News that Hillary Clinton is planning to retire from public life has been met with a healthy dose of scepticism. There are plenty who can't seem to accept that the Secretary of State, and former First Lady, is ready to give up on her ambition of being the first female President of the United States.
Hillary Clinton last month, announced that she was ready to hang up her political boots. Despite enjoying popularity and public approval that is unprecedented in her 20-year career -- a record that (theoretically at least) brings her close enough to the presidency in 2016 that she could smell it, America's most powerful woman has had enough
She was, she said, ready to step off "the high wire of American politics". Perhaps, with the tactician's sense of timing, this suggested that she knows when to make an exit, leaving on a high. Or perhaps she was bluffing. After all, it seems hard to believe that a woman so regularly characterised as being made of pure, uncut ambition should step down when she still has a shot at the top job.
For Hillary, the White House has long been the lodestar of her life. From the early days, when it was Bill's career that was in the spotlight, Hillary played much more than just a background, supporting role. On the campaign trail for the Clinton presidency, she was such a hit with the voters that she took to telling them: "If you vote for him, you get me." Hillary redefined the role of First Lady. Far from being just a consort in couture, she pitched herself as a co-president, and never apologised for the fact that she too was political to the core. She and Bill, we understood, were partners not just in life but in office too.
It's hard to say now whether this fact further increased the force of the blow each time her husband publicly humiliated her through his incessant infidelity. After all, his behaviour was arguably an assault on the primacy of her position as his wife.
But perhaps, conversely, it had just the opposite effect. With Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky and the countless other women it seemed, from the outside at least, to be all about sex for Bill. Only Hillary, we might guess, held the key to his mind, and his office.
Hillary's biographer, Gail Sheehy, claims that Bill was a compulsive philanderer from the first. The pair met while both were law students at Yale. He, then a charming, maverick Southerner, souped-up on sex drive and ambition, focused his gaze on the young Hillary.
"I knew from the minute I saw her that if I got involved with her I would fall in love with her," he recollected of their meeting, perhaps more inclined to sentiment than his wife. "I saw her across the hall. And I'd been trying to work up the guts to talk to her. And she threw a book down at the end of the library -- it's a long, skinny room -- and she walked the length of that room and she said: 'Listen, if you're going to keep staring at me and I'm going to keep staring back, we should at least know each other's names'."
It's inevitable, of course, given that she came to prominence as a wife first and politician later, that she would have to suffer the predictable charge of being a Lady Macbeth type figure, who developed close relationships with men who served her own ambitions. According to Sheehy, when she met Bill that day in the library, she was already in a relationship with her first college boyfriend, a young man called David Rupert. Rupert claims that Hillary promptly dumped him in favour of Bill once she learned that the former didn't have the presidency on his list of goals for the future.
To the young Hillary, success was all. Her father was a small-business owner and a staunch Republican. She grew up in the Fifties -- a high-achieving kid from a relatively comfortable, deeply religious family. She has been a political animal since childhood. Her own identity as a liberal and Democrat was part rebellion against her father, part political coming-to- consciousness. It was a development that her mother attributed to charity work she did as an adolescent through the family's Methodist church. She worked with inner-city children in her native Chicago, as well as the children of Mexican migrant workers.
Even as a small child she was scrappy -- displaying the indomitable spirit she would have to call on so regularly as an adult. Her mother, who died just last year, liked to tell the story of the time that a four-year-old Hillary took on the local bully and won. "There's no room in this house for cowards," Hillary's mother remembers telling her after she got beaten up. "You're going to have to stand up to her. The next time she hits you, I want you to hit her back. Hillary threw out her fist, knocking [the bully] off her pins." It was a defining victory. A triumphant Hillary returned home to her mother and announced: "I can play with the boys now!"
This lesson, about the imperative to show strength at all costs was one she must have drawn on later, when facing a faithless husband and a hostile public. In the dark days, when her enemies referred to her as "the wicked witch of the White House". It's useful too, no doubt, on the many occasions these days when she has to engage in strong-armed negotiations with rogue states.
Though often characterised in her early days as a blue-stockinged intellectual, Sheehy reveals the young Hillary's wild side. David Rupert initiated her into the hedonistic culture of student campuses in the days of the Vietnam War. Together, we are assured by Clinton's biographer, they experimented with "sex" and attended "drug parties". Though unlike her husband Bill, there is no clear evidence or testimony as to whether or not she inhaled.
When she met Bill at law school, she like many, many women before and after her, found his famous magnetism irresistible.
In a landmark new documentary about the Clinton years, aired last week in America, the Labor Secretary Robert Reich describes the fundamental difference between Hillary and Bill as students. Bill was a maverick figure, a little feckless, who saw his time in law college as a chance to network and make contacts rather than waste time in the library.
"Hillary," he said was "so much more obviously an intellectual. Her power was much more disciplined than his -- she was a leader, she was a do-er."
