At that time and within that party, the Good Ol’ Boy network was a real thing; so long as politicians like Bill Clinton stroked the right people, stayed quiet, and kept to their word, they could go to the state capital to do good and end up doing really well. Being politically talented and having been raised in the state, Bill understood the rules and made a rapid ascent to the top of the Arkansas food chain, becoming governor before he was thirty. He lost the job two years later, having made the mistake of thinking that because he was governor, he was actually in charge of the state. This was a valuable early lesson, because when he regained the governorship in 1980, he had learned the value of political alliances, the usefulness of political centrism, and the employment of issue triangulation, which consists of finding ways to straddle the most popular of your opponent’s arguments with your own policies, thereby neutralizing the opposition and stealing credit for the idea. This was something he perfected during his presidency.
Meanwhile, Hillary was learning the same lessons, as well as others having to do with forging alliances with politically useful non-profits and making sure that that, at the end of the day, the bank account was full. She worked as a private attorney and as a rainmaker within her firm, and found ways to take advantage of her husband’s position by implication, managing to avoid leaving evidence trails to administration policy positions and changes that could invite corruption charges. In Arkansas, the appearance of impropriety was beside the point so long as nothing could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The reality of small state politics in the 1970s and 1980s was that unless there was a riot, a natural disaster, an octogenarian House committee chairman indicted and/or dead, or something large caught fire and burned to the ground, there was an almost total lack of national attention. Even the news, either on paper or television, tended to be light on investigation and heavy on stories about process. Reporters and politicians were all aware of who had deals with whom, of course, and the general outlines of the various agreements between industry and government were widely known as well, but because everything was handshake sealed and nothing was on paper, little could be done about insider politics or actual corruption. Indeed, much later on during the Clinton presidency, a more stringent examination of the Clintons’ investments in Whitewater and Tyson became a big deal because the political back scratching was so transparent, but, ultimately, nothing was indictable because nothing damning was written down and, in any event, no one was talking.
Both Clintons learned from how that played out and spun the results shamelessly, thereby deflecting the “appearance of corruption” stories, and carefully, grudgingly parsing their words to avoid definitive statements on their various controversies that either could be proven or disproven. Simultaneously, they alleged that their political enemies, as well as what came to be known as the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” was using these unproven allegations in a cynical attempt to destroy them politically. This spin has proven to be astonishingly effective and remains useful so long as the center-left establishment needs (or fears) the Clintons.
The results of these lessons can be seen in the email controversy and in both the organization and general behavior of the Clinton Foundation, where an air of “not quite aboveboard but not, by definition, illegal” pervades much of what they do and how they go about their business. And, paradoxically, the fact that they have been under suspicion of corruption and malfeasance seemingly forever inoculates them against the sort of charges that would absolutely devastate other candidates whose reputation is built on honesty and clarity. Certainly, no other current politicians in America receive a similar benefit of the doubt when “the smoking gun,” the documented evidence of a scandal, cannot be produced.
Equally as influenced by her husband’s political adaptability and larger than life persona are Hillary’s demeanor and tactics as a candidate. In nearly everything she does while campaigning publicly, you can see echoes of her far more talented husband. When Bill speaks to primarily African-American audiences, he often thickens his Southern accent appreciably and talks in a colloquial manner; Hillary has been known to adopt a “Southern” accent and less formal speech in front of similar groups. Conversely, when in front of sympathetic Democratic crowds, Bill has been known to speak in an almost metronomic cadence when he seeks to drive home a point, which is something that Hillary often does, and both tend to sarcastically mock the opposition while carefully sidestepping any actual points they are making. And when Bill is in trouble, he parses his words precisely and carefully like the lawyer he is: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Likewise, Hillary is a lawyer and is also strategic with her words. Returning to her email difficulties, for example, the Secretary has offered multiple explanations, each more carefully parsed than the previous version, adopting language that appears straightforward but remains full of room to adjust in the event that evidence moves in a different direction. And finally, when pushed to extremis, Bill will simply bald-face lie about a subject and adopt his very best “you have to believe me” face, which was largely the reason the House voted to impeach him. Even at the time, there was little expectation in Washington that the Senate would vote to convict, but the lies were so apparent, so absolutely without question, that the House leadership moved ahead. However, when Speaker Gingrich’s affairs surfaced and Speaker-Apparent Livingston resigned for similar reasons, the game shifted ground abruptly to “everyone lies about sex,” and “that’s all this is about” when it manifestly was not. But by that point, it did not matter. Employing a hoarse voice and demanding to go back to doing the business of the American people, Bill Clinton survived in the presidency and Hillary learned the most important lesson of all: when caught well and true, you delay. Delay is your friend. Delay and get your supporters and allies to call into question the motives of those who seek the truth behind your actions. Then delay even more, and with any luck at all, the clock will run out, the public will tire of the story, and the prosecution or the opposition or the special investigator or whomever will either let it go or have it taken from them.
It is worth recalling at this point one important difference between the Clintons that is going to have an effect throughout the summer and fall; she is not the president yet. For Bill, it was the chief means to his long-term political survival, simply the fact that however much his enemies had on him and however much they wanted him gone, getting rid of presidents is fiendishly difficult and on purpose. The Secretary has no such backstop; for her, delay for the sake of the delay is the defense she has remaining to her, and she will employ that and the tendency of the media and the public to eventually tire of a story that has no new chapters. She has to hope it remains that way.
We’ve seen all of the foregoing throughout her campaign, and we will certainly see more of the same should she be elected to the presidency this fall. But in one of the most interesting paradoxes of this current cycle, she finds herself matched against an opponent whose political abilities rival her husband’s, and whose tactics and talents for disarming or dismissing the established truth resembles their own. The fact that she understands government and policy much better than he does almost seems beside the point. And when Bill inevitably moves to campaign for her this summer and fall, directly, as he will have to, the differences will move into starker contrast and likely not to her benefit.