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We're Only Just Beginning To Realize How We'll Remember Bill And Hillary Clinton

The former first couple revisited their first date and major political moments onstage. But is anybody nostalgic for the Clintons?

Posted on December 15, 2018, at 8:00 a.m. ET

To see the Clintons on the first night of their new tour, you had to pass under a row of giant Canadian flags. On the second night, everyone spoke French on the way out.

Live Nation promises 10 upcoming performances by the Clintons next spring, and if the first two nights mean anything, this will be a tour on which nothing is quite right — a weird blend of darkness and nostalgia, of out-of-place things.

Imagine watching the Clintons play a chipper, Newlywed Game–style quiz about their marriage (“Who said ‘I love you’ first?”). Now imagine watching that shortly after Bill Clinton, in a beautifully tailored suit, spoke in the rounded tonal rhythms of a normal political anecdote — but about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. The seven-minute meditation on rebuilding societal bonds featured a man whose arm had been cut off, one who lost 73 family members, and a beautiful woman recounting the day she woke up in a pool of her own blood to find her husband and six children murdered; before devoting her life to something less mean than vengeance, she screamed at God in anger that she had been spared.

This was all in response to the question, “In your speech in 1994 in Rwanda, you said, the world is divided according to how people believe they draw meaning from life. That made me wonder how you both draw meaning from life, and how you create a unified meaning for life as a leader of a country? at an event before which they played Frank Sinatra’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” on the PA, and at the beginning of which the Clintons were merrily handed a pair of Canadiens jerseys. “If you ever get to go,” he said of the Rwandan genocide memorial, “you should go. The memorial is a museum on top of a crypt containing the bones of 300,000 people.”

It’s true, like Maureen Dowd said, the seats weren’t filled in Toronto. They weren’t the next night in Montreal, either, under the faces of hockey greats who form a loop around the Bell Centre. But Dowd and I still flew to Canada in late November to see the Clintons, who are doing events on equal billing for the first time in a long time. And as the last few weeks with George H.W. Bush have shown, the relevance of a president never really goes; it just turns into something communal, a shifting space for fraught argument. How does a legacy form? Which part of someone’s life or record prevails? The divide in public spaces over Bush — a veteran with a long public life but a short presidency — offers a sharp glimpse into the future promised for the presidents who followed him.

Not long after Clinton defeated Bush, the New Yorker published 31,868 words on the political education of the first lady. At the very end of the piece, the writer, Connie Bruck, considered the idea that Bill and Hillary would someday switch roles. “If she were to run for president, of course, the scenario of their lives would be radically altered,” Bruck wrote in 1994. “The bedrock premise of their partnership may be altered; for what is best for him politically is no longer necessarily best for her.”

That came true. That imbalance becomes clearer the deeper and deeper we go into a wholesale reexamination of the 1990s; the partnership that brought them power became a prisoner’s dilemma. With the Clintons, we’re just moving into those more complicated and lasting questions of legacy — theirs together and alone, and whose will prevail over the other’s.

Hillary and Bill Clinton arrive on stage at the “Evening With the Clintons” event on Nov. 28 in Montreal, Canada.
David Himbert / Polaris/Newscom

Hillary and Bill Clinton arrive on stage at the “Evening With the Clintons” event on Nov. 28 in Montreal, Canada.

On the surface, “An Evening With the Clintons” was impersonal — a black curtain dividing the arena in half, the white leather chairs and ferns of corporate gatherings, questions from safe moderators in a format (This next one is for both of you...) that did not inspire much fluid interaction between the principals. Hillary Clinton’s live telling of the Osama bin Laden raid story over two nights sounded a lot like the album version. People milled around half-open concessions stands in coats and scarves and hats, but without their Canadiens gear on or a Jumbotron sound system pulsing through their brains, giving the whole place the vibe of a PTA meeting. Offered the handwritten sign of an obligatory, but lone protester out in the snowy Toronto night: “War criminals.”

If you pay to see a married couple speak, though, you might expect to walk away with some new sense (imagined or otherwise) of their interpersonal dynamic. This might especially be true of a couple like this, whose continued existence as a joint effort mystifies so many. Here they are together, again, for the first time maybe ever without a candidacy or the promise of one that pushes one above the other. But if you have an idea of what the Clintons should look like speaking, whatever it is, this wasn’t it.

But if you have an idea of what the Clintons should look like speaking, whatever it is, this wasn’t it.

