Anthropologist Margaret Mead, a popular professor during my years at Yale in the late 1960’s, frequently challenged students with her famous formulation that “the biggest problem for any society is to try to decide what on earth to do with its men.”
Biology dictates a clear, crucial and inevitable role for women, focusing their energies on childbearing and raising the next generation. For males, however, culture must come up with some arbitrary, artificial but carefully constructed assignment to channel their considerable energies into constructive efforts.
Along the same lines, the biggest problem for the current Hillary-for-President juggernaut is trying to decide what on earth to do with Bill.
The campaign itself dictates a clear, crucial and inevitable role for the candidate herself, but for her peripatetic husband the cunning strategists must come up with some arbitrary, artificial but carefully constructed assignment to channel his considerable energies into constructive efforts.
Unless Senator Clinton and her handlers manage some deft solution to their on-going Bill dilemma (can we call it a Bill-emma?) the former First Lady easily could fail in her drive for the White House. Though many pundits and prognosticators talked about the formidable obstacles confronting her campaign (her unhesitating vote to authorize the Iraq war, her stiff and off-putting public demeanor, her reputation as a shrill liberal ideologue) they generally refused to focus on the obvious, unavoidable problem presented by her husband. In general, Americans know far more about her troubled marriage than they do about her positions on energy independence or the Iranian nuclear threat. They also like Bill (for all his faults) far more than they like her: he remains a phenomenally engaging, fascinating and beloved public figure, while respondents in national surveys give her the highest negative ratings of any major candidate for 2008.
In planning their relentless, unstoppable drive to the White House, Hillary’s lieutenants face six basic strategies for dealing with their Bill-emma, ranging from the conventional to the fanciful to the unthinkable (but we’ll think about it anyway).
Those options are:
Option 1: Ask Him to Accompany Her on Major Campaign Trips Like a Loving, Dutiful Spouse.
For several reasons, this won’t work.
Most obviously, the former President would upstage his wife at every rally and joint appearance, making her look bad and getting her furious. He is a natural, often spell-binding, incomparably charismatic speaker who forms a deep, visceral connection with both small groups and large crowds. She, on the other hand, seems stilted and awkward; she never looks like she enjoys retail politics the way he does. Anyone who’s been in the same room with both of them can tell you that every woman in the crowd will gravitate toward Bill, while every male will gravitate toward…Bill. It’s not a Broke-Back Billy sort of thing, either: it’s just that he’s warmer, more electrifying, more intriguing than she is. The fact that he’s a former two-term President, a monument to recent history, only adds to his appeal and makes her look less significant by comparison.
Hillary and her staff understand that problem, and they want to avoid occasions like a much discussed recent launch of her Senate re-election campaign. Bill wanted to introduce his wife and couldn’t be talked out of the proposition, so he took the stage and then spoke about himself and his activities as a globe-trotting ex-President for 45 minutes, without notes, mentioned her name only at the very conclusion of his remarks when he finally introduced, “Your U.S. Senator, and the most wonderful wife and mother in the world...”
This most-wonderful-wife then came up to the podium and read her uninspired remarks for twenty minutes before the eager, panting crowd got a chance to swarm her husband, asking for autographs and a moment of contact with the Great Man.
For more than thirty years, the lady has been upstaged by the Big Lug and she wants with all her heart to break the pattern. Note Bill’s absence and virtual silence during the bally-hooed launch of her Presidential campaign. Unlike the top-flight attorney Elizabeth Edwards, or, presumably, Michelle Robinson Obama (who’s reputedly an even smarter, more successful lawyer than Hillary ever was), Bill won’t be standing behind his spouse, beaming with adulation. Aside from the constant danger of upstaging her, his very presence would remind people that Hillary’s main claim to national political stature involves her complicated marriage to this complicated guy. That’s not a message her managers need or want to reinforce.
