Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal

Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal

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by William H. Chafe

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New in paperback, Bill and Hillary is a bold argument by William H. Chafe, one of our leading historians, that the trajectory of the Clintons' political lives can be understood only through the prism of their personal relationship.


New in paperback, Bill and Hillary is a bold argument by William H. Chafe, one of our leading historians, that the trajectory of the Clintons' political lives can be understood only through the prism of their personal relationship.

Editorial Reviews

Stephanie Coontz
"A fascinating analysis of how Bill and Hillary Clinton's different family backgrounds and complicated marital history shaped their political fortunes."
Elaine Tyler May
"In this mesmerizing account, one of the most astute historians of our era pulls back the curtain on the struggles and passions of the world's most powerful couple."
William E. Leuchtenburg
"For any reader seeking to unravel the Byzantine politics of the 1990s, Chafe's book is indispensable."
David Gergen
"For those of us who worked with the Clintons, this book, by one of the nation's best historians, brings a keen eye and fresh insights to the intersection of their personalities and their exercise of power."
Alice Kessler Harris
"This is a deeply insightful and warmly empathetic portrait of personal ambition, a complicated marriage, and a powerful political partnership."
The Washington Post
William H. Chafe understands, as do too few historians and biographers, that the personal and public lives of political figures cannot be separated…This may seem obvious, but it has not seemed so in the past as chroniclers of political life have, with only occasional exceptions, tended to regard that life as self-contained, only marginally connected at most to the personal side of these politicians' lives…A respected historian who has written much about African Americans and women…[Chafe] approaches the Clintons with academic dispassion occasionally mixed with pop psychology…
—Jonathan Yardley
The New York Times Book Review
…any Clinton book is by definition a wild, perplexing tale, and Bill and Hillary is worth reading as a reminder that the title characters…did many things that today seem almost too outlandish to be true. Chafe largely synthesizes prior books by Joe Klein, Gail Sheehy, David Maraniss and Carl Bernstein, but the episodes he recounts still have the power to startle…
—Jodi Kantor
Publishers Weekly
Duke history professor Chafe (The Rise and Fall of the American Century) delivers a superior portrait of how the dynamic between Bill and Hillary Clinton affected their achievements in public life. Both fiercely ambitious superachievers from dysfunctional families, their personalities were complementary (he charming and brilliant, she disciplined and demanding), and they married; despite her knowledge of Bill’s philandering, both “love and calculation” (that she could achieve her own goals by marrying him) underlay her decision. They worked together; Bill’s laid-back charm made him reluctant to twist arms, so he often deferred to the far more assertive Hillary. This caused controversy when he was Arkansas governor and threatened disaster when he became president in 1992. Hillary’s political missteps doomed a universal health program and, in Chafe’s view, contributed to the 1994 Republican midterm landslide. After she took up issues outside the administration, the president rebounded politically. Combining reform with fiscal conservatism, he left office with superb approval ratings, a flourishing economy, and a balanced budget despite crippling ethical and sexual scandals, an impeachment trial, and terrible press relations. A sympathetic if often regretful account of a stormy, occasionally self-destructive political partnership. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

“Chafe understands, as do too few historians and biographers, that the personal and public lives of political figures cannot be separated . . . [and he] is quite right to insist that the stories of Bill and Hillary Clinton prove the point.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Riveting . . . Chafe sees clearly what we who were there, chronicling the Clintons in real time, missed.” —David M. Shribman, The Boston Globe

“The strength of this book lies in Chafe's reconstruction of the Clinton's early lives and the way their connection affected the decisions Bill Clinton made as Governor of Arkansas and as President . . . [Bill and Hillary is] a welcome reminder of the great promise that the Clinton "co-presidency" initially held, and of the attributes, from Clinton's intellect to his willingness to engage on racial issues and his ability to connect with people, that made those of us who saw him sworn in truly believe, for a time, in ‘a place called Hope.'” —The Toronto Star

“Chafe . . . delivers a superior portrait of how the dynamic between Bill and Hillary Clinton affected their achievements in public life.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“An engaging look at the personal relationship behind one of the most powerful political marriages in the nation's history.” —Booklist

“An illuminating glimpse behind the scenes.” —Kirkus

“General readers and political junkies will enjoy this reasoned account.” —Library Journal

“Not since Franklin and Eleanor has a power couple in the White House fascinated the public as much as Bill and Hillary. How did their personal journeys--especially their marriage--shape the Clinton years? For those of us who worked with the Clintons, this book, by one of the nation's best historians, brings a keen eye and fresh insights to the intersection of their personalities and their exercise of power.” —David Gergen, senior political analyst for CNN and adviser to four U.S. presidents

