She’s a legendary political organizer; Bill Clinton says her political savvy helped make him president. She’s a leading feminist; as the National Women’s Education Fund’s founder, she transformed amateur activists into winning female candidates.
She befriended Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham before they married, and 44 years ago decided Hillary would become America’s first woman president. Yet Betsey Wright is most famous for injecting the sexist phrase “bimbo eruptions” into American discourse. In Wright’s mixed legacy lies the deeper, darker tale of the Clintons’ toxic mix of golden idealism, tarnished psyches, and brass-knuckled ruthlessness.
This colorful American character was born on July 4, 1943, in Alpine, Texas, population 3,866. Inspired by feminism, fascinated by politics, Betsey Ross Wright met Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham in 1972, still thrilled by what Wright called “the heady experience” of Sissy Farenthold’s quixotic campaign for the Texas governorship.
Farenthold lost. The George McGovern campaign, which brought Bill and Hillary to Texas, was doomed. But these three new friends relished the possibilities they were starting to envision, a more open, liberal, egalitarian, and female-friendly world.
“It was a nascent feminist movement then,” Wright would tell Bill Clinton’s biographer David Maraniss. Wright believed “that women were the ethical and pure force that American politics needed.” And Wright, a big, bold, bawdy powerhouse, recalled being “less interested in Bill’s political future than Hillary’s. I was obsessed with how far Hillary might go, with her mixture of brilliance, ambition, and self-assuredness.” As a result, she begged her friend not “to move to Arkansas and marry Bill Clinton.” Wright also lobbied Bill, telling him, “he could find anybody he wanted to be a political wife, but we’d … never find anyone like her” to run for office. When Hillary married Bill in 1975, Wright would recall, “I abandoned the dream.”
A mission-driven force of nature, Wright was already busy teaching her feminist friends about the nitty gritty of electoral politics. At the National Women’s Education Fund of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Wright helped feminists transition from protest to power, from crusading outsiders to elected insiders. “Do not overdo make up but be sure to add more for TV,” one of her manuals advised. Still, when Hillary Clinton called in 1981 seeking help after Bill Clinton lost the governorship, Wright moved to Arkansas, as Hillary had done.
The thirty-two-year-old Clinton had won election in 1978, only to lose two years later, becoming America’s youngest ex-governor. The loss devastated both Clintons. After engineering Bill Clinton’s comeback victory two years later, Wright became his chief of staff.
This title couldn’t capture this loving but explosive relationship’s intensity, its intimacy. In his memoirs Bill Clinton describes Wright as “brilliant, intense, loyal, and conscientious almost to a fault…. the only person I had ever met who was more fascinated by and consumed with politics than I was.” Now, Hillary and Betsey reunited in their mutual devotion to Bill. The brainy, stiff, cautious Arkansas First Lady relished policy debates, especially concerning education and children. The tough, chain-smoking, garbage-mouthed chief of staff micromanaged the politics. And both tried limiting Bill’s philandering – then controlling the damage.
As keeper of the Clintons’ institutional and political memory, Betsey Wright listed all of Bill Clinton’s potential personal vulnerabilities in 1987 – then advised him not to run for president in 1988. Hillary Clinton disagreed, although Wright had a better sense of how many women there were. What stopped Bill Clinton, just hours before he launched a campaign, was Wright’s warning that Hillary and their daughter Chelsea risked humiliation.
That misfire set the stage for 1992, with Hillary Clinton and Betsey Wright determined not to let Bill Clinton’s promiscuity harm his White House bid. Wright, who monitored each piece of gossip – and frequently bullied Bill’s “exes” – coined the crude phrase “bimbo eruptions.” The term mocked the accusers and the reporters who believed them. Just a few years ago, Americans were more censorious about affairs but more forgiving about such sexist dismissals of victimized women.
The word “bimbo” originally meant stupid men not idiotic women. Taken from the Italian word “bambino,” baby, only in the 1920s did the word start applying to women – as with the song My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle. In the 1930s, the word “blonde” increasingly preceded the word. Half a century later, in 1987, the year Bill Clinton shrewdly bailed, the woman caught in the Evangelist Jim Bakker’s scandal, Jessica Hahn, told Playboy “I am not a bimbo.” Her denial and the way another blonde, Donna Rice, ruined Gary Hart’s presidential chances, had the Wall Street Journal declaring 1987 “the year of the Bimbo.” Wright’s take-no-prisoners approach to protecting Bill Clinton and trashing his accusers became iconic in 1998, with Kathy Bates’s flamboyant, Academy Award-nominated portrayal of a Wright-like character in the movie based on the ’92 campaign, Primary Colors.
By the time Clinton became president, Wright was too burned out – and her scorched earth tactics had burned too many women -- to serve in the White House. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Wright wrote in the Arkansas Times: “It hurts. I'm so angry. I cry. I wonder why, why, why? It's sad, infuriating, tragic, puzzling…. if Bill Clinton were in my reach I would be mightily tempted to bash him on his head and kick him in the shins.” Clearly, Clinton, like many other politicians, was a serial seducer, craving the adulation of women and crowds. Just as clearly, the Clintons had obsessive enemies, who treated false steps as premeditated felonies. And, confusingly, many of these enemies were pro-life opponents of the pro-choice Clinton, leading many feminists to excuse Clinton’s infidelities to protect cherished policies.
The ironies abound. Betsey Wright the feminist boosting a sexist slander. Hillary Clinton, the betrayed wife, not just standing by her man but trashing his accusers – no matter how true their story. Wright’s odd contribution to history, then, is sharpening the Clinton conundrum: how can a couple so committed to doing good behave so badly so often? Wright’s tale highlights the moral blind spot of the Clintons and their enablers. Their idealism, their liberalism, their faith in the good they hope to do, makes them excuse all kinds of lapses, from libeling innocent women to following their own rules regarding emails and government secrecy. The Clintons are not criminals; but they can be self-righteous slobs, imperious, indulgent, and inconsistent – and often bailed out by loyalists like Betsey Wright.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. His latest book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s¸ is his eleventh.