Mr. and Mrs. President: PREFACE TO THE PAPERBACK EDITION
A Guide to Abbreviations in Notes:
|Barely three hours after becoming
the first elected president ever impeached, Bill Clinton
hosted his Congressional supporters at a Rose Garden pep
rally. His wife Hillary stood at her usual post, loyally
by his side. The puffy-eyed president thanked the
"millions upon millions of American citizens who
have expressed their support and their friendship to
Hillary, to me, to our family, and to our administration
during these last several weeks."
Only a united First Couple could withstand this crisis, the culmination of Americans' half-century obsession with the presidential couple. Even as he hinged his presidential future on distinguishing between "what I did wrong in my personal life" and the "important work" the American people hired him to do, President Clinton blurred the personal and the political. Bill Clinton needed Hillary Clinton to convince the American people that he had not betrayed them when he had betrayed her. Early that morning, he had dispatched the First Lady to Capitol Hill to gird Democrats for the upcoming battle. And when the President spoke, the way he constructed his sentence defined "our Administration," as that of "Hillary" and "me."
With the most intimate -- and distressing -- details of their marriage splayed across the world stage, with their enemies moving in for the kill, both Clintons were enduring searing private and public crises. He was simultaneously the chastened husband and the defiant leader; she, the victimized wife and the unwavering ally. At a time when the humiliated Mrs. Clinton recoiled from her wayward husband's touch, the Clintons shared hatred of their common enemies kept them united, and in the battle. The role confusion, though mind-boggling, was inevitable. Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were joined at the hip personally and professionally; and as Mr. and Mrs. President, their private lives were indeed public property.
Still, while Americans had long enjoyed gossiping about Bill and Hillary and George and Barbara and Ronnie and Nancy and Jack and Jackie, all the way back to George and Martha, no one quite expected this kind of scandal, this level of exposure. In fact, the long, torturous Clinton-Lewinsky melodrama dumbfounded most Americans. How did we get here, they wondered. How did the president's marital trauma become a national crisis?
Of course, as with any complex historical question, where you begin the tale shades your interpretation, and often reveals your bias. Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's referral began with Monica Lewinsky's arrival as a White House intern in July 1995. Many Clinton supporters dated the problem to August 5, 1994, the day Starr became Special Prosecutor and the Clintons' round-the-clock, well-funded nemesis. The White House Counsel Charles Ruff started his Senate trial defense of the President with May 6, 1994, the day Paula Jones sued President Clinton for sexual harassment. And Congressman Ed Bryant of Tennessee opened the House managers' Senate prosecution looking back to "a cold day in January 1993 [when] William Jefferson Clinton placed his left hand on the Bible in front of his wife, the chief justice and every American watching that day and affirmatively acknowledged his oath of office."
More broadly, ace reporter Bob Woodward somewhat self-servingly harked back to the Watergate era, which ushered in "a new world" wherein inquisitorial journalists tortured deceptive presidents. In turn, an old Nixon hand, Leonard Garment, explained the great hostility toward Clinton as a hangover from the 1960s' "culture wars." As the books proliferate, historians may blame the ugly and personal fights over Republican Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, political scientists may root the story in the byzantine political folkways of Arkansas, and biographers may begin with Bill Clinton's birth, Hillary Rodham's birth, or the day she introduced herself to him at the Yale Law library.
This book roots the particular dynamics of the Clintons' partnership in their respective backgrounds and in their story as a couple. At the same time, the broader phenomenon that swept them up -- and all but consumed them -- begins half a century ago, with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. During the Roosevelts' extraordinary White House tenure, the president and his wife came to dominate national politics as never before. The idea of the presidential couple as a construct began to emerge. Politicians, reporters, and citizens began looking at the President and his wife as a team. Since that time, with increasing intensity, Americans have treated the president's private life as public property -- and presidents have felt compelled to cooperate. Americans have become obsessed with both Mr. and Mrs. President, for better and for worse.
