars of his policies, but the description became ironic as Bill’s penchant for hairsplitting and dissembling about his private life emerged as defining flaws. Once, during a debate with former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, a rival moderate, Bill sputtered, “You’re always perfect,” to which Tsongas replied, “Not perfect. But I am honest.”
tsongas’s riposte was one of the few times an opponent got the better of Bill, who was by widespread agreement the most gifted politician of his generation. He was a natural, with all the advantages of an extrovert born in a southern culture that emphasized human drama. Even in his youth, he ran for office so relentlessly that he earned the nickname “Billy Vote Clinton.” He was a rare combination of powerful intellect and animal instinct, a man who loved policy and people in equ...