Hillary is on the ropes, Chelsea’s powder-puff punches aren’t landing, and the corner men are getting nervous. Now, into the ring for the 15th round, climbs William Jefferson Clinton, the blue-eyed, white-haired ex-champion, fighting one final public battle on behalf of the woman he betrayed.
There are about 160 Democrats in the exposed-brick banqueting room of a long-abandoned, handsomely repurposed bedspread factory above the ice-rimmed Sugar River in the little town of Claremont, N.H. Whether it is from nostalgia for the (economically) Gay Nineties, or eagerness to catch a glimpse of the fading patina of his impeachable roguery, they have come to see a statesman whose extraordinary life and career has been a mash-up of two Madisons: James and Ashley.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” winks the fourth U.S. president, who died in 1836.
“Life is short. Have an affair,” coos the adultery website, which boasts of a roster of more than 43,000,000 members.
In any other election year but 2016, the lewd acts that led Bill Clinton (and his family) to the brink of eviction from the White House in 1999 might be dismissed as hoary and irrelevant. But with Hillary Clinton presenting herself as a champion of women’s rights around the world, her past reaction to her husband’s infidelities—and in particular, her shaming of the women he dallied with—have become raw meat for others who seek the same prize.
“She’s not a victim. She was an enabler,” Donald Trump snarled in December, just after Bill hit the stump. “She worked with him. She was—some of the women have been totally destroyed. Some of these women have been destroyed. And Hillary worked with him. There’s no feeling sorry for Hillary in this situation.”
(“Can you please explain the difference between unconditional love and enabling? wrote “Frustrated” to the advice column of the Lebanon, N.H., Valley News last week. “Dear Frustrated,” the editors replied, “Unconditional love means you love someone regardless of their behaviour, while not necessarily condoning what they do . . . Enabling is acting in a way that allows the loved one to continue behaviour that is damaging to either himself or others . . . It is often easier to be an enabler than to hold someone responsible for their behaviour. But “easier” is the wrong choice.”)
“Unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband,” insinuated Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate whose poll numbers have gone as flat as a Claremont bedspread. This has been a familiar rubric of the Republican right for more than a quarter-century—to paint Hillary Rodham Clinton as a shrill and frigid harridan; unloving, unlovable and unloved. Or, as one despicable tweet that rattled around the nation (and onto the Donald’s feed) last April put it: “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
The insinuations still sting. Forty-six per cent of respondents to a recent Fox News poll said they thought that Bill Clinton’s sexual history has hurt Hillary’s political career. Twenty-one per cent said they thought it helped her. The survey did not touch on the Donald’s three wives—only one of whom is a natural-born citizen of the United States—nor on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s two marriages, nor on his son born out of wedlock, back in 1969.
“Any campaign surrogate’s past remarks and behaviour are fair game—a former president’s surely are,” wrote columnist Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post last weekend, lending gravitas to all of this background noise.” Especially when they stand in contradiction to the candidate’s message.”
“I have more respect for women than Hillary Clinton has,” crowed Trump, who drew more than a thousand raucous fans to a rally in Claremont a week before the ex-president rode in. “I have more respect than Hillary Clinton, OK?”
Add this to Clinton’s travails over her private email server, her hoarding of nearly $12 million in speaker’s fees before she formally announced her candidacy, and the blurred lines between the good works of the Clinton Foundation and the political interests of the sheiks and potentates who donated to it, and you can understand why her campaign sent out an appeal for even more cash last week under the plaintive banner, “Our girl Hillary needs you right now.”
Bill must have read the email; for better or for worse, whether for love or for money, the old warrior wraps his hands and dons the gloves. “Everything she ever touched in her life she made better. She’s the best change agent I ever saw,” he says in Claremont.
Little New Hampshire, whose population is barely one-fortieth of Ashley Madison’s, is the state where, on primary day a generation ago, Bill Clinton proclaimed himself “the comeback kid” and vowed to be a faithful servant of the American people “until the last dog dies.”
This is the state where, on Feb. 9, according to every opinion poll and forecast, Hillary Clinton will be kayoed by Bernie Sanders’s far-left hooks in the famous “first in the nation” primary, dropping her once iron-clad candidacy into a predicament that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago. “Bernie’s got a real shot,” wrote the old Clinton retainer James Carville to Hillary’s email list last week. “And if we don’t take that seriously, we’re in for a world of hurt.”
Claremont is the very same city (population, 13,000; 0.6 per cent African-American) where, in 1992, the same Bill Clinton was giving a campaign speech at the exact moment that a woman named Gennifer Flowers was going public that she and Clinton once enjoyed a consensual romp.
