The thrill of Bill & Hill
You see that smile of his, still popping up almost daily in the news, and it stops you. Melts you. There’s just more exuberance in it — more messy life — than in the studied, self-conscious expressions of so many of the candidates who came after him, including the two squaring off for the presidency right now. He’s on high beams, even in his vegan senescence. They’re on dimmers.
You snap to attention when you spot her, too, not because she has his goofy radiance but because she’s such an improbable survivor — from Hillarycare to everywhere, a secretary of state as frequent-flying and industrious as any — and because after all these years, she remains an erratically coifed enigma, the conventional interpretation of any one chapter of her life not sufficing for the next. First she got so far and presumptuously ahead of herself, an upstart. Then she patiently did the work and re-created herself, a penitent. When she set her sights on the Oval Office, she seemed as intent as anybody had ever been. When she didn’t get there, she let go of the dream with uncommon grace.
Or did she? Maybe the two of them are scheming afresh. You never really know. That’s the stormy, thrilling, unrivaled adventure of them.
Without Bill and Hill, where would we be? Bored even sillier than we are. Bereft of genuinely juicy players. Consigned to the snooze button that is Mitt and the cold touch of no-drama Obama. That’s why we keep letting Billary back on center stage. Or, rather, yanking them there, by turning each of his demi-gaffes into a meta-story, by weaving fantasies in which she takes over for Joe Biden and he takes a train back to Delaware. They hold the spotlight. They add a dollop of mystery, a dose of madness and a crucial heartbeat to a strangely bloodless, mirthless presidential contest.
The 2012 race is an exercise in extreme caution starring two exercisers more devoted than Bill usually managed to be. For all the stark differences in their ideologies and biographies, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are strikingly alike in their taut, tidy, temperate ways, each the perfect and photogenic patriarch of a perfect and photogenic brood. Together they foster a curious kind of longing for the Clintons, not just because the couple inhabited the White House during the last era of outsize prosperity and not just because they still had so much boomer vitality left when they left, bound for Chappaqua but not obscurity.
They’re relished because they were (and are) such great characters, and such relatable ones. They wore their flab, their flaws and their bruises as conspicuously as their talents. Although insanely gifted, they’re also all too human, to crib the phrase that George Stephanopoulos aptly used as the title for his book about his Billary years.
I was reminded of this by an advance peek at the miniseries “Political Animals,” a zippy television fiction to begin on the USA Network next weekend. It stars Sigourney Weaver as a former first lady who is excoriated by many feminists for standing by her philandering man; subsequently runs for the presidency herself; loses her party’s nomination to an ultrasmooth whippersnapper; is plucked to be his secretary of state; and, in that assignment, wrings a whole new amplitude of respect from Americans who still have questions about her life choices but not about her dedication to public service or her competence. Sound like anybody you know?
Unlike Hill, Weaver’s character divorces her ex-president husband, but he still strides confidently across the cultural landscape, a libidinous Southern charmer whose effervescence is a constant rebuke to her stiffness and the laboriousness of her march toward popular affection. Just like Bill, he questions the competence of the man who defeats the former first lady in her presidential campaign. He also tells her, “Baby, I am the meat in the Big Mac of this party.” All others are condiments and sesame seeds.
As I watched “Political Animals,” I thought: no wonder a scenarist fashioning a Washington roman a clef would summon the Clintons. They’re political animals — unpredictable, ferocious — to a degree that Obama and Romney really aren’t. Obama finds the muck of politics degrading, a necessary evil, and backslapping isn’t his thing. It’s an even more awkward fit for Mitt. Bill reveled in it all. Although few politicians have been as lacerated by the blood sport of their profession, he continued to play it with unalloyed zest. And to play it masterfully.
To be fair, it’s not just the current candidates who want for a certain wildness. It’s the political culture, transformed by Twitter and the 24-minute news cycle into a constant patrol for — and vigil against — excited, off-script utterances. Remember the days when we talked only of message discipline? Recently a pollster I was speaking with extolled the virtues of language discipline. What’s next: syllable discipline? Wait, we already have that, in Romney’s “jobs, jobs, jobs” incantation and strategy. When he’s forced against his will onto other nouns, like penalty and tax, he stammers and flails.
Obama’s background and arc make him compelling. His comportment often doesn’t. He eschews displays of emotion and endeavors to control even the past, rewriting his own, as the author David Maraniss recently made clear. He’d never be caught in the bedraggled states that Hill frequently is or let his thighs and stomach go the way Bill’s sometimes did. His clothes are unwrinkled. His appetites are firmly in check, and have been ever since that college transfer to Columbia, that resolve to get serious and that New York regimen of three miles a day and a once-a-week fast.
His campaigns and administration are as orderly as his person. The suffix “-gate,” which flourished under Billary, is endangered under Obama, and the staffers and staff convulsions just aren’t the same. Clinton had Dick Morris and James Carville and Betsey Wright, whose profane fictional alter ego was played by Kathy Bates in “Primary Colors.” While that chronicle of the 1992 campaign could focus tightly on the Clinton camp, which had all the suds a soap opera needed, its nonfiction analogue from the 2008 campaign, “Game Change,” had to include candidates other than Obama to generate the requisite froth. And when HBO made a movie from it, the Obamas were edited out entirely. They weren’t the best story.
The Clintons were always the best story. That’s not exactly a compliment. Americans suffered on account of the couple’s sloppiness, heedlessness, self-consumption and greed. From Whitewater through impeachment, Bill and Hill abetted distraction upon distraction, undermining their own agenda.
But they had fire, and he had a sort of glee that redeemed and bought him forgiveness for his many infidelities — marital, political, ideological. There’s inexhaustibly riveting material in these two. There’s also a capacity for risk-taking, along with a gameness and a toughness, that Obama and Romney could learn from, and that the rest of us can’t help missing just a little.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.