He was subdued; she was a little loose and sarcastic, as she can be sometimes on matters of world affairs. At the top of the hour in Toronto, she dropped Trump’s line, uttered a few hours earlier, about his gut telling him more than anybody else’s brain — and kept weaving it back into the conversation for laughs, including in an extended riff on how Trump news cycles work. (“You don’t want to let it go unanswered, you don’t want him to say these things about someone like Bill McRaven and not answer them. So you answer them. And then it gets escalated! And then somebody else jumps into the fray!”)

Yes, he talked about Northern Ireland, North Korea, NAFTA, climate change, all of the elder statesman stuff you might expect, with Hillary Clinton, attentive and still, turned toward him, listening. But he spoke slowly and hoarsely and sometimes deliberately; sometimes the answers took a while to get going.

The most devastating kind of loss, she writes in What Happened, is the one you’re least expecting. In 1980, when Bill lost his first gubernatorial reelection campaign, he was unable to speak to supporters on election night; Hillary had to go instead. “For a good while afterward, he was so depressed that he practically couldn’t get off the floor,” she writes. “That’s not me. I keep going.”

Which, she did. Externally, Hillary Rodham famously took on her husband’s name, got contact lenses, and started wearing makeup, but more to the point, instigated her family’s political resurrection. They overhauled their campaign operation and completely rebuilt themselves — grounding his political message in the economy. “Losing power so early shaped everything they would do from then on, their ambition at times overtaking their ideals in the fight to survive,” Clinton’s biographer, David Maraniss, wrote the day after the 2016 election. “They believed that in the name of doing good, the ends could at times justify the means.”

Bill and Hillary take their places before a press conference at Clinton election headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, May 25, 1982.
/ AP

Bill and Hillary take their places before a press conference at Clinton election headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, May 25, 1982.

Paul Begala once described the 1992 campaign’s “gold watch strategy” against “yesterday’s man,” George H.W. Bush: “He’s of the past and a heroic past and good for him — let’s give him a gold watch — but now we have to fix health care and create jobs and that’s for a different generation, a different mindset.” Bill Clinton’s presidency would be the true End of History presidency, then, in which liberal democracy and the meritocracy and free markets would live and reign forever.

And in exotic Canada, as people applauded and whistled at the mere mention of NAFTA, you could momentarily envision a latter-day swell of appreciation for how Clinton handled it.

But here in real life, nobody’s given Bill Clinton his gold watch — and nobody’s going to, either.

Nobody’s given Bill Clinton his gold watch — and nobody’s going to, either.

There isn’t nostalgia, misguided or not, for how Clinton handled NATO or NAFTA or gun control or the national debt, several of which Hillary Clinton ticked off in Montreal as things she was most proud of Bill for doing. If some have balked at the tariffs and frayed alliances, and found new appreciations for various unlikely figures from the past, no one has rushed in to hold up Bill Clinton’s example, for all the obvious #MeToo reasons and one that’s only now coming into view.

It wasn’t just that his record held her back; her presidential runs prevented them from furbishing that record into something more palatable.

When the Clintons have spoken about the 1990s over the last five years, it’s mostly been defensive. They tried to revise how the Defense of Marriage Act came to be to put themselves in a more favorable (and incorrect) light; they began to apologize for the crime bill, the crown jewel of the tough-on-crime era that crushed black communities; they said that she would not sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership (sorry, NAFTA). Occasionally, during his time on the trail, he would get into arguments about the ’90s, like a winding 30 minutes with a 24-year-old Bernie supporter in a New Mexico diner that involved lines like, “If you never have to make a decision, then you can go back to the past and cherry-pick everything [for a] narrative that is blatantly false.”

And, now, when the constraints of all that are gone and they’re together again, she looks the same, sounds the same, works the crowd for laughs. This is the woman who, unlike the sunny optimism of her husband’s political career, has been talking about a kind of spiritual alienation since the late ’60s — a stance that got her laughed out of town in 1993, but 20 years later, on the rare occasions she brings it up, is probably the most interesting thing about her. “If you’ve been raised to believe your life will unfold a certain way,” she writes in What Happened, “and then things don’t work out the way you expected, that’s when you get angry. It’s about loss. It’s about the sense that the future is going to be harder than the past.” She’s like she’s been.

Bill Clinton, however, is changed. There are flashes of the way he was, but Maraniss wrote about this in 2016: “There was not much electricity.” GQ wrote about it too. If you go back and watch the decisive debate moments against George H.W. Bush, he’s fresh and young and immediate; he leans toward an audience member and explains how when a factory closes in Arkansas, there’s a good chance he knows the people affected, and absurdly, it becomes about economic theory without friction. He’s just not that way most of the time anymore; sometimes, the tangents take effort on the listener’s part to congeal into a larger whole.

