The Clintons Up Close

A friendship between two couples yields insights into a presidency and a marriage

The Clintons in October 1995 (Courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library)
The Clintons in October 1995 (Courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library)


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.


JY: After Florence, we saw the Clintons regularly at the Renaissance Weekends. Our friendship deepened. Ed and Bill were both moderate southern Democrats who had studied at Oxford on Rhodes scholarships and had much in common. Phil and Linda Lader, the Renaissance founders, saw that they were placed together on public affairs panels. Bill Clinton usually gave the opening evening address, and Ed and Hillary usually conducted the closing panel at Sunday lunch. The rest of us were scattered during the long weekend on panels, large and small, depending on personal and professional interests. When Phil Lader placed you on a panel, you took a deep breath and did it.

Since I had had an earlier career as a ballet dancer, teacher, and choreographer and was now a psychotherapist, I was usually invited to take part in discussions of the performing arts or psychology. On one panel my topic was narcissistic personality disorder. As I spoke, I noticed that Justice Harry Blackmun of the Supreme Court, sitting with Mrs. Blackmun in the front row, was nodding his head vigorously. I had the impression that many of the high-achieving attendees of the Renaissance Weekend were only or eldest children who came from somewhat troubled families. I knew the ins and outs, for I was just such an older child. Our role in the family was to keep the peace, study hard, and make Mom and Dad proud. I believe many of us bore narcissistic marks of one sort or another, mild and serious.

Phil Lader once placed me on a panel with three other therapists. Our assigned topic: “The Future of Marriage and the American Family.” To spice things up, I decided to speak about adultery. We expected a modest early-morning audience of 20 or 30 people. And so it was until a stream of people suddenly entered the room. Bill and Hillary had canceled their panels in order to hear us and had brought their attendees along.

Renaissance speakers usually talk without a script, using only notecards. I well remember writing my paradoxical first sentence: “A happy marriage begins in the first three years of life.” I probably quoted Ethel Person’s Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters. A psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Person writes about “split-object” love triangles:

Sometimes the impulse to run away from home, so to speak, reflects an inability on the part of the spouse to … sustain ambivalence within the context of a loving relationship. Some lovers are simply incapable of risking a one-on-one commitment. In formally committed relationships like marriage, they experience a threat to their autonomy or they feel consumed by anger …

I noticed that the Clintons were listening, rapt and wide-eyed.


EY: I was on another panel that morning. Jane’s wonderful line, “A happy marriage begins in the first three years of life,” had appeared at the end of her draft notes. “As we say in journalism,” I said, “you’re stepping on your lead. That ought to be the first sentence.”


JY: Our friendship with the Clintons developed a new dimension when, in 1991–92, he decided to run for president, then won the election and moved into the White House. But I am getting ahead of the story.

With Bill Clinton leading in the polls in New Hampshire and enjoying an enthusiastic press, the 1991–92 New Year’s Renaissance Weekend was joyfully levitating. However, the Arkansas governor’s affectionate hugs had gone limp. He seemed crestfallen. After dinner one night, when one party was winding down, Governor Clinton and Evan Bayh, then governor of Indiana, came and sat at my empty table. They commiserated about the hard life of a politician. If I recall our conversation correctly, I protested, “But Governor Clinton, you’re about to become the next president of the United States!”

He said, “I’m thinking about dropping out and going back to Arkansas.” My jaw must have dropped. “Campaigning is just too hard,” he said. “I ask myself, Is it worth it?”

When I pressed for further explanation, he said, “There’s this woman back in Arkansas—I just talked to her on the phone—and she told me she’d been offered a considerable sum of money to say she’d had an affair with me—whether it was true or not. Then she added, ‘And I need the money.’ ” We sat in silence. But I had the feeling the governor expected something more from me. Ever since my panel performance on the future of the family, some people had come to consider me the resident expert on adultery.

I remember saying, “Does your history with this woman define you? Is this who you are? Or are you something more? If you are someone greater than this, then don’t let her, or anyone else, label you. Go on with your life to greater purpose.” It was later that I first heard her name, Gennifer Flowers.


EY: Jane is the first to deprecate her role in what happened at the table where she was sitting with Clinton. Her attentive manner and intuitive wisdom invite confidences, and this was a major one. Perhaps he asked other friends the same question, but I doubt that it elicited a more useful answer. From that evening on, I noticed that Clinton seemed to value Jane as a counselor. And she was one of the first people he telephoned to thank early on the afternoon of his inauguration.

