When it comes to political achievements, no power couple comes close to the Clintons. But while aspects of their personal lives played out in the public arena, their relationship has remained a subject of much speculation. In Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal, Duke University history professor William Chafe examines the dynamic between the former president and the current secretary of state, which, he says, affected their public lives and, therefore, American history. Chafe recently spoke to U.S. News about why the personal lives of public figures matter and why Hillary is likely to run for president in 2016. Excerpts:
Why write a book about the Clintons?
It's one of the most intriguing periods of our national history—unprecedented prosperity, extraordinary job creation, huge errors of character and political behavior. Trying to put all that together requires getting inside of the people who made it all happen.
Is it important to know personal lives of public figures?
I think that personality is critical to how and why people act in office as they do. So, it's not really possible to understand Richard Nixon's presidency without understanding how much of a loner he was, how much time he spent by himself envisioning grand changes, such as the breakthrough in relations with China—and also how much time he spent obsessing about enemies he wanted to crush.
How would you characterize the Clintons' relationship?
In the very beginning it was a complementary relationship. He was outgoing, he was sensitive, he tried not to alienate people. She was decisive, focused, and well-disciplined.
Was there love?
Yes, there's definitely love, they care enormously for each other. And she was willing to gamble her awareness of his tendencies to achieve the goals that they thought they could achieve together.
Was she surprised by the affairs?
I think you can not be surprised but still be rocked. I think that she was always aware of the likelihood that he was carrying on one-night affairs. When those became politically explosive, as happened on many occasions, certainly never more so than with Gennifer Flowers in 1992, she really had to decide how she was going to respond. What she did was to decide to save her husband, to rescue him. And she understood that one of the consequences of that was that she would gain in terms of her own ability to exercise political power.
He owed her because she had saved him. So in response to that, he talks about her being co-president and he ensures that she will have an office in the West Wing of the White House alongside Al Gore's office and his office. He gives her command of the healthcare task force, which is his major domestic reform initiative. He basically allows her to run that even though his own political advisers and he himself have some doubts about the way in which she's doing it. But he is beholden to her and he really cannot challenge her.
What's the dynamic of this co-presidency?
She is basically bringing focus and discipline to her work and trying to do that with the rest of the White House agenda as well. He is much more likely to consider for hours a decision about a given issue, and she drills down and says, 'We need to move.'
What made her stay in the marriage?
Well, I'd say the most important character in Hillary Rodham's life, besides Bill, was her mother. She always taught Hillary that the most important thing was never to think about divorce but to always put the family first. And that message was really an abiding one. But in some respects, when Hillary saved Bill for the last time in the Lewinsky scandal, she also liberated herself. At that point, she could become an independent figure in her own right. At the same time as she's defending Bill during that event, she is committing herself to become a candidate in New York state. And she becomes a very distinctive political persona. She in some ways returned to the very moral but centrist kind of character that she had been in the years before she met Bill.