Twenty-four years later, Bill Clinton and an audience of ordinary citizens reunite at an auberge named, appropriately enough, the Common Man. On tap at this frosty weekday whistle stop is a draft of cheerleading for his first and only bride, laced with a longer, stronger shot of self-congratulation. (Hillary, meanwhile, was campaigning in Iowa.)
“We need hope, fulfilled,” the ex-president says, succinctly puncturing the presidency of Barack Obama, the man whose obliteration of Hillary in 2008 Bill Clinton labelled a “fairy tale.” But it is a different fable that enfolds the women of Claremont when a Maclean’s correspondent seeks them out at the Common Man Inn and in the shops of the riverine community. It is the sometimes saccharine, sometimes grim fairy tale of Bill and Hillary, and what it means—or shouldn’t mean —to her presidential run.
“I remember thinking that Bill was a man of integrity,” says Lori Roy, owner of the Jozach jewellery shop at the foot of Pleasant Street. “I remember being like, wow, a presidential candidate playing the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show! He was very different from all the other candidates. I liked Bill. When he was president, our economy was great, the whole country was in sync during the time he was there.”
There is no one else in the bright-lit store when Lori Roy leans forward and says, “My husband also had an extramarital affair. Did I tolerate it? No. It’s hard, and it’s humiliating. I had two children. I lived in a very small town where everybody knew everybody. I can’t imagine what Hillary went through, going through the same thing in the eyes of the whole world.”
“Does it matter now?” Roy is asked.
“Hillary has certainly made her own identity, there’s no question,” she replies. “She’s done a lot of great things. But she’s also done some things that are not so great. She was in the White House the whole time he was, the whole time all these things were coming out. I think the reason she didn’t deny all those rumours and stand behind his denials was that she knew the truth behind it.”
“When I was in college, I was enthralled by Bill Clinton,” says a member of the Sullivan County branch of the Democratic Party. “When all of the other stuff happened, I was heartbroken, and it makes me hesitant to support her because all of that stuff is bound to come back up.”
“I don’t think that anyone should be judged solely by the actions of someone else,” argues Elyse Crossman, director of the Greater Claremont Chamber of Commerce. “It’s kind of ancient history. He’s not who’s running.”
“It doesn’t matter to me at all,” says a woman named Dianne Rochford at the Common Man Inn, wearing a “Ready for Hillary” button from her 2008 campaign. “What happened was between Bill and Hillary, and between Bill and Monica. Bill has had to make amends to his higher power, and to Hillary. Do I approve of what he did? No. But nobody’s perfect. We all have feet of clay.”
Rochford reports that she has been married for 55 years—to a travelling salesman. “He has his chances, I have my chances, we all have chances,” she says. “We have to make good choices.”
Related reading: On the road (again) with Hillary Clinton
“One day you’re married and the next day you’re not,” says a woman who asks to be identified as “Brenda Starr,” after the comic-strip reporter. She also had been through her own crucible of cheating and divorce. “He didn’t shoot me, and he didn’t beat me. He just left. Everybody knew. But it wasn’t in People magazine.
“I guess I felt sorry for Hillary. I thought she acted pretty well. She went on to have her own life, to be a senator. She had guts. But I always thought that they had a marriage of convenience. When she was a senator, she was in Washington and he was in New York. When she was Secretary of State, she was never home. I don’t think they have dinner together at 5:30 every night. I don’t know why he’s campaigning for her. Is it going to change anybody’s vote? No.”
On the Sugar River, Bill’s manifesto speaks as much to the rosy achievements of his own regime as it does to the golden promise of a third Clinton-family term. At times, he deadens the crowd with rambling expostulations on small-business loans, wind power, the human genome and unemployment in the West Virginia coalfields. He is hoarse. He uses a hearing aid. People whisper: “He is getting old.”
“Think of your own life,” the two-term president says. “Everybody has difficulties, but you can get over anything if you can look in the mirror and say, ‘Things will get better. People can get over anything if they have hope.”
“I was raised by my mother to believe that if you’re ashamed of something, you shouldn’t do it,” he tells the electorate. “And if you do do it, you should admit it.” But this incipient confessional peters out into an account of Hillary’s efforts to get China and Russia to agree to slap sanctions on Iran.
Eventually, the 42nd president rises to his affirmation of his wife to be the 45th.
“America risks being torn into little zones of resentment,” he warns. Adjusting for inflation, he reports, “half of the people in this country are making less money than when I left office.”
Hillary Clinton, her husband proclaims, “is the most qualified person who has ever run for president. I think she is the best candidate to bring us together again.”
“Oh yes, oh yes!” Dianne Rochford says in the crowd below. “You could see it in how he talked. He isn’t just proud of her,” says the travelling salesman’s wife. “He loves her.”