Clinton roles reversed: Now Bill backstops her


PHILADELPHIA – Young Hillary Rodham’s friends fretted about her hitching her star to a backslapping young boyfriend from Arkansas.

They rolled their eyes when she explained why she uprooted her promising career to follow his.

“He is going to be president,” her friend Bernard Nussbaum recalls her replying angrily, according to different biographies.

“You may think it’s silly. It’s not.”

Some said she had equally high potential and feared she’d throw it away by following Bill Clinton’s political path down south.

Their roles reversed Tuesday: She officially won the Democratic nomination, and he played the role of supportive spouse in a prime-time speech. Clinton told her life story, contrasting the negative image painted by opponents with the real person he said had helped more social causes by the time she was 30 than some people do in a lifetime: ”Good for you,” he said. ”Today you nominated the real one.”

It’s not the first shift in the balance of power for their drama-filled political partnership.

She was his ticket to the in-crowd at Yale, according to a 1996 book by the couple’s then-nemesis David Brock, who later became an ally. He quoted an associate editor of the Yale Law Review, Jerome Hafter, saying: “She was probably considered to be marked for success… He could have ended up selling insurance in Hot Springs.”

She’d made national news at age 19 for scolding a U.S. senator in a college graduation speech. Articles began with references to her hair colour and appearance — one called her a “comely blonde.”

At Yale, Bill was a master shmoozer. A people person who craved an audience and bluntly revealed his political ambitions to anyone listening. Conversely, her affinity for secrecy has occasionally caused trouble — ask the FBI.

Their minds worked differently too. Classmates and professors recall her as studious. He seemingly learned on the fly, with an uncanny knack for absorbing details and finding broader meaning.

Clinton briefly referenced the well-documented bumps in their marriage. He alluded Tuesday to: ”Good times and bad… joy and heartbreak.” She rejected his first two marriage proposals.

She realized early in their courtship that Bill was a cheater, according to Brock’s book, and Carl Bernstein’s, “A Woman In Charge.” They fought bitterly over his serial juggling of sexual relationships, according to those two books. But she moved to Arkansas, and married in 1975.

She offered political guidance, sometimes in public. A newspaper article from his first term as governor describes how she restrained him as he lost his cool during a news conference. He’d been caught speeding, and started scolding reporters for making a big deal about it.

She quickly became a polarizing figure.

In a conservative state, political opponents made hay of her using her maiden name. A woman who happened to share the name of Clinton’s press secretary had to get an unlisted phone number: “I had some real irate calls from people who wanted to know why Governor Clinton’s wife continued to use her maiden name,” the other Joan Roberts told The Associated Press.

Clinton defended her choice. But he made sure to let the public know it had nothing to do with feminism: “She decided to do that when she was nine — long before women’s lib came along,” the rookie governor said.

“People wouldn’t mind if they knew how old-fashioned she was.”

Their relationship changed after a 1980 setback.

Clinton lost the governorship and spiraled into a sobbing mess. People recalled him wandering around a grocery store for hours, asking people what he’d done wrong. Clinton suggested years later in an interview that their worst marital troubles occurred around then.

But their political partnership grew.

Commentators have snarkily surmised that she stuck with the marriage to save their political career. Brock suggested it’s the opposite: her husband was falling apart, so she got involved in politics to save the marriage.

But he notes the unintended consequence of her public role: “Bill’s political career began to swallow Hillary up.”

She dropped her maiden name. She changed her appearance. She replaced her bottle-bottom glasses with contacts, coiffed her hair, and replaced her loose-fitting granola garb with fancier business attire.

She also took charge of his office.

The long-haired hippies of her husband’s first term were out. In came Betsey Wright, an old friend she recruited from Texas. Wright was dispirited by the name change. She’d been so convinced Hillary could become a trailblazing female icon that she’d already moved once for her, to Washington a decade earlier.

Yet here she was, Hillary Clinton of Arkansas.

“I teared up. I had a lump in my throat,” Wright told Bernstein.

Hillary guided her husband’s politics and policy. At her urging, he apologized to voters for first-term mistakes in ads where he said: “My daddy never had to whip me twice for the same thing.” She oversaw a tactical shift to the political centre. Hillary personally led his signature education reform that included a left-right mixture of tax hikes, and teacher testing that angered unions.

She was again handed his biggest file in the White House: health reform.

Her congressional testimony impressed fans and foes. A Washington Post columnist called her a superstar. Nemesis Newt Gingrich raved that she’d performed better than a White House aide, who Gingrich said would have been destroyed during questioning.

Yet the health reform died from 1,000 political scalpels. Attacked by the insurance industry, congressional allies bailed, and massive Democratic losses in the 1994 midterm elections killed health reform for a generation.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who finally signed a health bill, speaks to the convention Wednesday night. Her former rival, then boss, has joined a line of people predicting she’d someday hold high office.

On that day in 1969, when she delivered the speech that produced her first national news headlines, the mother of her classmate Nancy Wanderer told a Frontline documentary years later: “I will never forget it because Nancy said to me at the end of graduation, ‘Take a good look at her. She will probably be president of the United States someday.'”