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In life, and especially on the pool table of presidential politics, it’s weird how things collide and reverse. Adversaries become assets and weaknesses become unexpected sources of power. The first female president may end up owing some of the margin of her victory to outrage about male lechery. And all these years later, sex-related scandal appears to have become a Clinton strength.
At Sunday’s debate, Hillary Clinton walked into a situation that was mostly a dream for her, with Donald Trump’s support from his own party collapsing because of universally condemned remarks he’d made about women. But it was also a bit of a Groundhog Day nightmare for the Democratic nominee: In front of tens of millions of people, with the fate of the Supreme Court, our national defenses and so much else in the balance, she had to literally face all the old allegations about her husband. Her adversary tried to choreograph a direct confrontation between him and his accusers.
This is what I want to analyze and rewatch with you: Clinton’s demeanor, so different from her affect at the first debate, and what it tells us about her. A few weeks ago, she alternated between defending, smiling and shimmying. Last night she appeared utterly calm and composed, serene even. Her glare at Trump was cutting but unemotional. As he stood and paced, she looked centered and about as content as a person can seem amid the melting scrutiny of the debate stage.
These questions may be somewhat beyond journalistic reach, but here’s what I want to know: What do you think Hillary Clinton has learned about sexual scandal over the years that helped her performance last night? (My bet is that she has absorbed the dynamics and optics of public airing of male lechery more than almost anyone else alive.) What do you think Bill Clinton, whose unforced errors haunt Democratic politics to this day, was thinking during the first half-hour of the debate? Will Trump’s gambit of bringing forward Bill’s accusers actually provoke some sympathy for Hillary, reminiscent of the Monica Lewinsky scandal?
And even as Hillary quietly worked this weekend to position the Trump tapeto her maximum advantage, do you think she ever wondered to herself: How many national debates about inappropriate male behavior can one woman live through?
I am no psychologist, although we’re all sort of Clintonologists these days, and may have been since 1992. To me, Clinton’s serenity in the face of some pretty sordid claims about her husband was impressive, but not all that surprising. Think of all the free exposure therapy she’s had, courtesy of the right-wing media. Dangle a spider in front of an arachnophobe enough times (increasing duration and proximity), and the hot, emotional reaction dwindles to the point of extinction. She has been handling, with unflappable cool (her critics would say too much cool), these issues since her husband’s first presidential campaign.
But I think what you’re also getting at is just how untested this specific scenario is: There’s really no precedent for how to conduct yourself in a nationally televised presidential debate while confronting ugly allegations about your husband’s sex life. Untold numbers of women have had to deal with their husbands’ alleged affairs, but none of them have ever had to do it while also trying to look presidential. She certainly showed the world it could be done. It’s a first, all right, although I don’t know that it’s one worth celebrating.
I did wonder, watching the debate, if her sang-froid in the face of those kinds of accusations plays differently to Trump’s supporters. Clinton’s fans see grace, someone going high when he goes low; Trump’s might see a political operative who is so jaded by years of dealing with her husband’s sexual exploits that she has no emotional response to them whatsoever. Through different eyes, might that poise be perceived as a liability?
I love the idea of Clinton’s wondering, in a private moment, as you put it: How many national debates about male lechery can one woman live through? I also wonder if she sometimes despairs, looking back at 1992, at how little has changed since then. It might not be so much “This again” as: “Really? Still this?”
I somehow doubt that Trump’s bringing up Bill’s past exploits made Clinton seem more sympathetic, the way the Monica Lewinsky scandal did in 1998. (As you know, her approval ratings have never been higher than they were then.) I sometimes think that a lot of the young women who might have worked up more interest and sympathy and admiration for Clinton this year simply haven’t had to — their disgust for Trump is so strong that they haven’t given his opponent that much thought, one way or the other.
As for what Bill was thinking: What a great question. Jodi. I have no idea. Would love to throw it back to you. Do you think he can manage to muster up the self-righteousness so many men are feeling in the face of comments like Trump’s that it’s just “locker room talk”? Do you think his comments inspired in women the general feeling that the great locker rooms of the world need a whole lot more women in them?
We can’t read minds, but maybe to answer the Bill Clinton question we can gaze a bit into the future.
Hillary Clinton is now overwhelmingly favored to win the presidency. (Twitter got a little ahead of itself and practically held her inauguration today, after the news that Paul Ryan would no longer defend Trump.) If she does, the Clinton trio will have more historical titles than members. First female president. First husband-and-wife presidencies. First first child twice over. And first first gentleman.
