Franklin Roosevelt’s gay, social spirit still lives at his house in Hyde Park, with its potted palm trees and aqua shutters, its views of the water and road. But Eleanor Roosevelt’s house is a few miles away, and the spirit couldn’t be more different. A stone cottage near a brook, with tatty furnishings and homely linens, it draws on its own resources. Quiet, humble, utterly serious, Val-Kill is a shrine to the commitment Eleanor made in midlife. Buses go to Franklin’s house. But the independent go to Eleanor’s, people of an engaged and thoughtful bent, many of them gay.
It’s said that Eleanor built her house in the 1920’s and then became a force for change in our society after discovering a young woman’s love letters to her husband. “The bottom dropped out of my own particular world, and I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly, for the first time,” she told her biographer. It is a great parable of marriage and politics, and Hillary Clinton, who is said to adore Eleanor, should heed it. In a week or two, she will close on her house in the Hudson Valley. For the sake of her political soul and, I venture, her own well-being, she should take a page from her heroine’s book: Leave Bill.
When offering marital advice, it’s safest to treat the political consequences, so let’s start there. After all, when F.D.R.’s affair broke out into the open in his family, F.D.R.’s mother said she’d disinherit him if he got a divorce, because it wouldn’t do for the family or his future.
Divorce is seen differently today, and the political consequences of staying with Bill are hazardous, to say the least. Ask Al Gore. A perfectly decent and spineless human being, the independent look on him with nausea and disdain because he stuck with Bill Clinton through thick and thin. Edward Koch, who endorsed Mr. Gore for President 11 years ago, said recently that Mr. Gore was unelectable. “What he will be punished for is the sins of Bill Clinton,” he said at a luncheon for Newsmax.com. Mr. Koch was against impeachment, but he said that the failure to censure President Clinton had created great uneasiness in the country. “I felt frustrated, and the rest of the country also felt that it wasn’t right. They’re looking to find a scapegoat, and that scapegoat is Al Gore.”
Mr. Koch is on to something. When they lost impeachment, the Republicans extracted a political price. Spitefully refusing to accept censure, they left the garbage to rot. In a sense, they forced the Democrats to pardon Mr. Clinton, which is why Mr. Gore keeps talking about his “authenticity.” He has to. People wonder if you’ve got any after you spend several years licking dirty boots.
For all the sympathy that Hillary gets for standing by her man (Gallup polls last year consistently showed only 20 percent were in favor of her leaving), she has the same liability Mr. Gore has. Is she her own person? What is she willing to swallow without speaking out, without saying, “I get off here”? So far her explanations of the Jones-Lewinsky matter, that it was a vast right-wing conspiracy or that Bill was an abused child, are so insufficient that she seems to be in denial. Denial can be excused in a spouse in an unfortunate situation; we sympathize with those in denial. But what about when someone stands for political office? Is such a person independent or clear-thinking? Read the moralistic passages about sexual behavior and dysfunction in It Takes a Village . Does the rubber meet the road with Hillary?
Even some of my Democratic friends feel queasy about the deal. “I don’t want that marriage in New York,” one said. “If she divorced him, she would win,” said a Republican political activist. “It would be perceived as, ‘I am woman, hear me roar.’ But it will never happen. She’s too attracted to Air Force One, the Secret Service and every perk of the office.”
Hillary had such trouble over the F.A.L.N. clemency issue because it brings up the tortured complications of her marriage: how can she pretend to be independent of her lying husband-we know better.
Her fraudulent independence brings Eleanor Roosevelt to mind. Eleanor was actually independent of her husband. She criticized her husband’s policies, on labor, on housing, in her column “My Day.” And she had no authenticity problem, the country believed her. Throughout the Great Depression she was an unrelenting advocate of the dispossessed-“Tell Eleanor to keep away,” F.D.R. told advisers-and for this service she was sainted by the American people.
It’s unfair to compare anyone with Eleanor, but Hillary has made the comparison herself (and gurus Dick Morris and Jean Houston encouraged the belief in her, Ms. Houston channeling Eleanor for her, Mr. Morris urging her to write a column, just as Eleanor wrote a column), and it’s plain that Hillary has Eleanor-like qualities. She shares Eleanor’s detachment (even coldness), her earnest prickliness, her Republican childhood, her social awkwardness and Joan-of-Arcish vision about her issues (notably education and child welfare). So unfrittery, so bluestockingish, so sober, Eleanor and Hillary.