“A fascinating analysis of how Bill and Hillary Clinton's different family backgrounds and complicated marital history shaped their political fortunes. William H. Chafe documents how the personal relationship between these two brilliant but flawed individuals created blind spots and self-defeating behaviors that often undermined their ability to further the political and ethical goals they sincerely supported. Beautifully written.” —Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

“In this mesmerizing account, one of the most astute historians of our era pulls back the curtain on the struggles and passions of the world's most powerful couple. William H. Chafe takes readers behind the scenes to reveal Bill and Hillary as they have never been seen before.” —Elaine Tyler May, author of America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation

“In electrifying fashion, William H. Chafe reveals that the key to understanding the Clinton presidency is the tortuous relationship between Bill and Hillary. He shows that the First Lady's domination of the president because of his sexual misadventures brought about the failures of his first years in office, but also steeled him to survive subsequent disasters, conspicuously the Monica Lewinsky affair. For any reader seeking to unravel the Byzantine politics of the 1990s, Chafe's book is indispensable.” —William E. Leuchtenburg, author of In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Barack Obama

“Only a writer as gifted as William H. Chafe could have written this splendid book. In luminous and page-turning prose, Bill and Hillary reveals how two strikingly independent individuals, each the product of difficult beginnings, together changed America and symbolized a new world for women. This is a deeply insightful and warmly empathetic portrait of personal ambition, a complicated marriage, and a powerful political partnership.” —Alice Kessler-Harris, author of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

Library Journal
For better or worse, the Clinton presidency was a partnership that followed a recurring ebb and flow of Bill and Hillary soaring as a team and then plummeting because of the president's philandering. Chafe (Alice and Mary Baldwin Professor of History, Duke Univ.; The Rise and Fall of the American Century from 1890 to 2008) delves into Bill's and Hillary's childhoods, their courtship as Yale Law School students, and Bill's terms as Arkansas governor, describing how their chosen lives contributed to a rocky marriage/partnership in which Hillary would tolerate Bill's affairs and provide much-needed political organization in return for having an important policymaking voice in Arkansas and later in the White House. Chafe skillfully synthesizes biographies such as Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge and David Maraniss's First in His Class to show how the Clintons' problems surfaced when their partnership became unbalanced: a contrite Bill Clinton seeking Hillary's forgiveness would cede too much power to her, with such unfortunate results as "Travelgate," the health-care debacle, and arguments over releasing records for the Whitewater investigation. VERDICT General readers and political junkies will enjoy this reasoned account that concludes with Hillary fulfilling her own political promise as a highly regarded U.S. senator and then secretary of state. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/12.]—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA
Kirkus Reviews
A fresh look at the political rise and fortunes of the Clintons, a saga conditioned, writes Chafe (History/Duke Univ.; The Rise and Fall of the American Century, 2009, etc.), by the best and worst in their natures. "Bill Clinton…is the first politician in history who has perfected the ability to cry in just one eye," remarked Republican political operative and longtime foe--but now, oddly, friend--Haley Barbour, not unappreciatively. Clinton, as Chafe tells it, mastered the psychological survival skills necessary of a child of an abusive, alcoholic parent. Neglected and tormented as a child, he was also raised by a doting grandmother to be a force of destiny, literate by the age of three and a ham and class-time monopolizer by the time he was in elementary school. Clinton's eagerness to please and be adored, oddly mirrored in the current president, played out politically in many episodes. One of the key moments in his early political career was being turned out of the governor's office in Arkansas, which bewildered and depressed him, but which came as no surprise to anyone who shared the widespread view that he was "of an intent to impose ideas on Arkansas's citizens whether they were ready for them or not." Another key moment was the defeat of the omnibus health care act while Clinton was serving his first term as president; he had labored under the view that he could charm the opposition away, while Hillary rejected any suggestion of altering her carefully crafted bill. "The personal dynamic between Bill and Hillary helps explain why repeated possibilities for compromise were persistently rebuffed," writes the author. Psychobiography is always suspect, particularly in the hands of someone who doesn't possess a degree in psychiatry, but Chafe is careful to back up his suppositions with good evidence, and the portrait that emerges is both believable and of consummate interest to political junkies. An illuminating glimpse behind the scenes, though fans and detractors alike will find much room for debate.