In other words, Bill Clinton — a former president, one who was impeached over fidelity issues — would become our first husband in chief, at a time when gender roles are up for grabs as never before.
I don’t know what Bill will be thinking, but I can bet what everyone else will be: Everything this man does in the role will matter. How he treats his wife in public, whether he supports or steps on her. Whether he sees the traditional first-spouse duties — hosting, commemorating — as numbing, empty, inferior tasks or as part of the essential function of a healthy White House. First ladies are symbolic, but the first first husband will likely be super-symbolic.
This could be messy. Defining the Feminist Thing to Do in a woman’s White House is likely to be a running riddle, because which is the project: role reversal or wiping away outdated roles altogether?. Perhaps the first husband should smash the outdated conventions of the presidential-spouse role, do away with the floral-botanical complex for good? Publicly discuss Syria policy and environmental protection, because who made the rule that smart presidential spouses don’t discuss that stuff, anyway? But the risk of undercutting or overshadowing Hillary Clinton is great, as we saw in the 2008 race.
Cosmically, it seems as if figuring this all out could be part of Bill Clinton’s penance for the damage he did years ago. He is unlikely to talk about it. First spouses have little incentive for public introspection — name the last deep interview Michelle Obama did — but his actions will speak volumes.
Listen to how other men have started talking, though. In his new autobiography, Bruce Springsteen, Mr. Hot Rod Open Highway Macho Man, calls his younger self a misogynist. He repeatedly uses that word. He also says he was a serial cheater, unfaithful to his first wife and to his current wife, Patti Scialfa, too. He went to therapy, but what finally changed him for good was watching Scialfa give birth: “This small hospital room would be the great house of your contrition, of a life’s happy penance, except there is no time for your [expletive] here,” he wrote about himself.
I wonder if Bill Clinton has picked up Springsteen’s book.
Back to the moment: If our first female president will be propelled into office in part by outrage about male sexual misbehavior, would you find that depressing, or poetically satisfying?
I can sort of see it: Hillary’s trying to get Bill to talk strategy before bed, and he’s listening, he’s really trying, but he’s also eyeing the Springsteen memoir on his nightstand table longingly. (Baby, we were born to run!)
Of course, we do have a precedent for a first spouse who advised the president on foreign policy, and pretty much everything else, and that was Hillary Clinton. Many of her supporters at the time called that feminism; but as you suggest, if Bill were to play as much of a role in her presidency as she did in his (especially in his first term), it would look anything but feminist, to the public. It would be nice to see a first spouse, one of these days, who was not vested in the floral-botanical complex or the role of policy adviser. I would have loved, had Howard Dean been elected, to see his wife continuing to practice medicine, for example (even if it meant a lot of Secret Service agents wandering around in scrubs).
In a way, Bill Clinton is the ideal transitional first husband. Undeniably powerful and charismatic, he’s a man who’s already had his turn at running the free world — no one better embodies gender roles than that guy. But maybe one day we’ll see a female presidential candidate whose husband is a successful hospital administrator, for instance, or a lawyer. If he were planning to give up his job to move to the White House, to play a mostly ceremonial role while trying to raise a couple of sane kids, would that be an uncomfortable scenario for voters? If instead he continued to work, and barely gave a thought to his role as first husband, would the public respond with understanding, or irritation at the double standard? Certainly, that choice would also mean the end of the first lady as we’ve known her.
I know I’m getting ahead of myself here, but it is comforting to realize that Hillary Clinton is probably not singular, that there will be other women running for president as serious candidates going forward. And possibly those elections will be far less fraught than this one.
You asked if I find it sad or poetically satisfying that two men’s sexism caught on a recording might propel the first woman into the presidency. I’m going to go with poetically satisfying, were it to happen — it would suggest that sometimes, when it really matters, justice does eventually catch up to those who abuse their power. The recording has amplified, for many women, their sense of the urgency of this election. It’s not just that they can’t bear Trump, or that they love Hillary; it’s that the election is about something bigger now than just the office of the presidency. The recording put many women directly in touch with their outrage about the outdated, the exclusionary, the sexist, the predatory, the power-and-otherwise grabby. Women are more eager than ever to see a girl waltz into the most powerful old-boys’ club in the world, the White House, and take a seat at the head of the table.