"The personal is political" slogan emerged from the consciousness-raising of early feminist groups, and it informs William Chafe's new book, "Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal." This isn't to say that historian Chafe is burning any bras, but rather that, as the saying goes, he gets it. “No personalities in recent history, he writes, "speak more compellingly to the importance of understanding that the personal and the political are inseparable."
Chafe isn't the kind of historian who abstractly studies the power of American presidential power. He comes at history from a different angle, from his career in writing about race and gender equity. A professor at Duke University, Chafe has focused on post-World War II America. As a graduate student in history, I first encountered his overview on the 20th century and came to grasp his influence in reorienting historical scholarship on how the powerless experience life.
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In the preface to "Bill and Hillary," Chafe explains his own focus on the tension between reform and radicalism in movements of social change. He has been fascinated by the "hair's-edge difference between being an ardent reformer and a confirmed radical." This question animated "Never Stop Running," his biography of Allard Lowenstein, the civil and human rights activist who was slain in his office in 1980.
While the Lowenstein biography may be a favorite of mine, Chafe may be better known for prominent titles like "The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II" and "Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America." In this last book, one can see the germ of "Bill and Hillary." It explored the relationship between the public and private lives of individuals (Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon) and couples (Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) and how these personal experiences shaped them as leaders.
Chafe's work is distinguished by his sophisticated psychological insight, not cheesy psychobabble. He understands that we all metabolize family relationships in ways we may not fully realize and make them so deeply part of our DNA that they govern our thoughts and impulses. Understanding the personal relationships of powerful people is an important way to understand how they operate in the world. "The entwined personal and political lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton," Chafe writes, "offer new insight into how pivotal it is to understand the personalities of our leaders if we are to understand the politics they have helped shape for us. America provides no clearer example than the Clintons of the consequences of how the forces of the personal and political are seamlessly connected."
He traces the Clintons' personal histories. Bill Clinton, whose father died before his birth, lived in a household of abuse and alcoholism. Hillary grew up caught in the middle of a conflict between her authoritarian father and her mother's encouragement of her ambition. Chafe explains how the two found each other at Yale, from apparently different backgrounds but with family backgrounds similar in their "crazy dynamics. "From the moment of their meeting," Chafe writes, "they created a partnership both political and personal, that helped shape the course of the country."
The chemistry between the Clintons could be toxic as well as turbo-charged, and Chafe explains the Clinton union as one of both deep love and of calculation. "They had a common dream. They would be partners. Together they would conquer, and better, the world," writes Chafe. "But her part in realizing the dream was tied directly to his inability to integrate his parallel lives, to discipline his sexual addictions. Hillary knew from the beginning these impulses would not disappear. Yet she took the calculated risk that she could control them enough that they would not derail the larger political dream that they shared."
He argues that Hillary's influence on the president was greatest when he was behaving the worst. His weakness became the crux of the partnership that made Hillary essential to his success. No one really knows what goes on in a marriage — perhaps even the partners — but "Bill and Hillary" makes the argument that it is necessary to try.
Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune's literary editor.
→How does being in the public eye shape a marriage?
→Why is it that the Clinton marriage is so compelling?
→William Chafe is an eminent historian who made the decision not to interview either Bill or Hillary Clinton for this book. What did he gain, or lose, by this decision?
→Chafe focuses on the Clinton marriage, so why does he begin with their childhoods?
→What can those outside political life learn from "Bill and Hillary"?
→What is Chafe saying about marriage?
→Why is it so critically important to understand the personalities — and why would we think that personalities shape national and foreign policy?