Option 2: Send Him Out to Campaign Separately, Covering States and Communities that Hillary (and her ultimate running mate) Won’t Reach.
As they say in Hillary’s adopted home state: “Fuhgettaboutit!”
The risks of him upstaging her are even more pronounced if he travels separately. Who do you think would draw bigger, more adoring crowds?
And if she’s not by his side, there is simply no controlling him: he will succumb repeatedly to the irresistible temptation to make the evening news with unscripted comments (even if he resists more elemental temptations along the way). If Bill operates on his own and generates independent headlines, it only underscores uncomfortable questions about his potential White House role. It’s hard to imagine he’d feel satisfied by merely planning state dinners, supervising redecorating, and hosting the annual Easter Egg roll.
Option 3: Send Him on a Round-the-World Good Will Tour
It sounds like a joke, but veteran Clintonistas insist it’s a serious possibility. Hillary would declare (in her convention acceptance speech, if not before) that America’s popularity and prestige has sunk so disastrously under Bush that she can’t wait to begin the process of rebuilding our international stature. Therefore, she’s dispatching her significant other to meet with world leaders and huge, adoring crowds from Berlin to Beijing. One salient advantage of this plan: Bill would love it. He’s told many friends that the “love baths” he receives whenever he travels abroad make him feel uplifted and invigorated. While speaking in Latin America, Australia, Nairobi, Nepal, and Antarctica (just think of the cute, adoring penguins!) he can probably limit himself to patriotic bromides about the traditional goodness and decency of the American people, briefly interrupted by the “brutal nightmare” of the Bush administration, but now preparing for a triumphant return with the longed-for Clinton Restoration. All right, he may not really speak in Antarctica, but everywhere else he’ll draw overwhelming responses.
Option 4: Keep Him Home and Out of the Spotlight Because He’s Sick
Many of Hillary’s advisors seem to prefer this alternative: it’s obviously the safest course when it comes to dealing with the ex-President. After all, he’s had open heart surgery and his frail health (he does look notably less robust than he did when he left the White House) would provide the perfect excuse for keeping him out of the public eye. From one of couple’s lavish homes in Chappaqua or Georgetown, he could continue to work the phones and maintain a powerful role in the campaign and the Democratic Party, but he’d only appear in public for big, big occasions like the convention, or an election eve rally, and so forth. The idea of the ailing ex-President, suffering quietly at the side lines with his damaged ticker while his soul mate and partner in power criss-crosses the country, would invest the whole campaign with an edge of poignancy–a “Win One for the Zipper” intensity.
The problem with this scheme is that there’s little chance that Bill would stand for it, and even if they tried to lock him inside some haunted mansion, Bubba would find a means to escape. Remember, this is the world’s most natural and tireless politician, who reputedly once told his intimates that campaigning was the only thing in the world more pleasurable than sex. He might be willing to give up physical intimacy during a presidential run (there’s that faulty heart, remember?) but there’s virtually no chance that he’d be able to stay away from the campaign trail.
Option 5: Divorce Him
For Hillary, this constitutes the Nuclear Option: nobody wants to mention it, but in a crisis that threatens obliteration it may become necessary.
According to persistent Washington gossip, the former President has continued an active social life since leaving the White House. Even the cautious New York Times, in an article that reportedly enraged Senator Clinton, suggested that husband and wife spend at most 14 nights a month in the same city; other sources suggest that 14 nights a year would be closer to the truth. One credible journalist (a former editor for Newsweek, in fact) told me that he has acquired incontrovertible evidence that Bill has conducted a passionate, and unquestionably consummated, recent affair with a glamorous, wealthy and prominent married woman in New York City. There have also been bizarre but persistent rumors (accompanied by eyebrow-raising photos) of a 29-year-old blonde bombshell girlfriend in Israel (of all places) who recently broke off her relationship with the ex-President.