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Bill and Hillary

The Politics of the Personal

By William H. Chafe

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 William H. Chafe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5719-3


Bill Clinton: The Early Years

It would be difficult to invent a childhood more bizarre than Bill Clinton's. He was born the son of Virginia Blythe, a nurse proud of her flirtatious nature who spent ninety minutes each morning putting on her makeup. Virginia's husband, Bill, lied serially about his past, and shortly after their marriage during World War II, he went overseas with the army. Five months after returning—and three months before Bill's birth—Bill died in an automobile accident. A year later, Virginia went off to New Orleans to train as a nurse anesthetist, leaving the care of her infant son to her parents. Virginia soon married her second husband, Roger Clinton, whose record of multiple marriages and troubled relationships made Bill Blythe's past look angelic. Soon alcoholism and spousal abuse consumed the Clinton house hold. Through all of this, Billy Clinton stood as the symbol of hope, the adored special child who would make everything right, the savior of an otherwise unredeemable situation. He emerged as a "family hero" who soon came to see himself, and be seen by others, as destined to become a leader, not just of his family and community but of the American nation as a whole.

Virginia Cassidy, Bill's mother, grew up in a house hold torn by conflict. Her mother, Edith Grisham, later called Mammaw by everyone, was born poor in rural Arkansas. She craved money and material goods but felt condemned to a life of working in the fields, trying to make ends meet. She married the boy across the road, James Eldridge Cassidy, a sweet, gentle, fun-loving man—not because he guaranteed her a better life, but because he was submissive and she could control him. Virginia's mother demanded that they move in pursuit of more opportunities, so they crated their belongings and settled in Hope, a small city of five thousand. It was big enough to be a stop on the train line and boasted movie theaters, a commercial district, and a greater variety of people. There, Eldridge got a job delivering ice, while Mammaw trained as a nurse through a correspondence course and hired herself out to private patients. She reveled in her status, proudly wearing her starched white uniform and blue cape embroidered with gold initials. Eldridge had fewer pretensions, but he loved gossiping with his customers and making friends.

But it was not a happy home. "My mother created sparks wherever she went," Virginia later wrote, "which meant that my father and I were the ones who got burned the most." Despite her professional pride in being a nurse, Virginia's mother was at heart mean-spirited, showing little affection for other people. "She had hellfire in her," one friend, Margaret Polk, recalled. Virginia agreed. "Her worst trait was her temper," she said, "which was uncontrollable. She was angry somewhere deep inside her, and she took it out on anybody who happened to be around." On the one hand, she enjoyed being able to help those in need. On the other, she could lash out at those who crossed her, stopping "at nothing to undermine them, to hurt them, in terrible ways." It was as if she possessed two personalities. One was the professional helper she showed the public, dressing up in her uniform and making a mask of rouge and lipstick, "like a stylized character in a Japanese kabuki show," in the words of the Clinton biographer David Maraniss. The other, a tyrant, was obsessed with controlling those around her, hiding a vicious streak of sadism. Her husband and daughter bore the brunt of this second personality.

Not surprisingly, Virginia adored her father. "[I loved him] as much as it was possible for a daughter to love her dad," she wrote. "He was kind and gentle, and he loved laughing and fishing and storytelling and people—especially me." Eldridge Cassidy embraced people, reached out to them. When delivering ice, he often stopped off at a customer's home and stayed for a cup of coffee while he sent his coworkers on to the next stop. Some of his coffee companions were his prettiest customers. "He was a ladies' man," Margaret Polk remembered. Later, when Eldridge developed a bronchial condition, he was forced to give up his ice route. Initially, he opened a liquor store, then a small grocery, where, under the counter, he also sold bootleg alcohol. Virginia, whom he called Ginger, loved hanging out at the store, watching her father interact with customers, extend credit to those in need, and laugh with his friends.

Edith—Mammaw—was less appreciative. Hearing stories of Eldridge's "coffeeklatches" with his female customers, Virginia remembered, "she began her nightly screaming fits." Lunging at him, throwing things, and trying to hurt him physically, she accused him of philandering, though Edith herself was rumored to be romantically linked to doctors in town. When the Depression caused them to lose their house, she blamed Eldridge for "failing us." The Cassidy home was neither nurturing nor kindly.

Virginia watched both parents. In early adolescence, she started to emulate her mother's cosmetic habits. She used mascara, eyeliner, rouge, and lipstick, starting a ritual that would become obsessive through the rest of her life. But there could be no question of where her emotional loyalties rested. "Whenever I did something wrong," she wrote, "Mother would whip me furiously." Father, on the other hand, taught her to think the best of people, give them the benefit of the doubt, and reach out a helping hand.

Ironically, the one issue on which both Edith and Eldridge shared a common outlook was race. One might expect that in a Southern small town the habits of generations of white people would prevail, with racism one way that whites could express their need to feel superior. But neither of Virginia's parents succumbed. Her father cultivated a clientele that was both black and white. He granted credit to blacks as readily as, if not more readily than, to whites. Every customer was treated with dignity and fairness. Edith, in turn, expressed horror when one day she heard Virginia use the word "nigger." Often she volunteered her ser vices to black patients in need. It was the Cassidy home's one saving grace.