At that particular weekend, I felt a bit like a fifth wheel around Bill Clinton (except when we went on our early-morning runs), or more precisely, a bit like an older brother. I am 12 years his senior, and big-brotherly attitudes, explicit or merely implied, are often unwelcome. I sat by him at dinner one night, and apart from brief and courteous exchanges he spent most of the time talking with John Y. Brown, the former governor of Kentucky, who was seated at his other hand.


JY: New Year’s Renaissance Weekend 1993–94 opened with a jolt. The Clintons were now celebrities, with all the hazards that entails. In late December, a few days before we gathered at Hilton Head, David Brock’s lewd article about the governor of Arkansas, state troopers, and a woman named Paula appeared in The American Spectator. The president’s political enemies had managed to uncover the one area of his life where there was pay dirt—his sexual propensities. A topic that was considered amusing in most of Europe, where “everyone lies about sex,” was seen in puritan America as shocking, potentially criminal behavior. And in that dirt lay the seeds of impeachment. The president’s friends at Renaissance saw the story as titillating gossip, however embarrassing for the Clinton family. When Ed and I were asked to join the Clintons for dinner at their table for eight—at the center of the hotel ballroom surrounded by hundreds of others on opening night—we readily accepted. As the president, the first lady, her mother, Ed and I, and other guests went to our places, we heard a collective sharp intake of breath in the room. The Brock article was in everyone’s thoughts, and the crowd was wondering how the Clintons were taking it. At the presidential table, we of course pretended that nothing of consequence had happened. The article was never mentioned.

I was seated next to Mrs. Rodham, who appeared unaware of the piece or the stir it was causing and was silent as a stone. (Later, she apologized, saying, “Hillary told me you are a psychologist”—a popular superstition has it that shrinks have x-ray vision.) Across the table from me, the president, seated between two beautiful young women, was engrossed in conversation about policy issues while scribbling with his left hand on a yellow legal pad, writing his keynote address: the effortless activity of a multi-track mind. Ed and Hillary were laughing about Saturday Night Live, which I doubt either of them knew much about. As a shrink, I thought, “Yes, that’s the manifest content.” But the latent content of Hillary’s thoughts might have been something like, “Oh, my god, they’ll kill us on the late-night talk shows—we’ll be lampooned forever!”

After dinner, the president, with great composure, went on stage and gave another of his judicious, dazzling speeches. We were in love again.


EY: Jane viewed that supercharged scene with her Technicolor intuition. I saw it in plain black and white. I was aware of the buzz of tension in the hall, and I have no doubt that the many Clinton fans there were indeed wondering how the Clintons were handling the embarrassment. The president’s face looked unusually red, but his complexion is always rosy, and that blush might have been from the golf course, where he often spent the mild Hilton Head mornings.

Brock’s article was hardly Clinton’s first unpleasant brush with print. Like most presidents in my experience and in my time, he thought of the press as a wild card, usually inimical to presidential purposes but open to attempted manipulation. I had tried to help a bit during the campaign in 1992, when I arranged for the Clintons to meet with the “pencil press” at one of Budge Sperling’s long-running Christian Science Monitor news breakfasts. When the Clintons and I greeted each other there with warm hugs, as usual, my old friend Bob Novak remarked, “You southerners do stick together.” Novak, who knew more about the inward texture of American politics than anyone else of my acquaintance, spoke the truth.

Predictably, the question of marital fidelity, already much noised about in the campaign, came up toward the end of the hour. “I thought you’d never ask,” Clinton said. His disarming answer is lost to memory, but he certainly disclosed nothing.


Bill Clinton has a prodigious gift for friendship and for the attention to detail and condition that it demands. Gillian Williams, the widow of Sir Edgar (Bill) Williams, warden of Rhodes House at Oxford in Clinton’s time and mine, told me a revealing story. Strobe Talbott seriously injured an eye in a squash accident, and the Williamses invited him to recuperate at Rhodes House. Clinton, she said, was the only contemporary who visited Strobe every day. Strobe himself recalls, “Much of the time I had an eye patch and couldn’t read. Enter Bill Clinton. He visited frequently to talk (at which he was very good) and to read to me.”

