The State of the Clintons' Marriage

It’s front page news in the New York Times. But what’s the news? There isn’t any, of course.

They’re married. They work hard to see each other. He tries not to upstage her. Sometimes, he wishes she had more time to spend with him.

This is news?

What makes it news, supposedly, is that unnamed Democrats are said to be worried about it.

Translation: is he still messing around? And does anyone care? Do you?

Bill Clinton isn’t running for anything. Hillary is. No one is even asking about her private life. So does it still make a difference what he does, if he does anything at all, in his private time?

There really are two distinct questions when it comes to the Clinton's marriage.

The first is historical: Will voters/women forgive her for forgiving him?

In her first run for Senate, in 2000, there was no question that one of the things that held her numbers down among women was the fact that they were angry at her for staying with him. No one understood this better than the then-president. I remember discussing it with him at length.

How do you convince women that it wasn’t just ambition that kept them together? I even wrote an article at the time about the strength of the partnership that was the basis for their marriage. But what ultimately happened was that when push came to shove, and when women saw how her opponent treated her, they came home to Hillary. And that issue has completely gone away in New York. It is history, literally. It just doesn’t show up in the polls anymore.

Will voters nationally care? How do you make an issue out of the fact that she forgave him 10 years earlier for humiliating her?

The answer, I think, is that it’s only an issue if it keeps happening, and we keep seeing it.

What happened 10 years ago is history so long as it doesn’t repeat itself.

That’s the second question. It’s the current question. It’s about what is, or isn’t, happening now, and whether it’s any of our business.

Some years ago, I asked the late, great Bob Squier, one of the top Democratic political consultants, what percentage of his clients he thought had committed adultery within a year of their elections. Care to guess what he said, remembering that one of his clients at the time was Mike Dukakis, who was an absolute schoolboy in this department?

Ninety percent.

Remember, during the height of impeachment, when Larry Flynt offered $1 million to any woman who could prove she had slept with a married Republican member of the House -- and was inundated, to the point that he was able to bring down the Speaker-designate! One million dollars, a friend of mine said. I thought that for that, he’d at least want members of the Senate...

Washington, I was told when I first moved there in the 1970’s, is the town of powerful men and the women they married. Don’t ask, don’t tell, has long been the press’ rule. And still is, most of the time. Don’t kid yourself.

Should it be different for the Clintons, because of their history? Or because it’s a she who is running?

Here’s what I’d like, one Republican strategist told me, when I was working on my Hillary book (The Case for Hillary Clinton), and before Katie Couric had been named to anchor the CBS News. I’d like Katie Couric to ask Hillary Clinton what message she thinks it sends to young women that she, maybe the most powerful woman in the world and a role model to millions of women, is willing to look the other way while her husband carried/carries on with other women. . . .

The reason he wants Katie Couric to ask the question is because no Republican would dare. Any candidate who raises the issue gets tarred by it, even if he happens to be the most faithful spouse in the world, and God help him if he isn’t. That’s why Republicans will be looking to the press to do the dirty work on this one, even if they are willing to help with the information.

But most of the press corps isn’t really looking for this kind of story.

The "don’t ask, don’t tell" rule still holds, unless someone hands them a scandal on a silver platter; and that someone basically has to be the woman involved, at least barring an audiotape or a blue dress.

Once Hillary becomes a candidate for president, however, things could change. These days, you can’t talk about the press any more as a monolith; the MSM – mainstream media – doesn’t exist in a vacuum; and bloggers and internet web sites, some very accurate, some less so, some highly ethical, some less so, have enormous influence on the more conventional outlets.

Traditional news organizations may not send reporters snooping into the former president’s private life, but make no mistake: there will be people snooping. If there is dirt to be found, it will be found. There will be places to print it. Once it is printed, it will be reprinted. Once it is printed and reprinted, even the most respected outlets will say that they have no choice to follow suit.

And then someone will ask the question, and however much women say they don’t care, they will.

That’s the reality. The most astute politician in the world must know it. Then again, he must have known, after what he’d been through in the campaign, that any misstep in the White House would cost him dearly, and he trusted his presidency to Monica Lewinsky. But this time it’s his wife’s future, not his own.

I’m not going to embarrass her, the former president told me some months ago. It’s the one thing she can’t afford, and can’t control. He owes her, and he knows it.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the Fox News Channel.

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