If any of this is true, and the tabloid press secures strong indications that Big Bill has resumed his wanderin’ ways, it could force Senator Clinton to divorce (or at least separation) as the only means to salvage her campaign. If her husband has stepped out on her again with a much younger woman, and she forgives him once again, she looks genuinely pathetic – and we don’t generally elect Presidents out of pity. Republican pollster Kellyann Conway has already questioned Hillary’s leadership capabilities by asking: “If she can’t even stand up to a cheating husband, how can we expect her to contend with North Korea and Iran?”
If, on the other hand, she reacts to new infidelities with a decisive, classy, but non-vindictive termination of the oddest-marriage-in-history, then it supports the idea that she knows how to handle a crisis while keeping her cool. If they ever did separate (without public bitterness, and with earnest mutual pleas to respect their privacy), Hillary might even benefit from a huge wave of sympathy and support. In a sense, going through her campaign rounds with zest and determination at the same time she suffered a break-up with the man she’s loved for nearly four decades, could provide a display of toughness and determination that could help allay inevitable concerns about the weakness and emotional vulnerability of our first female president.
If the reports about Slick Willie’s cheating heart turn out to be false or exaggerated (remember the bogus stories during his Presidency about his illegitimate African-American child?), she certainly doesn’t need to dump him in order to show how macho (or is it macha?) she is. But if the media catch him in any unseemly or inappropriate behavior, the resulting personal crisis might harm Hillary’s marriage while notably helping her campaign.
Option 6: Kill Him
No, I don’t really believe that any of Hillary’s strategists or staffers have actually prepared plans to solve the Bill problem in the most definitive way and I’ve certainly never discussed the murder alternative with anyone close to the New York Senator (or with anyone at all, your honor, I swear to it).
Nevertheless, after the public outpouring of grief and love following the death of Ronald Reagan, I do know that Bill began to make plans for his own ultimate funeral and of course hoped that he could top the Gipper in terms of posthumous adulation and affection. In fact, the recent mourning for Gerald Ford (a less consequential and popular president, by any measure, than Clinton) suggests that Bill’s passing (particularly if he dies at a relatively early age) will provoke an overwhelming, perhaps unprecedented, deeply emotional reaction from hundreds of millions of Americans.
These reflections should force any serious political observer to think the unthinkable for a few moments, at least: what if (God forbid!) something happened to Bill during Hillary’s campaign? Try to imagine her as the grieving widow, heartbroken yet dignified, managing to overcome her shattering loss for the sake of the nation she loves and the principles of the man she loved. Think of the Democratic Convention in Denver, as the hall goes dark and they play an emotional tribute film to the late President, showing this electrifying leader in all his explosive vitality. They did something similar with a tribute film to JFK in the Democratic Convention of 1964 in Atlantic City (I was there). The images of the lost leader reduced all the thousands gathered in the Convention Center to hopeless, uncontrollable sobbing, and when Bobby Kennedy got up to speak about his brother it got even worse (the Democrats went on to win an historic landslide for Lyndon Johnson). Would Hillary appear at the convention, at the Presidential debates, even the Inauguration, dressed demurely but appropriately in black? Think about the emotions she would generate each time she quoted her late husband!
This constitutes the ultimate nightmare for Republicans, frankly.
I believe that Hillary remains eminently beatable, whatever she does with Bill, as long as he stays alive and well. If something happens to him, all bets are off. If she’s a courageous widow, trying to pick up the fallen torch from her sainted, devoutly missed late husband, she could easily ride an unstoppable tidal wave all the way to the White House.
For that reason, all GOP’ers should wish former President Clinton many, many years of vibrant good health, and hope that the Secret Service continues its unblemished record of success in their dedicated efforts to keep him safe.
In fact, we should make it a point to remember Bill Clinton in our prayers. I’m serious about this, and I will readily confess that I’ve never personally prayed so hard for a politician I don’t support.
In other words, Viva Bill! To your health! L’Chaim! And let us say---- Amen.