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For Clintons, An Old Dream Finally Fades

This is not the end of the Clinton story. If we know anything about Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton it is that there is always another chapter, and it will not fail to be interesting.

But her departure from the presidential race Saturday almost certainly does mark the end of the longest and most important thread of the Clinton story.

For nearly 40 years the presidency has been the organizing principle of their lives together. Her appearance at the National Building Museum to thank supporters and endorse Barack Obama represents the final, fading light of a shared dream.

Both Clintons decided at young ages—years before they ever met each other—that they wanted lives swimming in the main currents of history. Both impressed a succession of teachers, friends, and mentors that they were destined to do just that.

Once they became a couple, in 1971, they spent a generation working and climbing to position him to run for president.

Starting in 1991, they spent what is now nearly another full generation—time does move on—winning the office, keeping it in the face of a remorseless opposition, and positioning her to replicate his achievement.

Could it happen yet? You can fashion scenarios. Maybe Obama decides he does want her as vice president after all. Or he loses in 2008 and a regretful party concludes she was the better choice and turns to her in 2012. Or he serves two terms and then she gets to run in 2016, at an age when she will be four years younger than John McCain is now.

But none of these scenarios is likely. And all of them involve waiting on events and circumstances that are beyond the Clintons’ control. There is no way they can drive events or shape their own circumstances by doing what would come naturally—plunging together into an us-against-the-world campaign.

There is no way they can do what they did in 1980, when he lost the Arkansas governorship after just one term. Bucked off their horse, both Clintons instantly began organizing a successful campaign to win back the governorship in 1982.

As Hillary Clinton moves forward, there is one place she might look for an example.

She and Al Gore never much cared for each other. Bill Clinton’s two closest advisers in his presidency jostled for position and influence over the agenda. But now they share an odd bond: Both must go forward with public lives reconciling themselves to agonizing what-if questions and might-have-been scenarios from breathtakingly close presidential campaigns.

However cool they were personally, both Hillary Clinton and Gore played similar roles in Bill Clinton’s universe. They both were people who tended to view policy battles in terms of stark, black-and-white choices, and helped push for clarity from a president who was prone to seeing many shades of gray.

Bill Clinton’s first lady and vice president both fell short of their ambitions amid questions about how they navigated running in his shadow.

Gore believed Bill Clinton’s personal scandals were a headwind and banished him from his campaign. Why, critics taunted after the 2000 election, would you sideline the most popular Democrat and most talented campaigner of the age?

Hillary Clinton believed Bill Clinton was a political asset and made him her most prominent public surrogate. Why, the critics now, would you allow your unruly husband to hijack your campaign and make your message all about restoration at a time when the electorate is hungering for change?

The demise of Hillary Clinton’s campaign will prompt a new season of the same questions that always get asked about the Clintons (as someone who covered them closely for 14 years I often find myself the one being asked): What holds them together? Is it love, or political ambition? 

The question itself, with its either/or frame, misses the point. No one can read minds, or divine the complexity of human relationships. But in years reporting o the Clinton story I rarely encountered anyone who spent sustained time around the couple who was not certain that their attraction is both genuine and powerful. The reason it is so powerful is a shared commitment to politics and public life.

They were on a shared project from the moment she decided to forego other options as a talented young lawyer and move with him to Arkansas in 1975. Recall that this was a woman who, two years before meeting Clinton, had already been on the cover of Life magazine as the face of a rising young generation.

David Maraniss, a fellow Clinton biographer, reported the story of Hillary being driven home one night by a mentor, Bernard Nussbaum, when they were both working as staff lawyers on the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate inquiry. With earnest intensity, she made a prediction about her then-boyfriend: “He’s going to be president of the United States. Amused, Nussbaum replied, “That’s silly and ridiculous.” Before slamming the door shut, Hillary Rodham seethed: “I know this guy. You don’t. He is going to be president. You think it’s silly. Well, someday you’ll eat your words.”

I never doubted that Bill Clinton was sincere when he said, as he often does, that he believes his wife has the best combination of head and heart of anyone he knows. Hillary Clinton, who grew up as the class brain, must wonder how she ended up married to the class glad hander, and is genuinely in awe of his political skill and gift for human connection.

During the early Clinton years, political adviser Paul Begala, who had spent countless hours on the road with the couple during the 1992 campaign, told friends he had discovered the secret of their relationship: Both looked at each other in mystery at how the other person had married someone so undeserving.

This was why they survived the Lewinksy scandal, and other indignities. Each saw their marriage as the world’s most exclusive club—a bond strong enough to handle all manner of stresses.

But earlier Clinton campaigns—for the presidency in 1992, to survive the impeachment ordeal in the second term, her Senate victory in 2000—ended with the same result: Victory.

What happened this year was something different—a campaign that both Clintons wanted ferociously to win ended in defeat. It’s not just a turn in her career but a turn in their relationship.

Bill Clinton’s opponents believed so single-mindedly in his character defects that they were blind to what most Americans by the end of his presidency saw as his supreme character virtues: His determination to never give up, his implacable willingness to dust off and fight again from political setbacks and personal embarrassments.

Hillary Clinton showed the same character in 2008. This was particularly true from March on, when she kept fighting (and often winning) even in the face of jeering from media commentators and party leaders. The race showed what she probably always knew: She shares and even surpasses his drive to win but not his almost mystical ability to prevail in the end.

Now what?

For Bill Clinton, the supreme challenge will be to face what is clearly his anger over the outcome of his wife’s campaign and the way they both were treated by both their party and the press. His worst moments in both private and public life have always flowed from his sense of grievance.

Late in his presidency, Clinton reflected publicly on the foul moods that sometimes overcome him: “It has occurred to me really that everyone of us has this little scale inside, you know. And every day we wake up and the scale is a little bit titled one way or the other. And life is a big struggle to keep things in proper balance. You don’t want to have so much light that you’re just a fool for whatever comes along. But if the scale tips dark even a little bit, things turn badly for peopleand those with whom they come in contact.”

One chapter in the Clinton story is over. But, assuming good health, the next one could last for decades on the public stage. Its drama will come from how both Clintons balance gratitude and grievance, ambition and disappointment, light and dark.

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