Connie Bruck has a huge piece on the Clintons in The New Yorker. It has a lot of anecdotal information and it is a pretty good read. There is a segment of the article that focuses on Bill Clinton’s biggest political defeat (his 1980 gubernatorial re-election bid) and how Hillary took over and rebuilt Bill’s self-esteem and his political operation. The interesting thing is how Bruck ties this all in to the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Al From, and others co-founded in 1985.
In any event, Bill and Hillary didn’t awaken to the fact that the election was in jeopardy until it was too late. The defeat was traumatic—not only for Bill, friends say, but for Hillary as well. “It shook both of them right down to their toes,” one friend declared. While the two may have been equally shaken, they responded in very different ways. Clinton, according to some people, seemed to experience losing not just as an electoral defeat but as a personal rejection by a large number of those whom he had courted; he took it so much to heart that he seemed emotionally undone. “It took all the air out of his normal resilience,” Max Brantley, the editor of the weekly Arkansas Times, recalled. “He was going around giving this Hamlet soliloquy—‘All is lost, what can I do?’ ” An acquaintance said, “After Bill lost, it was pathetic.” Recalling Clinton’s early efforts to reintroduce himself to voters, this person continued, “It seemed as if you might find him, almost any hour of the day or night, at this supermarket out on Markham—he’d catch you at the end of the aisle, or he’d be waiting at the register, and he’d say, ‘You know, I used to be governor, and . . .’ ”
Hillary Rodham took charge. This was when Betsey Wright was brought in, to begin strategizing for a comeback. According to one of the Clintons’ advisers, “The experience of watching Bill screw up made Hillary realize she should jump into the breach.” This person added, “She had to—he was so shaken, and was not a particularly good strategist anyway. There was no way he was going to win again unless she came in.” This adviser acknowledged that Bill Clinton is a supremely political animal but maintained that “she is a better political animal in terms of strategy, and the dynamics of a campaign.” Saying that Hillary participated in most strategic meetings in 1981 and 1982, and “injected a dose of realism into Bill’s politics,” this person continued, “Hillary was the strategist and the pragmatist, Bill the intellectual and the candidate.”
That was the critical juncture, for both Hillary and Bill, in their shared political life. It seems to have involved a great deal of letting go for Bill Clinton—both of a degree of idealism and of various people who had been his aides and close friends in his first term. (Stephen Smith, for example, the deputy chief of staff, was one of Clinton’s closest friends, and Clinton was godfather to Smith’s son, but over the next decade the two rarely saw each other.) That so few of the key first-termers were asked to rejoin him when he regained the governorship in 1982 was said by some to have been in large part Hillary’s decision. A member of the first administration said, echoing a widely expressed view, “She became very conscious of political realities. The Bill Clinton of those earlier years, for example, would not have been involved with the D.L.C.”—the Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton co-founded in 1985—“for anything. But from that point forward they were on a march. They were headed for the White House.”
For Hillary, the accommodation was different. The staff people who were left behind were not her good friends, and the centrist shift in Clinton’s politics probably caused her little, if any, discomfort.
This narrative is a lot different, I think, from the common perception of the political differences between Bill and Hillary Clinton. Most people would probably assume that Hillary was the more instinctively liberal of the two. I know a lot of Democrats that think of Hillary as the champion of universal health care (and she did do her best) and think of Bill as the guy that enacted Welfare Reform. But, according to this article, it was Hillary that shook up Bill’s staff and got him to focus on a more centrist agenda.
In any case, it’s a good article.