The stories always have a point. But sometimes the synthesis is awfully dark, even in its thoughtfulness.

The second night opened with Bill Clinton telling a bracing, discursive series of stories about his mother’s difficult life, her out-and-out rejection of victimhood, and her abounding love for others that began: “My mother died at 70 years and six months.” Married five times to four men, her first three husbands died. And, yet, “she believed that no matter what happened to her, no matter how bad it was, she should be grateful for a new day.”

“My stepfather was a — what should I call him — an episodic and violent alcoholic, and I lived with that. She did,” he said. “When I was 15, she finally divorced him, and then his life fell apart, and she took him back, and I didn’t want her to. She said, ‘Bill, he’s broken now. He’s basically a good man with a good heart. He probably won’t live long, because of what he’s done.’ When he got sick and died from cancer when I was 21, I remember my mother saying, ‘I’m glad you came home. You’re dying a good man.’ And he was a brave man when he died.”

Even when she was receiving two blood transfusions a day, she still went to the White House for Christmas, then Las Vegas to see Barbra Streisand. Shortly thereafter, his mother died “in full force,” he said. “There’s something to be said for that. She spent a lot of time watching people live and die on the operating table.”

“She tried to not give any time away,” he concluded. “That’s what I learned from her.”

A few years ago, a friend and I got tickets to see an interview with the late, great Tom Wolfe. We both admired him, and we thought it’d be interesting to hear from him about all the wild stuff happening with Trump. It’d be fun. But he was so quiet — much older than we had somehow expected — and the event dragged. It didn’t diminish him, not at all, but in that room, our excitement turned into something sinking.

This is not what seeing Bill Clinton is like, but there can be a flash of that feeling, that sadness of life, of aging and irrational expectation, of hearing a story you’ve heard before, but not told in the way you remember.

The Clintons in a downtown Chicago hotel on March 17, 1992.
Charles Bennett / AP Images

The Clintons in a downtown Chicago hotel on March 17, 1992.

Bill and Hillary Clinton’s first date involved negotiating to cross a picket line at Yale.

This was an exception to the formal turn-taking and politeness, a convivial story of nostalgia the Clintons told together. They perked up, the crowd perked up; they laughed, the crowd laughed.

The first time they met, or that he saw her, it was in a Yale Law School class taught by a “genuine Roosevelt New Dealer,” “one of the guys who made the New Deal go.” But the lectures were dry, so neither of them ever went, except for the day they both did, and that’s when he saw this woman with “no makeup on, and long, really thick hair, she had big glasses, but there was just something about her — she had an energy.” So he followed her out and got close enough to touch her and talk to her, but stopped. He said to himself, Bill Clinton explained solemnly, “This will not be a casual encounter.”

So he kept following her around campus and catching her eye until, finally one night, she introduced herself in the library.

“Well, that’s part of the story,” Hillary Clinton announced, to laughs. “I mean, he looked like a Viking.”

On the last day of class, they ended up on a walk together, passing by the Yale art museum, which was closed for a workers strike but also had a Mark Rothko exhibit inside. After she remarked she wished she’d had the time to see it, he asked for a minute of her time. “So he disappears. Five minutes go by. Ten minutes go by. I’m thinking, where’d this guy go? So then he finally shows back up and he’s got the janitor with him, and he has somehow convinced the janitor that we would not be breaking the strike if we cleaned up all the paper that had been accumulating on the ground, and in return, could we go in and see the exhibit?”

“It was my first opportunity to watch him negotiate in action,” she said to laughs. “In we went and we had an incredible afternoon, and the rest, they say, is history.”

“I’m very pro-labor, though,” Bill Clinton jumped back in to say. “It was the only time I’ve ever done anything that could be interpreted as crossing a picket line. But, you know, when it came down to my political principles against my budding romantic interest, I had to broaden my spectrum of principles.”

Imagine half an arena of Canadians chuckling at, “When it came down to my political principles against my budding romantic interest, I had to broaden my spectrum of principles.”

The thing is, it was funny and engaging in that way that such stories can be. He described what Hillary wore that day (a white blouse and an orange, floor-length skirt with flowers) and that they’d sat in the lap of a Henry Moore statue in the garden.

But then, of course, you think about the laughing. The next night, they were asked if they had nicknames for each other (Heary, Billy). “Better than what we could call each other,” she joked, to which he, in turn, joked, “Better than what we have called each other!”

The Clintons in New York on Nov. 9, 2016.
Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

The Clintons in New York on Nov. 9, 2016.

