World

Can this marriage be saved?

JANE O’HARA August 31 1998
World

Can this marriage be saved?

JANE O’HARA August 31 1998

Can this marriage be saved?

World

CLINTON’S CRISES

JANE O’HARA

When Hillary Rodham Clinton first arrived in the White House six years ago, she said she didn't bake cookies or have any interest in redecorating the Lincoln bedroom. An assertive lawyer, she was going to rewrite the rules of being First Lady. In 1993, her husband put her in charge of overhauling the nation’s health-care system. But health-care reform fizzled and Hillary’s public approval ratings hit rock bottom. Soon, her business suits were replaced by pastels and pearls and she was talking less about Medicaid than about menu changes at the White House—broccoli was in and heavy French cooking was out. Last Monday, as her husband told the world that he had cheated on her with White House intern Monica Lewinsky—the latest in a long list of his mostly rumored marital infidelities—her transformation from power feminist to loyal, longsuffering First Lady became complete. Not surprisingly, her approval ratings—at 60 per cent—have never been higher. “Hillary Clinton was going to break the mould of the First Lady,” says Gil Troy, an American historian at McGill University and author of The Rise and Rejection of the American First Couple. “But she had to resurrect her public relations by becoming a traditional, silent 1950s housewife. Now, I’m sure it’s hard for her to distinguish between her absolute anger at Clinton as her husband mucking up their marriage, and her anger at him as her political partner mucking up their joint professional project, the presidency.”

For many experts trying to parse the complicated syntax of the Clintons’ relationship, that is the central question: do they have a traditional marriage or a business partnership, where the President has been granted privileges to play around. “I don’t know what bargains they’ve made with one another,” says psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of the best-selling Should You Leave? “But the great question is: is it a marriage of state or a 19th-century romantic marriage? Is Hillary naïve and vulnerable or tough and cagey? That’s what interests people about this.”

Hillary Clinton is hardly the first American woman, or even the first American First Lady, to be married to a philandering husband. (Although she may be the first wife ever to endure the spectacular misfortune of having her husband’s sexual habits, right down to the curve of his penis, become fodder for countless news shows and late-night comedians.) In the annals of recent presidential history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a mistress; John F. Kennedy had more than historians could count. Those two got away with it, predating as they did the rise of the snoopy American media that now consider the most private of conduct fair game for political reporting. On the presidential scene, the watershed event occurred in 1987, when reporters caught married Democratic candidate Gary Hart with his girlfriend, Donna Rice, after he had challenged them to prove rumors of his infidelity.

While American politics have never been the same, American infidelity has ever been thus. Shirley Glass, a Maryland-based marriage therapist who has studied infidelity for the past 22 years, says that sexual behavior studies from Kinsey in 1953 to the Hite Report in 1981 show wildly varying data: as few as 25 per cent and as many as 75 per cent of American men cheat on their wives. Glass’s own research on the subject puts the number at about 50 per cent. Of those, she says, 56 per cent also report that although they are cheating, they are happy with their marriages.

According to Glass, promiscuous men break down into roughly two types. One group is addicted to the rush of illicit sex, which helps them fill an emptiness inside. The other group feels a sense of entitlement: sex is just another perk of executive power like a chauffeur-driven limousine or a membership at a golf club. “A man who is entitled,” says Glass, “thinks that casual sex is a male privilege. When it’s available they take it and feel no guilt.” Glass will not offer an opinion on which category Clinton belongs in—but she is clear in calling his philandering “an act of self-destruction.” Given his “position and the scrutiny he is under,” says Glass, “it seems almost inconceivable that he would take these kinds of risks. Either there’s a tremendous defiance, or a tremendous lack of control.”

As the Clinton drama played out on television last week, looking ever more like an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, there was no shortage of drugstore psychology from the hoi polloi. But serious historians were also putting their minds to the conundrum: how could Clinton be so stupid? McGill’s Troy, who has studied presidential couples from the Trumans to the Clintons, believes that the roots of Clinton’s sexual troubles go back to his late mother. Virginia Kelley was a Southern woman who doted on her oldest son, Bill, giving him the master bedroom after her husband had died. According to Kelley’s biography, she was appalled when she first met Hillary Rodham, her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, in the early 1970s. “Virginia Kelley was something straight out of a Faulkner novel,” says Troy. “She spent about an hour and a half each morning putting on makeup and when she first saw Hillary with her stringy hair and thick glasses, well, this was not the kind of woman she’d raised Bill to go after. She raised him to go after Arkansas beauty queens.” According to Troy, Clinton’s essential internal struggle has been between Bubba and policy wonk. “On the one hand,” says Troy, “he’s the guy who hired Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and has all these deep intellectual and professional relationships with women. On the other hand, he goes after the girls with the big hair. To him, women are either brainiacs or are there for the sexual picking.”

While the First Family retreated last week for a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, many psychologists agreed that the person to pay the highest cost for Clinton’s philandering may be their daughter, 18-year-old Chelsea who is entering her sophomore year at Stanford University. For the past 20 years, Toronto therapist Linda Perlis has worked with troubled children and adolescents, most of whom are products of divorce. “There’s no question this would be very painful for Chelsea,” says Perlis. “She must be deeply distressed. I can’t imagine it otherwise.”

Hillary wanted to break the mould—but not this way

In some ways, adolescents have a more difficult time dealing with family rupture than do younger children. Teenagers are highly critical of their parents foibles and have almost no tolerance for such serious misbehavior as infidelity or drunk driving. They are also at a stage where they do not want to deal with their parents’ sexuality. Chelsea, says Perlis, “is still holding herself and her parents to some kind of ideals that haven’t yet been tested in the world. Will she be able to honestly express her feelings without feeling she’s betraying her father? After all, she sees her mother, at least publically, standing by him. In some ways kids are better off when the mother is saying: You asshole. You hurt me.’ Hypocrisy is the real bugaboo of the adolescent.”

In his address to the nation last Monday, Clinton said that his wife and daughter were the two most important people in his life and that he was going to work with them “to set it right.” But can this marriage be saved? Much depends on Hillary. Kramer was equivocal when asked the question “Should she leave?” “It depends on what the bargain is,” he said. “If she is someone who wanted stability, romance and security in her private life, she should have left long ago. If she always wanted to be at the centre of things and is emotionally self-sufficient, she is doing the reasonable political thing.”

But some commentators feel Hillary Clinton has few options. Blema Steinberg, a political scientist at McGill with a background in psychoanalytic training, thinks she will stay in the marriage for the short term. “If she leaves,” says Steinberg, “all of their projects would be down the drain. She’s disciplined and likes the perks of power and has a legitimate agenda. If she becomes a private person, she can do none of those things.” Still, if the marriage is to remain intact, Steinberg believes that Hillary will have to swallow her pride and Clinton must start making amends to both his wife and his daughter. His prescription for the week to come? “Maybe,” says Steinberg, “he won’t play golf for a while and will actually spend a little time with the two of them.”