The Clintons Up Close: A friendship between two couples yields insights into a presidency and a marriage
September 7, 2012
As the current presidential campaign winds down and the major-party candidates drearily accentuate the negative, has it dawned at last on Bill Clinton’s critics, and even some of his old political enemies, that the Clinton era wasn’t so bad after all? The former president is now perhaps the most admired political figure in the country. If so, an old adage has been vindicated: truth is the daughter of time, and as a rule Americans tend to think better of their presidents when they’re well out of office and the irritants and errors are forgotten.
The two of us had the good fortune to be witnesses, a quarter of a century ago, at the creation of the Clinton era. As chairman of the National Governors Association, Clinton was first among equals at a conference of local and state officials, American and Italian, who gathered in Florence in the early autumn of 1987 to compare notes on shared problems. The conference stretched over several days in the shadow of the Medici Palace and other matchless landmarks of art and architecture. In that comfortable setting we first witnessed the capacities of Governor Clinton and his wife, Hillary, two very different people who yet seemed to us knit in an extraordinary, and unbreakable, partnership.
It may now be time to share a few intimate memories that afford an unusual vantage into what the Clintons were like, close up, in private settings.
Jane Yoder: We met the Clintons as guests on a trip to Florence in October of 1987. Bill Clinton came bounding up to me in the airport in New York like an overeager puppy dog, as politicians sometimes did while my husband was writing a nationally syndicated column. Since I identified myself as a moderate Republican—a Howard Baker–Lincoln Republican from east Tennessee—I was not likely to be swept off my feet by the attractive Democratic governor from Arkansas. I needn’t have worried. As I soon discovered, Bill Clinton has a preternatural ability to sense mood and read body language. In my psychotherapy practice, I’ve often noticed this sensitivity in patients who have grown up in emotionally troubled homes. To protect themselves, they learn early to read the environment. Seeing my stone face, he quickly adjusted.
Edwin Yoder: I’d heard of Bill Clinton from his great friend Strobe Talbott, in the 1970s and ’80s a correspondent for Time and for five years head of its Washington bureau, and my occasional squash partner. As I dropped Strobe off at his office one day in downtown Washington, he asked casually, “Do you know Bill Clinton?”
The name rang a distant bell. “Who is he?” I asked.
“The new governor of Arkansas,” Strobe said. They’d been close friends at Oxford. “Keep your eye on him. He’s a great political talent and will probably be president someday.”
With that brief mention, Clinton vanished from my radar until the day Jane and I were waiting in the departure lounge at JFK to board our flight to Rome. I had been invited to Florence by Ed Grace, the organizer of the conference, whose business it was to arrange useful encounters between Americans and Italians. A tall, smiling young man suddenly loomed before us, and like Jane I found Bill Clinton’s physical presence to be forceful.
“You’re Ed Yoder, aren’t you?” he asked. We found that we were headed for the same destination. Once there, Jane and I usually saw him early in the day in the dining room of our ornate hotel (which had once briefly served as the legislative chamber of the reunified Italy) as he fueled for a morning run. I’m afraid I paid no very close attention to whatever it was that seemed puppyish to Jane.
JY: Later, in an afternoon visit to the Tuscan countryside, our hosts gave us dinner in a small, private restaurant. The governor sat down beside me—not to talk, as it turned out, but to listen. Earlier in the day, we had visited the Accademia to see the Michelangelo statue of David. I now felt at ease with Bill Clinton. I told him that upon coming into full view of the David, I was so moved that I burst into tears. He admitted that he also had been profoundly affected.
In this period of my life, I had two great passions—Jungian psychology and Bible stories that lend themselves to existential interpretation. Alone among our group, Bill Clinton seemed to have both knowledge of and enthusiasm for my pet subjects. We talked at length about Jungian archetypes—Greek gods of antiquity—the “Hero,” the “Witch,” the “Good Mother,” the “King.” We agreed that David might be viewed as an archetype of the “Flawed King”—a Hebrew man-god who, despite his flaws, became a great leader of his people. And we talked about Bathsheba and Uriah, her betrayed husband, and about the prophet Nathan, who became David’s accuser. I had no inkling then that this biblical archetype would later assume special significance.
EY: I clearly remember in a somewhat different way that magical evening on the Tuscan hilltop, when the four of us—Jane and I, Bill and Hillary—talked for hours as the soft twilight faded and we could see lights winking on the distant hills. As I recall, we mainly talked about the drama that was unfolding on Capitol Hill back in Washington, where the Clintons’ former constitutional law professor at Yale, Robert Bork, nominated by President Reagan to the Supreme Court, faced a testy confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bork’s opponents were after the governor to speak against the nominee, and Clinton confessed to ambiguous impulses. “They want me to testify,” he said, in that tentative tone that I soon learned was a Clinton trademark. But he had liked Bork and felt a residual respect for him. What could he do?
Hillary said little, though I sensed that she was set against Bork and did not share her husband’s reservations. I had no idea what he should do and in any case my advice would be of little value to a veteran politician. It happened that I knew Bork pretty well in the usual Washington way and supported his nomination in my newspaper column. I still think the Bork hearings were a destructive exercise in character assassination that has had lasting negative echoes in Supreme Court politics. That evening set a seal on our new friendship, and we parted with regret after that engaging week, when Clinton lightheartedly and characteristically begged his fellow U.S. delegates at the final banquet not to let it be known back in Arkansas that he had consorted with a bunch of Eurocommunists.
We were delighted, a few months later, to see Bill and Hillary Clinton’s names on the list of those who would attend the New Year’s Renaissance Weekend at Hilton Head, South Carolina. In the 1980s, Renaissance was an intimate time, a family time, and it remained so until Clinton’s election brought in a flood of the curious, the ambitious, and of course Washington’s never-scarce opportunists…