Unlike Eleanor, Hillary has never become her own person. As Wendy Wasserstein wrote in a dramatic piece on the New York Times Op-Ed page in August 1998, “I wish the talented Hillary Rodham Clinton would stand up and sign in please.” But Hillary has never found a place to stand, except next to a depraved political operation. When you think of the independent stands that Eleanor took from one day to the next, there is something pathetic about Hillary’s newspaper column, its rote references to “the President” (never “Bill” that I could see) and its stiff-necked endorsement of his agenda against the Republicans. Often the sense about Hillary is that she has gone down into her paranoia and defensiveness rather than her strength. When, on her Web site biographies of the First Ladies, Hillary states that Eleanor was “reviled” during her political life, this is self-serving horse shit. Eleanor was criticized and attacked, maybe even despised as the Meddler, and my father remembers people mocking her high singsong voice. But reviled? Wrong soul, Hillary. Eleanor didn’t fire civil servants in the Travel Office and then lie about it.
But in a time that is both so restless and bedridden as ours is, one should look to people’s potential, and this is where Eleanor could instruct Hillary. Till she was in her mid-30’s, she led a proper high-society life. She married another member of her aristocracy, obeyed her awful mother-in-law, in fact, even let Sara and F.D.R. dictate who her friends could be. She was meek. A good, obedient breeder who looked on herself as talentless and sex as an “ordeal,” she popped out five children.
Her husband’s love affair with Lucy Mercer should have been obvious, but Eleanor was in denial for years. Then an assistant secretary of the Navy, F.D.R. sent his wife letters from Washington talking about Lucy, a social secretary, coming over to straighten things up. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, a Roosevelt cousin, enabled the affair in the way that the F.O.B.’s have enabled Bill’s. “He deserved a good time, he was married to Eleanor,” she said. For, like Bill, F.D.R. had a gregarious political temperament, fun-loving. Suck the cigar, dude. Or cigarette holder, anyway.
Eleanor “found out” in 1918, when she was 34. Maybe she was at last ready to find out. In No Ordinary Time , Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that the affair was the doorway in Eleanor’s life. “She had no way of breaking through the habits and expectations of the proper young woman’s role. With the discovery of the affair, however, she was free to … seek new avenues of fulfillment.” Eleanor was more eloquent. “I really grew up that year,” she later wrote to her biographer. “Somewhere along the line of development we discover what we really are. And then we make our real decision for which we are responsible. Make that decision primarily for yourself because you can never really live anyone else’s life.” Listen to that again, all seekers of authenticity: “Make that decision primarily for yourself, because you can never really live anyone’s life.”
So Eleanor built her cottage. “The peace of it is divine,” she said, and lived there with two friends who were in a lesbian marriage and led committed lives. The linens were monogrammed E.M.N. (Eleanor, Marion, Nan), and Eleanor set out to pursue her issues. Or as Franklin put it, with wonderful breeziness, “My Missus and some of her female political friends want to build a shack on a stream in the back woods and want, instead of a beautiful marble bath, to have the stream dug out so as to form an old-fashioned swimming hole.”
Now think of what Hillary has “found out” in the last year or so: that her husband slandered a young career girl as a “stalker”; that a small-business woman says he raped her and assaulted her 20 years ago; that a distressed volunteer who was seeking a job says he mauled her while reaching for a coffee cup; that another lover whom he subsequently smeared told him he was a sex addict and he bowed his head; and that, to protect him, his political organization has repeatedly smeared and threatened women to preserve his future.
To which Hillary says, he was abused as a boy. This is not an answer, not for anyone who cares about human rights.
You have to wonder what is wrong with her, that she is sticking with him. Yes, another person’s emotions are a foreign country, especially in someone as private as Hillary. But why does she not keep a greater distance from this man? In words, in deeds, in photographic spaces. And now involving him in her political ambitions? It seems that Hillary will forever be defined by her neediness and insecurity, her fears. So she must preserve the bourgeois marriage, she must pretend. And it feels sick.
Go into the back woods, Hillary. Look at that stream dug out in the religious political woods, find Eleanor’s door.