One day I found myself accompanying the Clintons on Air Force One. Once aboard, I took a seat with other passengers toward the rear. A moment later the president appeared. “Come up front with us,” he said. The presidential compartment was anything but ornate or fancy. Hillary and I sat on the couch, and the president took a chair opposite as the 747 began to taxi.

“Ed,” he said right off the bat, “I need your advice about the Washington press.” He’d now had some months’ taste of the press and wasn’t enjoying it. Worse was to come. Even democratic rulers are in truth authoritarian to a degree, regarding uncontrolled journalism as an inconvenience. And they are right: a press made frivolous by the instant sound bites of television, by the taint of entertainment values, and by pretentious and inaccurate investigative reporting is a pain in the neck, though presidents must pretend otherwise. The wiser ones, even so, adhere to the Jeffersonian maxim that a press without a government is better than a government without a press.

“Well, Mr. President,” I started, whereupon Clinton began a discourse on the failings of the Washington press as he saw it. His discontent was sharpened by the recent scrutiny of his private and financial life, but his overall critique would not be new to any journalist. In any case, he did all the talking. I did offer to send him a memo on the subject, whose gist, as I recall, was that it is pointless to be irritated by reporters; they are like bird dogs, trained to point. I have no idea whether he read it, though he seems to read and assimilate everything. But public officials now are forced to strike a Faustian bargain with the imperfect instruments of publicity: living by the sword and often suffering by it. The reasons are largely visual. Congress is a chaos of 535, plus swarms of staff and retainers, and the Supreme Court a veiled mystery of nine. No other institution of government matches the presidency in pictorial usefulness, so television, by grossly magnifying the relative importance and power of the presidency, has seriously distorted the picture conveyed from Washington of the structure of government.

Moreover, it is impossible to escape press scrutiny. One beautiful May morning, a few months into his first term, I joined Clinton and his Secret Service detail for a run up to Capitol Hill and back, via the Tidal Basin, where the cherry trees were in their brief glory. At frequent intervals, the pursuing reporters, following by car and led by the ineffable Helen Thomas, would pop out of the shrubbery to shout questions: a surreal experience.


JY: If Troopergate and Paula Jones were the warm-up act, then Monica Lewinsky was the main show. On January 24, 1998, The Washington Post reported: “President Clinton’s first weekend since the current scandal broke will include a quiet evening at the White House watching a movie with friends, White House press secretary Mike McCurry told reporters yesterday. ‘Wag the Dog’? one reporter asked—referring to the then-current film in which a spin consultant concocts a war with Albania to bury accusations that the president molested a teenage girl. Another suggested Clinton could reach back into the 1970s and Watergate, and pick All the President’s Men.”

In fact, the movie that evening was Robert Duvall’s The Apostle. As Wikipedia describes the plot, “Sonny (Duvall) is a charismatic Pentecostal preacher with a wandering eye. … The major themes of The Apostle include forgiveness and accountability. Duvall sympathetically portrays Sonny as a sincere gospel preacher whose passions get the better of him.” Ed and I were there.


EY: A few days before the Monica Lewinsky story, I happened to be walking along M Street in Georgetown when the presidential motorcade passed. It was known that Clinton was to give a deposition in the Paula Jones case, which the Supreme Court had obtusely refused to defer, so I assumed he was en route to a lawyer’s office. Some of the justices had joked about his golf game as they heard arguments in the case; their attitude was unpardonably frivolous, considering the consequences. They denied the commander-in-chief the temporary immunity to civil suits that is afforded every buck private and without which it is nearly impossible for any official to function in office. After the Post had broken the story of what soon became the Lewinsky allegations, I experienced one of my rare intuitions: that the Clintons would be seeking sympathetic company. The White House called a day later to invite Jane and me to the supper and movie that Jane describes. The mood was strained. We circulated for an hour or so in the public rooms. It was a loyalist crowd, and included the star of the movie himself: Duvall. Also there, I later learned, were veteran “media” advisers of the president, who would persuade him, fatefully, to be aggressive in denying the rumors. A day or so after this, the president shook his finger at the reporters and denied having a sexual relationship with “that woman … Miss Lewinsky.” It was a grave misjudgment. On the evening of the dinner, an hour or so passed before the Clintons came down from the residential quarters. We had been told that the dress would be casual, but the president was wearing a blue suit and tie. He looked tired and strained, but as usual was composed and cordial. A buffet supper had been laid out in the East Room. Jane and I served our plates and were heading for a rear table when one of the butlers approached and said, “Mrs. Yoder, this way,” leading us to a front table where two chairs had been turned up: obviously for the Clintons. The president soon approached and placed his plate beside Jane’s, then went away to greet other guests. Hillary arrived and moved his plate one place to the right and sat down by Jane.