Why exactly #MeToo took off like it did is a still a little mysterious; people have argued that the lack of retribution for Trump’s alleged misconduct — that he won, despite the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape and the women who came forward — produced a counterbalance. Under this theory, November 8, 2016, was such a shock that it cracked the earth, and in poured the righteous light. But consider the other side: that, perhaps, the Clintons’ true defeat also helped break #MeToo loose. There were corridors that the mind could not traverse about Bill Clinton so long as “President Hillary Clinton” was in play.

In 2016, Katie Baker wrote about Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused Bill Clinton of raping her in the 1970s, a charge that he has always denied, that “the political implications of her claims are too disastrous for liberal politicians and pundits — the people who typically support self-declared rape survivors — to rally around her ... That means only Clinton-hating conservatives are visibly incensed by her claims, and the more that they amplify Broaddrick’s story, the more skeptical progressives become.”

There were corridors that the mind could not traverse about Bill Clinton so long as “President Hillary Clinton” was in play.

Since the election, that’s changed. Bill Clinton’s 2018 book tour became a series of questions about Monica Lewinsky and #MeToo. Matthew Yglesias wrote that Clinton should have resigned after the Lewinsky scandal; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand agreed — a stance that ushered in criticism about why she’d never said so before.

If you listen to this season of the podcast Slow Burn, you might be surprised by how irrelevant and superficial most of the contemporaneous audio from the Lewinsky era sounds. Conservatives talk about the infidelity and the embarrassment; feminists take up either a libertine defense or a cynical, sum-of-the-parts one about the policies enacted by Clinton. Practically no one talks about the real issue of power dynamics, and what consent even is in such a situation. It’s just the feminist writer Linda Hirshman paraphrasing the Republican John Ashcroft. “The disproportion of power between the chief executive of the United States and a young woman two months out of college would at least give you some pause,” she is heard saying on a radio hit from the ’90s. “It’s pretty clear that there was an inequality not just of age and money and power,” Hirshman says in the present day, “but of rationality, right?”

A&E’s The Clinton Affair, Amanda Hess recently wrote, revolutionizes the stories of women who have accused Clinton of harassment or abuse (claims he has always denied), and in particular, Paula Jones. Instead of their previous relegation to something tawdry and partisan (which they have been, as well), “the filmmakers place their stories on the same level as those of Lewinsky and Carville, of career F.B.I. agents and prestigious lawyers.”

What hasn’t changed, though, is how Bill Clinton talks about all this.

Bill Clinton during his grand jury deposition on Aug. 17, 1998, which was shown during the House Managers presentation in the Senate impeachment trial of Clinton on Feb. 6, 1999.
Associated Press

Bill Clinton during his grand jury deposition on Aug. 17, 1998, which was shown during the House Managers presentation in the Senate impeachment trial of Clinton on Feb. 6, 1999.

“Do you think President Kennedy should have resigned?” he asked an interviewer this summer, just as he once told Donna Shalala 20 years ago, when she objected to his behavior regarding Lewinsky. (“Time’s up, Bill,” wrote Rebecca Traister.) “I’ve said all I have to say,” Clinton said the next day. “It happened 20 years ago and I apologize for it.”

And this is the other side of the prisoner’s dilemma: All this holds back Hillary Clinton too, for here they are together, and you can’t forget this about Bill Clinton. The Clintons are complicated like this, a house of ever-shifting floors and halls; press on one part of the Clintons’ legacy — feminism, trade — and another wall collapses in or a floor drops out beneath you.

“We’ve been dissected, psychoanalyzed, cut open and down,” Bill Clinton said of their marriage in Toronto, “but it’s been the most interesting thing you can possibly imagine; it’s still interesting to me today.”

The Clintons attend Oktoberfest in Munich on Oct. 5.
Picture Alliance / Getty Images

The Clintons attend Oktoberfest in Munich on Oct. 5.

It’s true. And that may be good enough for them. But it won’t be good enough for us. What do you do with a story like the one they told about meeting at Yale? What about NATO and all the rest? We need to have some sense of what the 1990s, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, the concept of the Clintons, all means. Prepare for pain. It’s only beginning because something else has ended.

“In your eulogy at President Nixon’s funeral,” the moderator began in one question, her last of the night in Montreal, “you quoted from his remarks, and it really kind of resonated with me. ‘Unless a person has a goal or a mountain to climb, their spirit will die.’”

“And the question for both of you is: What’s the next mountain you are excited to climb?”

Their responses were fine, of course, all about finding an economically viable solution to climate change and addressing the opioid epidemic. But there was just enough of a momentary pause between question and answer for your breath to catch. ●


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