This book argues that the American nation's peculiar, now decades-long, obsession with the presidential couple tells a lot about the state of American politics, American culture, and the American presidency in the final half of the twentieth century. The saga of the First Couple opens illuminating windows on the growth of government, the epidemic of celebrity, and the centrality of the presidency, along with other such phenomena as the ascendance of the mass media, the vagaries of modern marriage, and the feminist and sexual revolutions.
Since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal expanded the role of the federal government in Americans' daily lives, the presidency has become ever more powerful and more symbolically significant in American life. With the rise of the national media, the president has also become the nation's celebrity-in-chief as well. As the most famous man in America, his wife, his daughter, even his cat and dog, become role models for the nation.
This national obsession with the democratically elected king-and-queen of the moment is peculiarly American. Although the Founding Fathers valued republican simplicity they expected the President of the United States to be a character "preeminent for ability and virtue." In the nineteenth century, Henry James noted that the United States was a young country with "no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles." Since then, the country has acquired more nationalizing influences, more anchors, but Americans today still look to the presidential couple for reassurance, for stability, for political inspiration, and, often, for moral instruction. The intellectual, cultural, social, political, and technological revolutions of the twentieth century further shaped this concern. The Freudian revolution turned the American psyche inside out, shifting the spotlight from the politician's public persona to one's innermost self. The feminist revolution turned the American family and the American marriage model upside down, championing egalitarianism where hierarchy had once reigned. Similarly, the middle class revolution upended the traditional class structure, undermining authority with its own brand of egalitarianism and, often, cynicism. The New Deal revolutionized the Founders' careful scheme in many ways, expanding the federal government at the expense of the states and giving the president the upper hand vis a vis Congress.
Ultimately, this phenomenon of the presidential couple is a stepchild of the technological revolution. The rise of mass media, especially television, spawned a new political culture. Without the new image-driven politics of personality and celebrity, the current obsession with presidential couples is unfathomable.
Furthermore, the mass media intensified each of the aforementioned upheavals. The media's tawdry melodramas spread the Freudian gospel. The media's vulgar egalitarianism and skeptical anti-establishmentarianism toppled traditional structures at home and on the street. And first radio, then television, embedded the American presidency in the center of the political universe, at least in popular terms.
The focus on the president as celebrity-in-chief, and the concentration on his actual and official families is, alas, a double-edged sword. It both aggrandizes and trivializes the president -- and his family. On one hand, it exaggerates the significance of America's chief executive; our cult of the presidency has never been so strong. Today's president not only dominates American politics, he defines his era socially, culturally, and ideologically. At the same time, in a culture worshiping the famous, which feeds on the most trivial tidbits about what they eat, where they travel, whether they wear boxers or briefs, presidents have also been diminished, shoved off the pedestal and battered by crusading journalists, partisan legislators, and special prosecutors. This book, then, attempts to understand the modern presidency, as it soars and languishes.
The book explores the excruciating role of the First Lady as well. The rise of the presidential couple has made First Ladies more important than ever before, yet First Ladies have repeatedly been chastened for overstepping. Americans' longstanding fear of executive power has fed a continuing worry about unaccountable aides seducing the president. Controversial assistants such as John Sununu, Donald Regan, and H.R. Haldeman learned firsthand that you did not have to be a woman to trigger these fears. Still, First Ladies had to contend at the same time with the even more venerable fear of designing women, especially of powerful wives.
The result was a rise and rejection of the presidential couple - a mandate to share the spotlight not seize the reins. Many intelligent, accomplished women, be it Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton tried to break free. But try as they might, they could not escape the First Lady's gossamer shackles, the delicate, exquisitely feminine bind that thrust them close to power and into the maelstrom of American politics yet forbade them from flexing their muscles.
As a work of history not moral philosophy, this book focuses on what was and what is, not what ought to be. Like it or not, the president's position remains precarious, as he balances the most profound decision-making with the cheapest kind of political theatre. And like it or not, the First Lady's position remains anomalous, an improvised throwback of a position with one high-heeled shoe firmly planted in the Victorian gentility of the nineteenth-century and one sensible pump planted in the anything-goes hurly-burly of late-twentieth-century American life.