JY: At the dinner table, the president seemed worried, detached, even somewhat disassociated. He spoke of “darkness at noon.” Hillary was ready for battle. The conversation was funny and a bit hysterical. Hillary admitted that this was the worst time yet for them. But the Monica allegations weren’t yet being talked about in California, so Chelsea, then a student at Stanford, was okay. Hillary talked about campaigning in Arkansas with the Pentecostals and how she and Bill had gotten along well with the off-brand denominations. “They know about sin!” she said.


EY: Jane, Hillary, and the president were sitting to my right, on the side of my bad ear, so I could barely follow the conversation. Bill Clinton, noting the subject of the movie we were to see, teased: “Ed, if you feel like speaking in tongues, please be my guest.”

“Not exactly my style, Mr. President,” I said.

In the movie, a fundamentalist minister with a shady past turns out to be a fugitive from the law, and his flock doesn’t know it. Jane found that the story chimed with the sly and inexact accusations that were regularly dredged up by the investigative reporters of New York and Washington. They were eventually to lead to Kenneth Starr’s $60 million special prosecutor investigation and, on his recommendation, to President Clinton’s impeachment. The allegations concerned perjury, but the subtext was sexual prurience.

When the movie ended and the evening with it, Jane and I stood in the corridor outside the theater, waiting to say our thanks and farewells. The president embraced us both and in a confiding tone said that he felt a bit like the protagonist of Arthur Koestler’s novel about the Moscow show trials, with the Supreme Court, Starr, and Congress forming a sort of triangular conspiracy. His theory wasn’t literally paranoid, but even if it had been he would have had a point. Starr’s smutty report and impeachment were then in the future. But the evening ended with a touch of media comedy at the south gate. As we drove from the White House into a blinding flood of television lights, there was ABC’s Sam Donaldson, tapping on the car window and shouting questions. “What was the mood like?”

In a moment of irritation, I lowered the window and shouted, “Screw you, Sam. None of your business.” Jane drew a sharp breath. “What if you appeared on television saying that?”


JY: As months passed and the Starr investigation tightened, I wrote to the president: “You and Hillary have been much on our minds in recent months. Ed and I remember the time when we first met … in Florence. At that hilltop restaurant in the country, we talked about our first impressions of Michelangelo’s David. We said tears sprang to our eyes, and the statue seemed like such a perfect symbol of kingship. King David was not perfect. Ask the prophet Nathan. Nevertheless, after a period of contrition, and mourning, David continued to serve his country, and to serve it well.”

In a thank-you note, the president responded: “I have thought often of David and Nathan. … Hillary and I too have great memories of that trip to Italy—She fainted in front of David’s statue!”


EY: The essential Clinton as we knew him resembles the public caricature only slightly. No doubt Clinton has been at times as devious as any other political survivor, but it is a misconception that he is or was “slick,” a schemer and liar. Consider the notorious anecdote that he’d tried marijuana but not inhaled. His detractors laugh at the very idea. But it could only be literal truth, since a liar would never tell a lie so silly. The friendly Clinton we knew would be likely to light a joint to be sociable, and the abstemious alter ego we also knew would be likely not to inhale. In the many times we sat with him at various dinner tables, at Hilton Head and in Washington, I never saw him so much as sip a glass of wine.

He had had the painful duty as governor of Arkansas of authorizing a drug bust in the near certainty that it would result in the arrest of his young half-brother; he knew what an ordeal his brother had gone through because of substance abuse. And as for the inaccurate treatment of the supposed Whitewater investment scandal, the truth is that he and Hillary joined a friend they trusted in a bad real estate investment and lost money. Before he left the presidency, Clinton was probably the least interested in money of anyone I knew in American politics. He drew $35,000 a year plus expenses as governor and was forced into monumental debt as president. I never heard him complain about it.

