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The Best Thing Hillary Could Do for Her Campaign? Ditch Bill.

Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The day that Hillary conceded the 2008 primaries, I rode the train back from Washington to New York with another political journalist. We wondered, then, about the possibility that Clinton might someday run for president again. At that moment, with tempers in the Democratic Party still blazing, it seemed awfully remote. But, we agreed, we could both picture it. There was just one big piece of baggage she’d need to lose first: Bill. 

We weren’t advocating for divorce, per se. Let’s just say that we were speculating about ways that she might meaningfully disassociate herself, professionally and politically, from her ever-lovin’ husband, the man who, during the course of her recently concluded campaign, had made more trouble than he was worth. 

Of course, this was before Barack Obama got elected president and surprised many whose tempers had run so hot by coolly appointing Clinton Secretary of State, establishing Clinton as her own political force, distinct from The Big Dog to whom she has been married since 1975.

By the time Hillary left the State Department in 2013, there wasn’t any question that she was cruising toward 2016 on her own steam, her baggage—Benghazi, Syria, her concussion—refreshingly hers alone. All she had to do was write a memoir, give some speeches, take some photos with her soon-to-be-born granddaughter, hire a campaign team, and she was good to go.

So what did Hillary do? She promptly re-ensconsed herself in her husband’s orbit, going to work at his philanthropic foundation and installing herself there so concretely that its name was changed to The Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

This week, journalist Peter Schweizer published Clinton Cash, kicking off an investigative cycle that was going to be inevitable when Hillary ran for president: the sifting through of every penny ever given to the Foundation in search of questionable connections to Hillary’s political life, or influence-peddling by either her or her husband. And while so far no one has produced any evidence of professional impropriety on Hillary’s part, the Foundation has been forced to admit failures to disclose foreign donations and errors in tax disclosures. Now that the Foundation has Hillary’s name on it, those failures stick to her too. 

“So yes, we made mistakes,” begins the key paragraph in the statement that Clinton Foundation CEO Maura Pally released in response to Clinton Cash. Hillary’s—in homing straight back to Bill’s murkier world after leaving her perch at the State department—felt like the first unforced error of her 2016 campaign.

The unexpected rechanneling of energy away from Hillary’s personal ambitions and back toward her husband is not without precedent. In fact, contra her reputation as America’s most ambitious, craven, and self-serving First Lady, Hillary’s path has long wound loyally around Bill’s, nearly always to his benefit and her detriment. Returning to his side may be a reflexive habit developed in the era in which Hillary was raised and less well suited to the one in which she wants to become president, but it’s one that she—and he—need to break.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been an electric symbol for female insurgence and independence from the moment she stepped into a national spotlight. And yes, it was revolutionary that she maintained her own high-powered career, cultivated her own passions for policy, and refused to apologize for either. But she has long played an almost old-fashioned supporting role within her Bill’s political life. 

People forget that, not unlike our current First Lady, Michelle Obama, Hillary was a star long before her husband became a bigger one. In 1969, Hillary Rodham was Wellesley’s first-ever student commencement speaker, and her ballsy oratory—boldly critical of Massachusetts Republican Senator Edward Brooke, who had preceded her to the podium—drew a seven-minute standing ovation and national press coverage as a student leader. She was accepted to both Yale and Harvard law schools; she interned with radical lawyer Bob Treuhaft, monitored the Black Panther trials for civil rights abuses, worked for John Doar as a member of the impeachment inquiry staff during Watergate, published a well-regarded paper on children’s rights, began a long-lasting professional relationship with Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman and researched the challenges faced by migrant workers for a Senate subcommittee headed by Walter Mondale. All before she married Bill Clinton.

But Hillary Clinton came of age in a period during which women weren’t encouraged to achieve independently. As Nora Ephron, who graduated from Wellesley three years before Hillary arrived, famously said of the lessons she learned there: “We weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them. We weren’t meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions, or lives; we were meant to marry them. If you wanted to be an architect, you married an architect.” Here’s the American upheaval that Hillary’s life has spanned: she wants, radically, to be president. But first, she married one.

Friends and political advisors saw a bright future for young Hillary in Washington, D.C. But as she has written, she “chose to follow [her] heart instead of [her] head” and gave up her political prospects to move with her boyfriend to Arkansas, where his political prospects lay. Both Hillary and her friend Sara Ehrman, who helped her move to Arkansas, have recalled the cross-country car ride during which Ehrman begged Hillary not to chuck her future for a boy. Upon arriving in Fayetteville and finding a crowd of Razorback football fans hanging from lamp posts, Ehrman realized that Hillary was about to settle in “a town full of frat boys wearing pig hats,” and began to weep.

It is a pattern—Hillary surging independently and then voluntarily receding, or being pulled back, into the shadow of Bill—that has repeated again and again. After marrying in 1975, Hillary kept her maiden name, even after Bill became governor of Arkansas, much to the consternation of some of the state’s traditionalists. But when her insistence on maintaining her distinct professional and personal identity got blamed for Bill’s re-election loss in 1980, Hillary gave in. “I decided it was more important for Bill to be Governor again than for me to keep my maiden name,” she wrote. “Hillary Rodham Clinton”—and with her, the catch-all term “The Clintons”—was born. 

What did she get in the deal? According to Carl Bernstein, screwed: he has reported that when she considered running to succeed her husband as Arkansas’s governor in 1990, Bill’s former pollster Dick Morris found that it would be an unlikely win, since “she had not developed her image … she was seen as Mrs. Clinton. She was not seen as Hillary.”

