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Sixteen years have passed since Bill Clinton confessed to an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, rocking his presidency and humiliating his family. Recently, Hillary Clinton discussed her decision to stand by him, telling the BBC, “Forgiveness is a choice. And I fully respect those who don’t make that choice for whatever reason in their personal or their professional lives, but for me it was absolutely the right choice.”
It certainly served her well professionally. Privately, she had to swallow her pride while she stood by her cheating man, but publicly she put on a brave face, stressing the importance of family and forgiveness. Her popularity soared, and so did her career. She ran a high-profile race for a U.S. Senate seat in New York and won. And, the power dynamic in her relationship shifted: She was no longer her husband’s cheerleader as he rocketed through the political ranks. He was hers.
In saving Bill, “Hillary liberated herself,” says William H. Chafe, a professor emeritus of history at Duke University and author of the 2012 book Bill And Hillary: The Politics Of The Personal. Apparently, Hillary would agree. She told the BBC, “It’s not by accident the great religions, the great writers, talk about how the person who forgives is liberated — maybe even more than the person who is forgiven.”
Hillary forgave Bill many times, including for his affair with model Gennifer Flowers before Lewinsky. He is once again being accused of a new affair, with a mysterious blonde who allegedly visits while his wife is away. The New York Post reports the alleged fling will be unveiled in a new book The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of Presidents, out next month.
Hillary knew about Bill's womanizing from early on, Chafe tells Refinery29. The two first met and sparked a romance at Yale Law School, becoming inseparable. “I think they were very complementary, and they recognized that in each other from the get-go. He was the feminine and she was the masculine in terms of traditional ways of relating to people: He was much more interested in making friends and forming strong relationships; she was much more focused and task oriented,” he says. She brought discipline to his life, and he helped “soften” her.
The problem: Bill was “schizophrenic in his attitude toward women,” Chafe says. During a chaotic upbringing in Arkansas, his mother had taught him to be flirtatious and to flatter women. “She was always directing him toward the beauty queens,” Chafe says. “And, yet he said that when it came to the person he married, he wanted her to be a very career-oriented, serious, intellectual person. So, even as he pursued and desired a long-term relationship with Hillary, he never lost the other side of his erotic instincts.”
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The indiscretions began before they were married, Chafe says. “When he ran for Congress in Arkansas in 1974, she knew that he was seeing various women in the campaign. She actually had her father and her brother go and ‘volunteer’ for the campaign, but really to keep an eye on Bill.” Eventually she “pretty much took over the campaign,” he says. “And, when she came to headquarters, the staff would whisk those girlfriends out.”
After a few years together, Hillary had to decide whether it was worth taking a risk on a lifelong partnership with Bill, “knowing as she did that he was not going to be faithful,” Chafe explains. Marriage was not a decision she made quickly or lightly. Ultimately, “she was in love, he had unlimited potential, he would make a difference, and she could be part of that,” Chafe wrote in his book. “Love and calculation went hand in hand, leading to her conclusion that this relationship might be the most realistic way to achieve what her heart told her to do and also what her mind wanted.”
When Bill nearly exploded both his presidency and his marriage with the Lewinsky scandal in the summer of 1998, Hillary’s decision to stick by him was strongly influenced by her mother. Like Bill, Hillary had grown up in a tumultuous household in Illinois, with a mother who chose to hold the family together despite the “gruffness, authoritarianism and capriciousness” of her husband, Chafe wrote. Hillary also knew she was stronger with Bill by her side — his popularity remained high, despite his misdeeds. “She knew: If he goes down, I go down,” Chafe says. And, each time Hillary forgave him, he owed her more.
“When he acted out sexually, he knew he owed her. Whenever she became aware of his transgressions, the debt rose exponentially," Chafe wrote in his book. After the indignity of the Lewinsky affair, with all the sordid details spilling out, Hillary was angry and embarrassed, and Bill tried hard to make it up to her. In time, observers noticed more hand-holding, hugging, more eye contact. “In some respects their partnership achieved a new intimacy and camaraderie when she stood by him in the face of his misbehavior,” Chafe wrote. After Lewinsky, “Hillary was back in command. Having now performed the ultimate act of rescuing her husband from shameful humiliation, Hillary could think of her own future.”
Indeed, when she and Bill left the White House, Hillary’s approval rating was at new high, says Chafe. And, she was off and running, with Bill cheering her on. She won the Senate seat in New York. She went on to run for president against Barack Obama, then took up the post as Secretary of State. Now she is poised to potentially run for president again. A new poll showed that Democrats are overwhelmingly ready for her to run as their candidate in 2016.
Why should voters care about Hillary’s personal life? Because it’s part of her political life. It says something important about her perseverance and focus, her skills as a leader: She put personal pride aside in the short term to focus on family and long-term goals. She vanquished a potentially disastrous scandal and made it all work. “I am grateful every day that that's the choice I made,” she recently told the BBC.
If she runs for president and wins, Bill will be the first First Husband in the White House. It's a role he is clearly ready to play. He weighed in on the couple’s personal and political relationship this week, telling CNN, “When I left the White House and Hillary went into the Senate in New York, I told her, for 26 years you made a lot of sacrifices for my public life. So I give you the next 26 years. And if I’m still around, then we’ll fight about what we are going to do after that.”
Tell us what you think: Should Hillary have stood by Bill or left him years ago?