Virginia took from each parent certain qualities. Like her mother, she became a consummate makeup artist, shaping the image she would present to the world while masking her own agenda. Willful and tempestuous, she had her mother's flair for independence. She insisted on pursuing her individual objectives regardless of what others thought, a trait that would fuel her decades-long campaign against male doctors who she felt stood in the way of her professional development. But beyond those parallels lay a virulent anger at Edith's capricious and selfish behavior. Like the father she worshipped, Virginia chose to see good rather than bad in people. Purposefully, she set aside the unpleasant to focus on the positive. Denying all the negative realities that surrounded her became a habitual pattern of behavior. In her own words, she "brainwashed" herself to be positive. "Inside is love and friends and optimism," she wrote. "Outside is negativity, can't-doism and any criticism of me and mine. Most of the time, this box is strong as steel." It became the normative mode by which Virginia conducted her life—with profound consequences for her marriages and her children. Looking at a photo of herself taken in late adolescence, with her eyes hooded, she subsequently wrote: "By this time, I guess, I had already learned to keep my dark secrets to myself."

Having finished high school, Virginia set off to realize her dreams, almost immediately engaging in a love affair that dramatically underscored her penchant to "brainwash" herself. Already known for being flirtatious and different, she left Hope to go to Shreveport, Louisiana, to train as a nurse anesthetist. That she was "going steady" with a boy back in Hope posed no problems at the Shreveport hospital the night she encountered Bill Blythe, a twenty-five-year-old who had brought another woman to the hospital for treatment. When he asked Virginia what that "ring on her finger" meant, she replied "nothing." "There is such a thing as love at first sight," she later wrote. And the moment she laid eyes on Bill Blythe, "all the rules were out the window." Like her father, Blythe seemed to love everybody. He told Virginia he was in sales, and she believed him. Charming, funny, ebullient, and, like Virginia, an ardent fan of dancing and a good time, Blythe won her heart immediately. "We talked fast," Virginia recalled, "[we] played fast [and we] fell in love fast." Virginia introduced him to her parents, who also were charmed. Two months after they met, the two married, and five weeks later, Bill Blythe went off to Italy to serve as a mechanic in the U.S. Army.

What had transpired was a triumph of fantasy over reality and a profound testimony to Virginia's instinct for seeing only her own version of what was true. In fact Bill Blythe was not a car salesman. All during the time they were seeing each other—on a daily basis—he was already in the army. Beyond that he came from a large family she knew little about. Most important, she had no notion that he had been married three times before, had divorced all three (and perhaps four) previous wives, had fathered at least one (and perhaps two) children, and in one of the legal cases preceding a divorce had been declared by a judge to be "guilty of extreme cruelty and gross neglect of duty." Everything about Bill Blythe, David Maraniss has written, "was contradictory and mysterious. He constantly reinvented himself, starting over every day, the familiar stranger, an ultimate traveling salesman, surviving off charm and affability." That Virginia did not discover the full story until more than four de cades later highlights the absurdity of what had taken place. More telling was her blind-faith assertion that she could "go to my grave knowing that I was the love of his life."

When Blythe returned to Shreveport in the fall of 1945, he and Virginia talked about moving together to Chicago, where he had a job awaiting him as a salesman. They envisioned a life in which they could raise a family and live out the American dream. For three months, the re united couple lived together in a hotel in Illinois while waiting until a house in Forest Park opened up. That process took longer than expected, and after she discovered she was pregnant, Virginia went back to Arkansas to wait. Shortly afterward, Blythe set out to drive through the night to spend the weekend with her in Hope. Driving too fast, he passed a car, then on the next curve, hurtled off the road and hit a tree. Though he managed to extricate himself from the car, he fell into a ditch full of water and drowned. Three months later his son Bill was born.

Perhaps. Bill Blythe was still in Italy nine months before his son's birth, making it unlikely that he was the father of a child carried to full term. Virginia would later claim that Bill had been born prematurely. But during the period when she was writing her own book, Virginia never mentioned to her collaborator and coauthor that doctors had recommended an early, induced delivery—the story that she subsequently brought forward. Moreover, the birth was not typical of premature deliveries. Bill weighed six pounds eight ounces at birth, a weight not unusual for a full-term delivery. In his speech explaining his decision not to run for president in 1988 in order to spend more time with his daughter, Chelsea, Bill Clinton said: "I made a promise to myself a long, long time ago, that if I was ever lucky enough to have a child, she would never grow up wondering who her father was." To Maraniss, the use of the word "who" suggested doubts in Clinton's mind about the true circumstances of his birth.