His personal notes of response to Jane and occasionally to me, when I sent letters of fraternal counsel, are a little-known aspect of his care for friends. Not only did he give us a special zip code so that our correspondence would reach him personally, but there were other exchanges. On the Sunday after the House of Representatives voted the impeachment charges, Jane and I attended an Advent service at our old parish, Holy Trinity, in Greensboro, North Carolina. The lesson of the day was Joseph’s forbearance at the news that Mary was with child. Wilson Carter, a brilliant Episcopal priest, said that it would be obtuse to ignore the public event in Washington. He offered the Prayer of St. Francis (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace …”) and preached a magnificent sermon on the tolerance of human frailty. As we greeted each other on the church steps afterward, I said, “That was a great sermon, and if you’ll send it to me, I’ll send it on to the president.” He did and I did, and while I stayed out of the way of their exchange, I know that the president initiated a thoughtful personal correspondence with the priest. Again, typical.

After the run I’ve mentioned earlier in connection with his pursuit by an implacable press corps, which ended at the Lincoln Memorial, we were driven back to the White House. Some photos were taken in the Oval Office, not very flattering to either of us. I prepared to thank my host and depart. But then the president led me out to where Chelsea’s cat, Socks, was tethered unhappily in a bed of ivy. I prepared, again, to say my goodbyes.

“Let’s walk a bit on my infamous track,” Clinton said. We made our way to the running track he had recently had paved, to derisory comment, around the oval lawn. We walked and walked; I consulted my watch. It was 9 A.M., and I’d been on his hands now for more than two hours. “You surely have more important business,” I said, but he showed no sign of wishing me to go away. We reentered the White House and strolled at leisure through the ground-floor corridors, still visiting. Unidentified staff members passed, nodding respectfully.

“We have no idea who these people are,” he said, “and there are dozens of them, and we have no idea of their loyalty.” Were there spies among them? In the light of such misfortunes as the meaningless stir over the White House travel office, one wonders.


JY: Sometimes I felt like Forrest Gump riding on a roller coaster with Bill Clinton at transitional moments of his presidential career. Right now he seems to be in the place where he belongs.

Psychologist John Gartner, in his persuasive book In Search of Bill Clinton (2008), applies the term “hypomanic temperament” to Bill Clinton. I read the book with the eye of a Clinton friend but also with the eye of a practicing psychotherapist. The term “hypomanic” doesn’t sound flattering, but Gartner considers it a positive quality—useful in describing one who is exuberant, garrulous, quick thinking, a risk taker, occasionally overzealous with the opposite sex. He doesn’t regard this cast of temperament as a personality or character disorder. Brains are sometimes wired this way.


EY: Herbert Baxter Adams, an eminent English historian of the 19th century, described history as “past politics,” and a great editor of mine, the late James Bellows, liked to say, “If you believed the newspapers, you’d think that life is all politics.” It certainly is a consuming preoccupation. But presidencies, politically conditioned as they are, are about more than horse-race politics. And White House occupants do not check their human hopes and foibles at the door.

Our friendship with the Clintons was not political, either in origin or in the way it unfolded when they were in the White House. Bill Clinton is a political genius, but in leisurely moments he was more likely to talk about the Mexican War, or Chelsea’s boyfriends, or important White House guests (his special favorites were the king and queen of Spain), as he did one long evening when he had invited us to spend the night at the White House, in what is known as the Queens’ Bedroom. (As a working journalist I couldn’t, and didn’t, donate so much as a thin dime to his campaigns, so this was a gesture of friendship and hospitality on his part.)

We seldom see our distinguished friends now, given their roles on the world stage—which in a way makes our fleeting private memories the more vivid and valuable. Most members of the American public never abandoned Bill Clinton, even in his deepest hot water in the late 1990s. Unlike some of the obtuse sages of Washington, the Clintons spotted and discounted specious or hypocritical charges when they saw them. It was never clear during the impeachment ordeal that any fault or error of which he was accused justified the ferocity and contempt of the official and journalistic posses.

Anthony Lewis, the distinguished former New York Times columnist, a journalist who declined to be swayed by the anti-Clinton animus, probably put his finger on the secret spring of that carnival of misplaced hostility. As Clinton left office in 2001, Lewis pondered the disproportionate distaste he seemed to arouse. It was, he wrote in his column, a lingering mystery. But he speculated that one of his readers had discerned the real truth. Clinton’s pursuers, his reader said, suffered from “animal envy.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jane Warwick Yoder and Edwin M. Yoder Jr. live in Alexandria, Virginia. Jane Warwick Yoder is a clinical social worker and a Jungian psychotherapist. Edwin M. Yoder Jr. won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at The Washington Star and was later a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.


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