The fascinating thing about Bill and Hillary’s relationship is the way they perform their emotional correctives in public. Because Bill got so thoroughly smacked around last year for mouthing off on the campaign trail at the wrong moments and causing Hillary vote-losing blowback, he has been as good as gold ever since—the very model of a discreet, dignified former president.
How appropriately stony-faced he looked the other day, sitting next to looney-tunes Kim Jong Il before the handover of the two captured journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee! At the former president’s 63rd birthday dinner in Las Vegas on Monday, not even old cronies like Paul Begala, Terry McAuliffe, and Haim Saban could get him to spill any dish about his dashing dash to Pyongyang on the Hollywood producer Steve Bing’s private plane (a different kind of pickup mission than the ones Mr. Bing is said to be used to). The ex-prez didn’t even lobby for a White House photo-op for the handover. He briefed the National Security Council in private, and otherwise said not a word.
Contrary to received opinion, I am told Bill’s wife was not a bit miffed at her husband’s bounding back into the limelight with that glamorous Team America rescue of damsels in distress from evil North Korea.
Hillary's frustration boils over Monday, August 10 in the Congo.
Hillary, on the other hand, has been carrying around a lot of bottled tension lately, and in Congo the cork popped. The new job has required a lot of humbling up for the woman who tried so historically to become America’s first female president. First Obama came out of nowhere and stole her exceptionalism. He played his ace of being the first African-American president against her hopes to be the queen of clubs. Then everyone bayed at her for tearing up in a moment of fatigue. Then her sin was being a sore, bitter, conniving Clinton who couldn’t give up her lust for power. Then she ate concession crow more manfully than any man has ever done.
After all that, most would have slunk away for a few months to recuperate on some island somewhere. Instead, Hillary hauled her weary pantsuit right back into the fray, fundraising and boostering on behalf of her erstwhile ex-rival. Forty campaign events in two months! And never at those rallies and fundraisers did she allow herself to look as if she wasn’t loving every minute of it—even if you sometimes sensed a certain soul-heaviness when the inevitable cluster of mournful middle-aged women for whom she represented the rescue of dignity crowded in close and waved their hand-lettered placards that said things like “18 million cracks!” and “You did it for us, Hillary!”
Obama was impressed—so impressed that he asked her to take the top job in his Cabinet and stayed on her case till she said yes. Now she’s got one of the biggest jobs on the world stage and yet she has to fight like hell not to look as if she disappeared.
But as usual it’s not the politics anyone is talking about now. The unchanging thing about the first lady/senator /presidential candidate-turned-secretary of State is the crackle of marital complications. Just as Hillary Clinton is a pol, she is also—just as intensely (and at times perplexingly)—Mrs. William Jefferson Clinton.
Contrary to received opinion, I am told Bill’s wife was not a bit miffed at her husband’s bounding back into the limelight with that glamorous Team America rescue of damsels in distress from evil North Korea. On top of Hillary’s own punishing State Department schedule and painful broken elbow, she has to cope—like any wife of a dethroned big- deal spouse—with a moody, irritable alpha male at home who chafes about being sidelined (and, in this case, smarts from the campaign’s wounds more than by now she does herself). Because she loves her man, she wants to see him appreciated. She was thrilled when he got the call that put him back in the game and grateful that Obama, for once, let him do something.
It’s just that—oh God, the trouble is that when Bill bounces back up, he bounces so high he always ends up landing on her.
News cycles of this sort are supposed to last at most one week, not two—and this one, this latest Bill comeback narrative, was now bumping into hers. She didn’t mind in Kenya, South Africa, Angola, or even Congo that Bill’s Korea trip was grabbing the news. But when it looked as if his limelight might pursue her all the way to Nigeria—well, that was a country too far.
Madam Secretary was doing so well at grabbing back the spotlight, delivering hard messages to devious, corrupt African strongmen, issuing warnings to Somali militants, busting a move on the dance floor at a gala dinner in Nairobi. In Congo she was particularly stressed. She had spent a day touring a refugee camp, hearing harrowing stories of rape, persecution, and female subjugation, issues she has long made hers. I suspect she’d just about had it with having to tiptoe around so many big-dog male egos—Obama, Bill, Africa’s Messrs. Kibaki, Zuma, and Kabila. And p.s., was it necessary for Bill to be yukking it up on his birthday with the old adoring pals at such a fancy, high-priced restaurant as Craftsteak?
And not only that, but (and I say this in solidarity, not belittlement) the African humidity had wreaked havoc on her hair. It had gone all flat and straight, which puts any woman in a bad humor. (Let’s not forget: It was a sympathetic reference to the female-specific chore of keeping perfectly coiffed that made Hillary’s eyes fill with tears back in New Hampshire.) Plus, the grueling State Department schedule means these days she can never get to the gym.
So when a Congolese college student seemed to imply, no doubt unintentionally, that she was a good little wife who dutifully defers to the man of the house, she let the poor kid have it: “My husband is not the secretary of State. I am. You ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband.” Ouch.
Let’s just say it was a method of letting off marital steam available only to the very famous and very important. Plenty of couples snipe at each other in sometimes embarrassing ways in front of company. But most of us are spared having it go into heavy rotation on cable TV.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.