From Hillary Clinton's days as an intense, influential, and essentially inept co-president to husband Bill, to her establishment as a successful senator from New York, through the bitter trench warfare of the 2008 presidential primaries, and throughout her tenure as a majestic secretary of state, I have always kept the words of my high-school history teacher Dan Leary in mind.
The first woman president, Dan predicted, would be leather-tough and of conservative temperament. He cited Golda Meir of Israel and Indira Gandhi of India, who in those days of low horizons for women seemed to be remarkable anomalies. Today we could add Great Britain's Margaret Thatcher and Germany's Angela Merkel.
In Dan's view, the Eleanor Roosevelt type, the noble reformer, no matter how admired, would not succeed in the blood sport of presidential politics. (Historians, of course, have since established the private Roosevelt as a woman of monumental fortitude.) Implicit in all of this was the belief that the United States was at heart conservative and pragmatic.
A portrait of Clinton as a public pragmatist and private traditionalist emerges clearly in Duke historian William H. Chafe's commanding new book, Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. Chafe goes deep behind the journalist's gloss, and explores with authority and insight the double helix of codependency, of mutual support and inspiration, that is the stuff of the Clinton partnership.
What emerges in Chafe's book is a unified theory of Hillary: the personal and the political. As we know, there was much that was not pretty of the Clinton White House years: Bill's serial philandering, which climaxed in his impeachment; Hillary's role in the two-bit but politically wounding Travelgate episode; her futile intransigence in trying to quash the ultimately bogus Whitewater investigation; the Republicans' craven conflation of Whitewater with the Monica Lewinsky scandal to provoke political paralysis.
The obvious question that lurks between the lines of Chafe's book, and will be present in the mind of a majority of his readers, is this: can Hillary Clinton, the one we know now, become America's first woman president?
The politics of trivia, obstruction, and deceit — the essence of today's radical Republicans — were distilled during the Clinton years. That Hillary correctly intuited the existence of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" long before she pronounced those words in 1998 on the Today show demonstrate Clinton's powers of perception. Whatever her tactical failings, Clinton's response to and her engagement with that conspiracy constituted her vital education in power politics.
Hillary's challenges during her White House years are almost analogous to Franklin Roosevelt's battle with crippling polio. In both cases, the existential trials of their respective lives forged in the smithy of their souls a steel-like will to triumph.
Barack Obama stymied Clinton's fierce will when he narrowly clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The unexpected technical mastery of Obama's camp gave him an edge that Clinton's team — despite heroic efforts — was unable to dull.
There was, however, more to Obama's victory than strategic cunning — supplemented, for sure, with his own cool charisma. The weirdness of the Clinton White House years, fatigue with the unusual dynamics of Hillary and Bill's marriage and the sheer novelty of a wife following her husband to the presidency put the voters on guard.