Of all of the images that flitted across the TV set during the past two weeks of political conventions, one has lingered in my head the longest: the consistent look of joy on Bill Clinton’s face.
Yes, he is a political performer like no other. Yes, he had a role to play. But as speaker after speaker praised his wife, he was clearly filled with personal emotion. We’ve all had time to drink in the historical meaning of Hillary Clinton’s nomination, the sight of the first woman within spitting distance of presidency. But this convention also gave us the sight of a man standing proudly behind his wife.
It was singular moment in politics, and it also was the portrait of a marriage.
They are proof that it’s impossible to know what’s happening in a marriage -- and pointless, really, to wonder.
Political marriages have always inspired fascination, though by nature, this has mostly meant fascination with the wives. They’re called upon as character witnesses, scrutinized for their fashion sense, expected to take on causes and deliver absolute loyalty, no matter the humiliation.
We don’t hear as much from political husbands, perhaps because our culture still hasn’t figured out what to do with them. In the working world, we’re still wrestling with what it means for men and women to swap roles. At the highest level of politics, this tends to be true, as well: The husband, the bulwark, stands in the background, relatively silent.
The Clintons aren’t like that. They’ve taken turns rising, weathered storms of fantastic, sometimes self-inflicted turbulence, and managed to stay standing, together. They are proof that it’s impossible to know what’s happening in a marriage — and pointless, really, to wonder. Hate them or love them, admire them unflinchingly or accept them with keen, painful awareness of their flaws; you still have to admit, they’ve put together a formidable partnership.
And yes, part of that partnership means feeding their mutual ambition. Bill Clinton, as ex-president, has an international platform. But Bill Clinton as First Lad would be back in the daily mix. His advice would have meaning. His legacy would be vindicated.
His flaws would be back in prominence, too; they already are. And it doesn’t take Donald Trump to bring them up. In his convention speech, as he recounted his relationship with Hillary in slow chronological order, how many viewers snickered while wondering how he’d handle the ickiness of 1998?
It was, amid the pomp and praise, a stark reminder of the humiliation Hillary Clinton had to face as a political wife — and the choices she made over the course of a long career. Some younger women have confessed, to me, a discomfort with the Clintons’ intertwined paths. And from the standpoint of feminist purity, it might be lovely if the first woman president didn’t also have “first lady” in her biography.
Hate them or love them, admire them unflinchingly or accept them with keen, painful awareness of their flaws; you still have to admit, they’ve put together a formidable partnership.
On the other hand, over the course of American political history, we’ve seen smart, driven women take advantage of their husbands’ platforms, then vault off to accomplishments of their own. The first woman elected to the Senate, Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, had first been appointed to succeed her husband after he died in 1931. Louisiana’s Lindy Boggs took office after her husband, the House majority leader, died in a plane crash, then served ably in the House of Representatives from 1973 to 1991. In Massachusetts, Niki Tsongas pays tribute to the political lessons she learned from her late husband, but has embraced her own issues and her own growing legacy.
Hillary Clinton, love her or not, has done the same — surviving scandals and transcending them to forge her own political career. You could see this as subsuming emotion to ambition, or as the ultimate act of making lemonade out of lemons. Either way, she’s created a legacy all her own. Her husband played a role at the convention, attesting to her politics and her commitment to liberal causes. But to make the case for her election, she needed the Obamas more.
So there Bill was, sitting quietly in the family box, the cameras cutting often to his beaming face. A man who needed his wife to stand behind him, no matter what, is now doing the same for her. That’s history, too.