I wanted the book to depart from the frilly tea and crumpets tone or the breathless wasn't-she-marvelously-progressive celebration that diminishes most books about First Ladies. I was pleased when a reviewer called the book "tough-minded political history." In writing I did, however, sympathize with the presidential couple's predicament. Despite the fact that one former First Lady who read the book reported back to the friend who recommended the book, "I don't think he likes me," I actually liked most of the stars of this story. We Americans have become such a cynical bunch; and we historians are a particularly tough audience. Nevertheless, most of the presidents and First Ladies who occupied the White House in the second half of the twentieth century were well-meaning, extraordinarily accomplished, and, on the whole, quite effective. Together, they helped the United States win the Cold War, avert nuclear disaster, welcome millions of immigrants from all over, generate enormous riches for tens of millions of people in the world's first middle-class paradise, expand the fundamental civil rights and social protections the weakest members of the society enjoyed, and preside over a rollicking, tumultuous, dynamic democracy at a time of great cultural upheaval and overwhelming social change.
The Free Press of Simon and Schuster published the hardcover edition of this book in time for Bill Clinton's second inauguration early in 1997. When we first settled on that schedule in 1995 my editor and I calculated that either a new First Couple would be embarking on a fresh presidential journey, or that the second Clinton inauguration would renew the perennial guessing game about Hillary Clinton's plans and the state of the Clinton's union. In fact, many at the time did not want to dwell on the complexities of the Clinton's marriage, most wanted to focus on the laundry list of policy initiatives the President was championing. There were, however, some ominous signs, most dramatically the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in May 1997 that the Paula Jones case should go forward. In keeping with the manic-depressive nature of Clinton's tenure, the Court heard the case the same week Bill Clinton became only the third Democrat in the twentieth century to commence a second term as President of the United States.
When it was first published, in those, believe it or not, more innocent times, the initial title "Affairs of State" seemed mischievous but not inappropriate. The dictionary definition of "affairs," after all, begins with "anything done or to be done; anything requiring action or effort; business matters of commercial or public interest or concern; the transaction of public or private business, an event or a performance, a particular action, operation or proceeding; an object, process, etc., not specifically described, a thing. a private or personal concern," and only then gets to "an illicit amorous relationship, liaison." In one of those inside jokes with which historians amuse themselves, the book's title was also a silent homage to Professor Morton Keller's majestic volume: Affairs of State: Public Life in the 19th Century. Keller's brilliant analysis of the complex, growing, puritanical, serious, broad-based, chaotic, and raucous political culture of post-Civil War America offered an ironic counterpart to its late twentieth-century successor, as described in my book. The great seriousness and mind-numbing trivialities of modern American political culture offer a dominant motif in this work.
Bill Clinton's reprehensible conduct -- which came to light a year after the book was published -- at once justified the title -- and the book -- while making the title a shade too literal. The Clintonites' "everybody does it" defense reduced American history to a parade of presidential peccadilloes. All of a sudden, the title became a bit too suggestive. In updating the story to include the Lewinsky scandal, a title change seemed appropriate.
The new title, "Mr. and Mrs. President," harks back to the sniping Edith Galt Wilson endured as "Mrs. President" when a series of strokes incapacitated President Woodrow Wilson. The sarcastic moniker "Mrs. President" underlines the modern First Lady's push toward power, and the carping that results when she seems to overreach. At the same time, the fuller title "Mr. and Mrs. President," emphasizes both the intimate, intertwined nature of the presidential marriage, and the constant role confusion as two ordinary American citizens find themselves and their marriage sometimes deified, sometimes demonized, but always scrutinized.
Furthermore, "Mr. and Mrs. President" accentuates the marital vows -- not their breech -- and thus spotlights the saga of different couples over half a century managing the art of living and working together, which is another central theme of this book.
