Keeping Up With the Clintons

The Clintons have long been America's Rorschach test for married life and all its complications -- infidelity, money, power-sharing, partnership, support, and yes, blow jobs. In the latest chapter of their very public love story, Hillary's political career, Bill has been asked to do something potentially even more difficult than keeping his pants on: zip his lip. Sometimes he's failed miserably. More often than not, he's done a decent -- albeit not great -- performance as the adoring husband. In fact, the image of his teary, red-faced standing ovation for her at the Democratic National Convention struck me as refreshingly authentic.

Hillary is six months into her position as secretary of state -- traveling to Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Central America, Canada, Mexico, India, and now Africa, where she announced a bold new plan to stop the epidemic of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There's no legitimate question about her preparedness for the job; her effectiveness, of course, will only be determined in hindsight.

Given this backdrop, it seemed fairly harmless for Bill to answer the call to intervene in North Korea, where two American journalists were being held captive. That is if the media can manage to inform the public about what Hillary's actually doing, as opposed to framing it as a "he said, she said" drama. Last week, editors got busy overshadowing her good work with Bill's -- prompting all sorts of salacious headlines like Huffington Post's: "Bill Upstages Hillary … Once Again." This latest controversy serves as one more flashpoint in the power struggle that is their partnership -- at least in the eyes of the media. In a world that still isn't accustomed to a husband and wife who both have a lot of official power, the shock of the Clintons sharing headlines simultaneously was too much for the public psyche.

We've evolved enough to understand that women, especially of the upper classes, will stake a claim to their own careers -- even national and international political leadership -- but never at the same time as their husbands (who always seem to get to "go" first). Michelle Obama can express interest in food politics or veteran's affairs, for example, but she is still positioned definitively as "mom-in-chief "; the issues she speaks out on are framed as family affairs so as not to threaten anyone. Maybe someday she will have her own autonomous political career (wouldn't that be great?), but not until Barack has had years in the spotlight. It's as if there is only enough light on the public stage to illuminate one half of a couple at a time. Anything more and the public responds as if blinded.

Why? Of course part of this reaction is about Bill Clinton's legendary appetite for attention; people have understandably wondered if he could let Hillary do her job at the State Department without interfering. But it's more than that. At the heart of this latest flare-up is a question with which so many contemporary couples -- straight and queer alike -- have to wrestle over the course of a relationship: Whose turn is it? Most partners acknowledge that two people pursuing their careers full steam ahead, especially if kids are involved, creates too much strain on a family. The Clintons have been the most prominent couple in recent history to wrestle over this tension in public, so they tend to trigger conversations about power-sharing and career-building within marriages (or the equivalent).

Of course, low-income and most middle-class Americans have always kept dual-earner families afloat. There simply isn't a choice for many of the most strapped citizens to trade off hogging the shine for a few years while pursuing their vocational fantasies. The majority of Americans don't even have time to explore the question of whose turn it is.

But for those who do, this challenge is among the most loaded. In a country that has yet to create a family-friendly work policy at any level and continues to harbor all kinds of archaic ideas about women and leadership (just see the way Hillary was talked about by the Fox News clowns during the Democratic primary last year), women often take a back seat, sometimes very reluctantly, to their husbands on the road to personal fulfillment.

Last week in Kinshasa, Congo, when Hillary was asked about her husband's opinion on an international economic issue, she replied, "You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not secretary of state, I am."

Hillary's reaction was framed as hostile and angry by the mainstream media, but I would guess that many American women not only found her tone appropriate but identified in a very deep way with her exasperation. Hillary has spent years supporting her husband's career, even under the most humiliating of circumstances, and now when she's getting her day in the sun, her husband's heroics are overshadowing her. It resonates with every woman who has made equal-parenting agreements with her young, idealistic husband, only to watch them all erode in this half-changed world of 24/7 law firms and sleepless residency schedules. It resonates with all the freelancers and consultants whose partner's more traditional, less adaptable job sucks up all the air in an otherwise flexible relationship. It resonates with every person who has entered into a marriage with beautiful words about honoring one another, only to find that the pendulum still has a way of swinging in the male direction on most days.

It's not, as usual, about Bill and Hillary. It's about us. It's about our desire to be recognized publicly, for our own unique intellect and experience, for our own good work. It's about public perceptions of women and leadership. It's about the unfinished revolution -- in public -- for family-friendly work policy and -- in private -- for truly egalitarian partnerships.

The personal, once again, proves to be political. As my colleague at Feministing, Ariel Boone, reminds us, "The idea of a power struggle within the Clintons' marriage is not only sexist in its portrayal of Hillary as incompetent but also dangerous to American interests abroad. The message that Bill Clinton's trip should send is not that our State Department failed but rather that America boasts innumerable non-state actors with tremendous power for peacemaking, who can supplement and improve the efforts of officially sanctioned diplomacy. … The world stage is big enough for both of them."