Yet the story was about to become even more complicated. After giving birth to her son Bill on August 19, 1946, Virginia returned to her parents' home in Hope. Almost immediately, a war started between Virginia and her mother about who was going to raise—and control—the child. Before long, the winner became clear. As long as Billy was in her home, Mammaw would be in charge. To the exacting daily schedule Mammaw set—when Billy was fed, when he took his naps, what time he went to bed—there would be no exception. The few good moments of mother and son getting to know each other faded before the omnipresent power of her mother, who insisted on "monopolizing him." There was no place to go. Escape became the only option.

After only one year of being a mother, Virginia went off to New Orleans, intent on securing the credentials to become a fulltime nurse anesthetist. It was in many ways the only answer—fleeing an untenable family environment where humiliation and resentment were rampant, seeking the skills that would make possible an in de pen dent life, and doing so in a city perfectly suited for a girl who loved to flirt, dance, and gamble. As Bill Clinton noted in his memoirs, New Orleans was "an amazing place after the war, full of young people, Dixieland music, and over-the-top haunts like the Club My-Oh-My where men in drag danced and sang as lovely ladies. I guess it wasn't a bad place for a beautiful young widow to move beyond her loss." Yes, she sorely missed her son. He always remembered her kneeling by the train crying as she waved goodbye to him after one of his visits to see her. But compared with the misery of her mother's total domination back in Hope, this was liberation.

In the meantime, Bill Clinton had to survive on his own the contested world of his grandparents, torn between the regimented authoritarianism of Mammaw and the warm embrace of his grandfather. Mammaw ran a tight ship, with clear destinations in a narrow sea lane. As he was eating, a friend of Mammaw said, "she was showing him flash cards ... [The coffee table] was filled with kindergarten books ... She had him reading when he was three." At some level, Bill appreciated her dedication. "I knew the poverty of my roots," he later wrote. "I was raised by people who deliberately tried to disabuse me [of the] idea [that I was inferior] from the time I was old enough to think."

He also appreciated the tortured dynamics of his grandparents' relationship. They loved him, he remembered, "much better than they were able to love each other, or, in my grandmother's case, to love my mother." Mammaw was "bright, intense and aggressive [with] a great laugh, but she also was full of anger and disappointment and obsessions she only dimly understood." Instead of dealing with her inner demons, she took out her pathology in "raging tirades against her husband and her daughter." Like his mother, Bill needed to escape, and as it had been for his mother, his outlet was his grandfather's store, where he went every day to play, eat chocolate chip cookies, and revel in the warm embrace of someone who clearly worried about the needs of others more than he worried about his own. In language almost identical to his mother's, Bill Clinton later wrote: "I adored my grandfather." He described him as "an incredibly kind and generous man."

Among other things, Eldridge Cassidy taught his grandson Bill the meaning of racial equality—the natural gift of relating to black Americans, even in a racist Southern state, as friends and equals. "It was rare to find an uneducated rural southerner without a racist bone in his body," Clinton remembered. "That's exactly what my grandfather was." His grandson learned the lesson. He was "the only white boy in that neighborhood who played with black kids," said the daughter of a black customer who remembered what it was like to have fun with a white boy. So even as he squirmed under his grandmother's ironclad tutelage at home, Bill blossomed under the inclusive warmth of his grandfather at the store.

In the end, Bill was shaped by that difficult family dynamic in ways remarkably like his mother. He chose to believe that people were more good than bad, to look on the bright side, to be positive and deny negativity. "A lot of life," he wrote, "is just showing up and hanging on; that laughter is often the best, and sometimes the only response to pain. Perhaps most important, I learned that everyone has a story—of dreams and nightmares, love and loss, courage and fear, sacrifice and selfishness." His grandfather's store had provided a democratic space where he could learn to look on the positive side of human experience and not be possessed by the demons of negativity. "When I grew up and got into politics," he would state, "I always felt the main point of my work was to give people a chance to have better stories."

Excerpted from Bill and Hillary by William H. Chafe. Copyright © 2012 William H. Chafe. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

William H. Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University and the former president of the Organization of American Historians. The author of numerous prizewinning books on civil rights, women's history, and politics, he is best known, most recently, for The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II and Private Lives / Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America.

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Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have not read this book; I'm posting this as a protest to the non-sense "review" below since I have repeatedly flagged the review for "Off Topic Content" and B&N doesn't respond.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You can feel sorry for them if you want too they need to talk to God iam sure he will listen