This mental discipline, however, had its limits.
"Bill is her only rebellion," says Sheehy, who has described the power Hillary's husband wielded over her as "the one thing she cannot logically explain".
"When Bill entered her world he kicked over the apple cart. Using his well-rehearsed powers of seduction he introduced pleasure, surprise, spontaneity ... For the first time she was overwhelmed by something she couldn't control."
Bill and Hillary married in 1975. Soon after, she scaled back her dedication to advancing her career as a lawyer in order to set up shop with him in Arkansas, where he was making a strategic bid for governorship. Still, despite allowing her husband to take the lead, she found her own, subtle, ways to demonstrate her independence of mind. When Bill won the seat at the age of 32, she caused a minor stir when she declined to take his name, remaining Hillary Rodham, as First Lady of Arkansas. "I joked one time that probably the only man in Arkansas who didn't ask me to change my name was my husband -- who said: 'This is your decision and you do exactly what you want'."
She returned the support during his run up to the presidency, campaigning tirelessly on his behalf, and winning over large swathes of the public. She had an image overhaul to tie in with her new standing and profile, her frizzy brown hair coiffed into a sleek blonde bob. But before Clinton had even won, trouble had started to show. It was in 1992 that an actress and model by the name of Gennifer Flowers came forward with the explosive allegation that she and Bill Clinton had been conducting a 12-year affair. Bill's public denials collapsed when Flowers produced recordings of telephone interviews between the two.
Hillary weathered the storm, but this was to be just the tip of the iceberg. His philandering was incessant. Says Gail Sheehy: "On the very morning, in 1993, that the newly elected President William Jefferson Clinton was to fly to Washington for his inauguration, he had sex in his official mansion with Jo Jenkins, who was his mistress of the moment."
Those close to the family have suggested that Hillary was always aware of Bill's chronic fallibility in this regard. That perhaps a pattern of transgression and contrition from him, followed eventually by forgiveness from her, was part of the established rhythm of their partnership. Whatever the understanding between the two of them, somehow Hillary's steadfastness in the face of her husband's betrayal won her public support. It was Hillary who saved her husband's skin after Flowers, when she sat beside him during a television interview on 60 Minutes and famously declared: "I'm not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him, and I respect him and I honour what he's been through and we've been through together. And you know, if that's not enough for people then heck, don't vote for him."
This show of strength and pragmatism saved Bill's campaign. Sheehy noted: "You can see why he was so attached to her -- because she had the power to save him."
Hillary's handling of the issue did no harm to her own public image either. A complex mix, no doubt, of sympathy and admiration lifted her approval ratings from the low 30s to in excess of 50 per cent in the aftermath of the Lewinsky affair, during which her husband was not only exposed once again as a cheat, but faced impeachment after lying about it under oath.
Only a singular sort of woman could emerge from that situation without appearing to be either a victim or a fool. Hillary had the grit and grounding to escape either tag. Her public show of anger, tempered as it was with compassion, struck a chord. She expressed her disappointment, but also her determination to forgive. Some years later, she frankly expressed her attitude to the matter: "You know in Christian theology there are sins of weakness and sins of malice, and this was a sin of weakness.
"Yes, he has weaknesses," she said, "yes he needs to be more responsible, more disciplined," she said. "Everyone has some dysfunction in their families. They have to deal with it. You don't walk away if you love someone. You help the person. Is he ashamed? Yes. Is he sorry? Yes. But does this negate everything he has done as a husband, a father, a president? There has been enormous pain, enormous anger, but I have been with him half my life and he is a very, very good man. We just have a deep connection that transcends whatever happens."
Now, even though she holds one of the highest offices in America -- a job that requires lots of travel, she claims that they are close. Members of her team insist the couple speak every day on the phone, and are known to spend weekends together at their ranch, Chappaqua.
They are united, one imagines too, in their devotion to their only child, Chelsea. A friend of the family has said Hillary's best friends are work and her daughter, and now Marc Mezvinksy, her son-in-law.. In 2010, Chelsea got married and embarked on a career as a television reporter. In the run up to the wedding, Hillary was regularly overheard declaring that her duties as mother of the bride were the most important on her agenda, despite also being involved in delicate diplomatic wrangling in the Middle East at the time. This level of motherly dedication hasn't always been as evident, however. Soon after Bill became president, the young Chelsea became ill at school. She told the nurse on duty: "My mom's too busy ... Call my dad."
Nonetheless, Chelsea's privacy has always been fiercely guarded by both her parents. Rumours that Chelsea's marriage was on the rocks, soon disappeared.
And through all of this, across thousands of miles, and between the most pressing of schedules, the lines of communication between the Secretary of State and her husband, the ex-president, are constantly open. "We talk," she has said. "We talk in the solarium, in the bedroom, in the kitchen -- it's just constant conversation."
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