On the presidential trail, where she was forced, she has written, “by definition, [into] a derivative position,” Hillary defended her choice to pursue her own career and not bake cookies. Soon, though, she repentantly entered the first-ever Family Circle bake-off against Barbara Bush. She told 60 Minutes that she was not some faithful spouse, standing by her man like Tammy Wynette. Then she stood by her man.

Bill’s naively advertised two-for-one presidency kicked off with Hillary taking over the Sisyphean project of health care reform; when it tanked, it too had her name all over it. Hillary Clinton—a woman who had been named by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 powerful lawyers in the nation in both 1988 and 1991—backed off a public role and wrote Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Letters from the White House Pets.

Crucially, though the Clintons are regularly cast as crazy-eyed co-conspirators driven by their shared thirst for joint power, the willingness to sacrifice personal ambition in order to shore up the other has mostly worked in one direction. As former White House Counsel and longtime friend of both Clintons Bernie Nussbaum recently told The New York Times, while Bill was president, “she was very strong, and he needed her desperately. He would not have been president, I don’t think, without her.” But the math doesn’t work in reverse.

There’s no doubt that Bill would theoretically like to support Hillary’s political career in return. In 2007, I heard him tell an audience at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg that his wife “helped me in every race I ran from 1974 to 2000. … She did 27 years for me, and I’ve done seven years for her. So I’ve got about 20 years to go before we’re even.”

But it takes a certain kind of social conditioning to become the person willing to abandon their own priorities in service to a partner’s, over and over again. It takes practice and an ingrained attitude to remain behind the scenes, to rein in one’s behavior on behalf of another, to absorb Wellesley’s motto—“Non ministrare sed Ministrari” (“not to be ministered to, but to minister,” or as Ephron joked, pointedly, “not to be ministers but to be ministers’ wives”).

While she was always by his side during his rise through Arkansas to Washington, the years in which Hillary’s own political career has flourished—from her entrance into the Senate through her exit from State—are the years in which their careers have been the least intertwined. When Hillary first went to the Senate, Bill—still hang-dogging it over Lewinsky—made himself scarce, living in Chappaqua, working on his memoir, building The Clinton Foundation. He didn’t cast any real shadow on Hillary’s Senate career.

And by almost every measure, that was for the best. It turns out that when left to her own devices, Hillary does just fine. In the Senate, she won over congressional conservatives (depressingly, by deferring to the more powerful men around her); she knocked back drinks with John McCain, and cemented a reputation as a workhorse (not a show horse!). Hillary, on her own, is capable, charming, difficult to dislike. 

And plenty of people are eager, excited to take her on her own terms: Remember that she has been voted the “Most Admired Woman in America” by Gallup 17 out of the last 18 years. Check out the video of ecstatic State Department employees welcoming her like Dorothy to Munchkinland on her first day of work in 2009. Consider the giddy weirdness of “Texts From Hillary,” a meme that would never have existed if Bill had been next to her in that photograph, mostly because the man would never have stopped talking long enough for her to send a single god-damned text. 

She can, and should, do this thing on her own. But old habits are hard to break.

Most of the Clinton Cash-like criticism will bypass the fact that the Clinton Foundation has done an enormous amount of good around the world: lowering the cost of HIV and AIDS drugs, combating climate change, getting better nutrition into some of America’s most barren food desserts. It is to Bill’s credit that he has parlayed his post-presidential influence into philanthropy. 

And while lots of the dirtier insinuations about Bill and his foundation are likely false or stretched, it is simultaneously true that he has some famously questionable taste in associates, and that there probably wouldn’t—couldn’t—be such a mass of buzzing and stinging around Bill Clinton if he weren’t just a little bit covered in honey. After all, many of the extremely wealthy men on whose planes he flies around the world are high-rolling versions of frat boys wearing pig hats.

And Hillary drove straight into that fray and set up house. Who knows why: maybe because she wanted to work closely with her family in advance of a grueling presidential race (and perhaps a presidential administration); maybe she felt she needed to play fixer; maybe she just still loves the guy and believes in his work like she did when she was 27 and wants to make the world better by his side; maybe she’s a power-hungry harpy who is Bill’s full partner in national deception. Who knows, really. And sure, it’s true that she would have been tagged in this even if she had kept her distance. But at least she would have had distance.

All that said, I’m kind of sick of blaming Hillary for acting like the woman she was carefully trained to be. Today I feel a bit like blaming Bill for not being the kind of man the future demands.

Because we wouldn’t have gotten here if he had taken care to keep it in his proverbial pants: Why were donors to the Foundation undisclosed, despite a promise to the Obama administration that they would be? Why were any mistakes made, per Pally’s concession, when Hillary was holding a crucial federal position and everyone knew she’d likely run for president? This man’s wife has been trying to become the first woman president of the United States and he couldn’t make quadruple sure his Foundation got the taxes right? For that matter, why didn’t he or anyone in his orbit effectively discourage her from returning to the family fold, knowing the complications of a massive philanthropy, understanding the critical attention it was bound to draw?

Or perhaps Bill could have gone one more: He could have distanced himself from the Foundation for a few years, handed off its operations to someone else, gone somewhere and behaved well and kept quiet. Of course it would have been a sacrifice, of his time, his energies, his good work and intentions.

But here’s the thing. She moved to Arkansas. She gave up her name. She wrote a book about a housecat.  

Hillary will be paying for her choice to return to the Foundation for the next 19 months. And that’s fair enough. But as her husband considers his next year and a half, I’d like to urge him to don a headband, bake some cookies and stand by his woman, for once and for real. The best way to do that? Stay out of her way.