Style can be substance, or so I came to believe down the years. What a union Bill and Hillary Clinton represented when it came to that two-for-one political potion. But if you saw their rise, as I did, then you had to consider their fall.
“I’m happy you’re happy,” said Bill, then Governor of Arkansas, as I thanked him for our first interview at a leadership conference in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1991, the year he launched his campaign for the Presidency. He then gave me a handshake that became an arm-rub, plus a smile which convinced you instantly that he cared. “Come find me if you need more.”
Clinton boasted more intellectual firepower than any politician of his generation
That was Clinton, so many said, the consummate schmoozer. The retail merchant. The sharp operator wedded to his own progress and prosperity. Never a visionary, in the eyes of his critics.
As a correspondent at his White House for eight years, then as a subordinate when he worked with the United Nations, I came to disagree for the longest time. Clinton boasted more intellectual firepower than any politician of his generation (make that my generation), his grasp of detail and policy unmatched, his ability to convert idea into political strategy quite extraordinary. But to what end? That, for many of us watching up-close, became the question.
Hillary could not have been more of a contrast in so many obvious ways. Buttoned-up, to coin a Midwestern phrase, the land after all of her birth and the kind of parenting, by her own recall, that stressed achievement rather than hugs. “We have five minutes, not more,” she told me as I chatted with her for the first time at a campaign stop in that key early state, New Hampshire, in January 1992, the year Bill won it all.
What followed from her that morning, in maybe six minutes, represented a super-sharp, bullet-point manifesto of the agenda the Clinton marriage brought to the White House. Mrs Clinton rattled them off, a power-point presentation ahead of its time. Health care reform, saving Social Security, i.e. state pensions, using the “peace dividend” post Cold War, and then, “giving women a voice,” the phrase she used. “Gender equality” was not the defined goal back in 1992, an idea threatening, and the polls said so, to males in middle America 30 years ago.
I just remember thinking: these two complement each other so perfectly, style and substance somehow fused. What one lacked (he focus, her charisma) the other boasted in spades. Whatever else we wondered about, not least their marriage, we had to understand that powerful chemistry. “Yes, Sirree, they sure do complement each other,” said Clinton’s mother Virginia, when we spoke at her home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, as he emerged from such backwaters to the Presidency. The son of a single mother, notoriously needy and needing to be loved.
Within 24 hours of that meeting with Hillary in New Hampshire, and then another interview with the candidate himself (“I’m pleased you came to find me,” he said this time), the marriage was embroiled in one of its semi-inevitable scandals. A so-called “cabaret singer” (to this day I’m not sure what that means) named Gennifer Flowers went public with a claim of a 12-year affair with Governor Clinton.
Within 48 hours, on the eve of the New Hampshire vote so critical to their chances, the Clinton marriage took to the airwaves to explain. Yes, Bill acknowledged the “pain” he had caused their marriage. But No, Hillary insisted she was not some country singer, “standing by her man.” The marketing was brilliant, however shallow it looked. They acknowledged the accusation. They presented a united front on their agenda. Style saved the day, and kept substance alive.
What mattered to the first couple was how it looked, not how it was. Style overwhelmed substance in the tortuous summer of impeachment
And style meant Bill didn’t need to win in the snows of New Hampshire. Coming second in that critical primary post the scandal, he sat down with us to do retail again and claim victory of sorts. “I guess you could call me the Comeback Kid,” he told me with a trademark chuckle, before launching into a volley of proposals, from giving everyone health care to dealing with the new Russia, ending our chat with another arm-rub. The “Comeback Kid” became the lead narrative as the campaign moved on and flourished. Style triumphed over scandal.
But fast forward to the White House years, come the scandal of 1998, and the finger-wagging lies about a sexual relationship with a White House intern named Monica, the modus operandi triggered the meltdown that has haunted the Clintons ever since. What mattered to the first couple was how it looked, not how it was. Style overwhelmed substance in the tortuous summer of impeachment, and the autumn of disillusion it created. As a correspondent working their White House, what you saw was what you got — the Clintons going back to the well that had worked for them in the past.
So Bill, under oath, could question the meaning of the word “is,” not to mention whether oral sex equated to a sexual relationship. So Hillary could insist “a vast, right-wing conspiracy” was at work to remove her husband. So they could ride out the storm, deflecting attention any which way. At one point the President gave the order to bomb Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on a pretext that was patently engineered to distract all from impeachment votes. Style burned substance.
The White House years produced some memorable moments, but not the legacy Bill and Hillary wanted. Who can ever forget President Clinton the matchmaker, in the middle, his outstretched arms persuading Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, to shake hands on peace? Or Clinton the healer, leading the nation in mourning after the Oklahoma City bombing, the first terror attack? All the while, the Clinton administration enjoyed a boom economy, riding the wave of the early dot.coms. Heck, he even balanced the budget, telling us correspondents that all the time, then adding his calling card: “I feel your pain.”
Even after their years in power, the two produced substance. At the UN, where I later advised the Secretary-General, we worked with Bill Clinton and his foundation on everything from HIV/AIDS, to the Tsunami of 2004, to trying to save Haiti. Hillary, for her part as Secretary of State, worked overtime on repairing America’s relationship with the world after the Dubya Bush years. Even if she still had “only five minutes,” as she told me when I asked her to meet that boss of mine, the Secretary-General, in 2010.
Could anyone forget the debacle of Hillary’s attempt to find a way forward on health care, the issue which then waited for the Obama administration 16 years later?
But could anyone forget the debacle of Hillary’s attempt to find a way forward on health care, the issue which then waited for the Obama administration 16 years later? Or the creation of a cynical bill to “end welfare as we know it,” which adopted Republican policy to ensure that Bill handily defeated the Republicans for a second term in 1996, and so condemned many a single mother to poverty? Let alone the President’s refusal, for so long, to apologise to the most famous intern of the age, Monica Lewinsky. Today that omission would probably cost him the job. In short, style overwhelmed substance.
The comeuppance lay in Hillary’s defeat, at the hands of Donald Trump, in 2016. Trump, the ultimate exponent of style over substance, the king of bluff and bluster, exploited the weakness of the Clinton union, the deep, popular distrust of Bill and Hillary. The pain, ultimately, became theirs. The tragedy lay, perhaps, in the substance the two of them, that “Billary” union, could have brought to the world’s table. Substance all of us surely needed in the age of pandemic.
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