This emphasis on couples is the book's distinguishing characteristic. This book is the first to examine a range of presidential couples as couples. It focuses on both members of the couple, the President and the First Lady, before and after the entry into the White House. Unfortunately, under a stubborn and lamentable Gresham's law of presidential scholarship, any talk about a First Lady tends to drive away talk of the president, and any assumptions of seriousness. Again and again, in formal and informal conversations, I would describe my book as a book about "First Couples." Invariably, friends, colleagues, reporters, would ask me about my "First Ladies" book, sometimes with just a tinge of condescension.
Yet, as this book makes clear, there are many substantive points of contact between the President and First Lady -- and many important intellectual issues to explore. The First Lady now has a central role in shaping the presidential identity, and thus a central part to play in American history. I hoped, in writing this book, to help free First Lady scholarship from its isolation. Alas, I experienced only limited success. Twice, presidential scholars invited to appear on panels with me in conferences began by wondering what they were "doing here" -- as if the study of the presidency and the office of the First Lady are two separate areas of endeavor. Of course, they then proceeded to demonstrate just how much knowledge any student of the modern president has of the First Lady. Presidential historians and political scientists must begin to recognize the importance of studying both members of the presidential couple, separately and together.
Analysis of the presidential couple remains in its infancy, as does the broader scholarly conversation about First Ladies. Even the most basic concepts require further definition and refinement. The term, co-presidency, for example, generates some confusion. In this book it describes the activist model of political leadership either imposed upon or embraced by the Carters through the Clintons. The term "co-president" was bandied about during the New Deal, resurrected during the Carter and Reagan years, and used extensively during Hillary Rodham Clinton's first year in the White House. Unfortunately, when most people see the word "co-presidency" they apply the maximal definition, assuming an equal sharing of power. In fact, I argue that the "co-presidency" of today, such as it is, focuses mostly on joint image-making not power sharing. Thus, after the health care debacle, while Mrs. Clinton was no longer the prominent partner she wanted to be, she did in fact spend the rest of her years in office trying to develop some kind of viable co-presidency. Similarly, calling Barbara Bush, or any other First Lady, "co-president" does not mean that any president deigned to share power in any way with his wife. Rather, the term suggests the oddly nuanced and interconnecting institutional arrangements and joint identity imposed on most modern presidential couples. No First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt -- including Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower -- could avoid involvement in the political fray. Each presidency since the Roosevelts has thus been, to one extent or another, a co-presidency.
Yes, the term co-presidency, with its connotation of equivalence not just collaboration, is ambiguous. A term emphasizing the subordinate status of the spouse would be preferable. The better term, vice president, is, alas, already taken.
This emergence of the presidential couple is not just some inside-the-beltway phenomenon whereby the extended presidential court imputes all kinds of significance to the First Couple's machinations. The fact that an extra-marital dalliance paralyzed the government of the world's sole superpower for over a year shows just how politically significant the personal can be in modern politics, whether we like it or not. Nevertheless, this topic makes many Americans, and especially many academics, uncomfortable. All this talk about first ladies, and private lives, is too base, too removed from the supposedly substantive world of defense strategy and welfare reform and foreign aid. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal revealed Americans' ambivalence about this phenomenon and toward what modern politics has become. The story both mesmerized and disgusted the country. The Monica-Bill-Hillary love triangle dominated water cooler talk, the headlines, the airwaves. Three-year-olds asked their fathers "Did President Clinton do a bad thing?" and a year later teenagers were justifying all kinds of sins by telling their mothers "President Clinton did it." Ratings soared, stars were born, millions were made, even as Americans rejected all the trash-talk and kept President Clinton in office.
This reaction offers a disturbing look into a central tension in our culture and politics. We feel imprisoned by modern life -- we feed it, we play along, but we are, indeed, often disgusted. Until our dismay motivates action rather than resignation, we will continue drifting toward a virtual politics of soundbites, cynicism, and scandal, wherein more and more of us play the roles of critics and voyeurs not activists and citizens.
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