One of the reasons Bill and Hillary Clinton have proven to be such enduringly fascinating characters is that so many of their actions leave you wondering what they’re really trying to do or say.
Were Hillary’s tears before the New Hampshire primary a sign that, like Ed Muskie decades earlier, she was cracking under the pressure—or were they a shrewd play for sympathy on the eve of a make-or-break election?
And was Bill Clinton just reflexively standing up for his record when he lit into Fox News’ Chris Wallace a few years ago—or was it part of a broader effort to strengthen the Clinton brand with the Fox-hating left in the early days of Hillary’s campaign?
But it’s not always that difficult to discern their motives. Case in point: the tongue-lashing that Hillary delivered this week to a Congolese student who—at least according to the translator—asked what her husband thought of Chinese investment in the country.
The harsh tone of Clinton’s rebuke was jarringly out of character for her, so it’s no wonder the episode attracted significant attention. As usual, the media went hunting for the real reason for the outburst, and a consensus quickly emerged: It was all about Bill, who had just dominated the news days earlier with his rescue mission in North Korea.
Obviously, Hillary was jealous. Or resentful. Or both. And the question had simply pushed her over the edge.
Maureen Dowd characterized it as a “raw, competitive response [that] showed that the experiment in using the Clintons as a tandem team on diplomacy may not be going as smoothly as we had hoped; once more, as with health care, the conjugal psychodrama drags down the positive contribution the couple can make on policy.”
Tina Brown declared that Hillary didn’t mind all of the attention showered on Bill—at first. But “news cycles of this sort are supposed to last at most one week, not two—and this one, this latest Bill comeback narrative, was now bumping into hers.” (Other contributing factors identified by Brown: the fact that Bill was “yukking it up on his birthday with the old adoring pals at such a fancy, high-priced restaurant as Craftsteak,” and that the “African humidity had wreaked havoc on her hair.”)
If there’s one thing that should be obvious about Hillary after nearly two decades on the national stage, it’s how amazingly guarded and disciplined she is when it comes to public curiosity about her relationship with and feelings toward her husband. Which is to say, whenever the public and media have tried their hardest to find signs of discord, she’s taken pains to give them less than nothing.
For instance, when Gennifer Flowers accusation of a 12-year affair seemed to be destroying Bill’s first presidential campaign in 1992, Hillary rode to the rescue. "I'm sitting here,” she said in the Clintons’ famous joint interview on “60 Minutes,” “because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what we've been through together, and, you know, if that's not enough for people, then heck, don't vote for him.” The message was delivered, and not for the last time: Nothing to see here.
Given this history, it’s fairly obvious how Hillary would have handled the question in the Congo if her mind really had been boiling with anger and resentment toward her husband: She would have been extra careful to shield those emotions from public view. Perhaps she would have responded tersely and coldly, but she would not have lashed out and drawn attention to the question and to herself. It’s not her style, and it never has been.
So why did she erupt? She was probably exhausted, which might explain some of it. But there’s actually a very logical and believable explanation, one that comes from an unlikely source: a State Department mouthpiece. Usually, a flack is the last person you’d call if you’re looking for a straight and authentic answer. But in this case, P.J. Crowley’s explanation has the ring of truth.
“It’s important to understand the context here: that, you know, one of—an abiding theme that she has in her trip to Africa is empowering women,” he said. “As the question was posed to her, it was posed in a way that said: I want to get the views of two men, but not you, the secretary of state.”
The rights of women, particularly in developing nations, have long been one of Hillary’s passions—and her 11-day swing through Africa took her through areas where women are still routinely abused, degraded and humiliated, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where nearly 4,000 women have been raped this year alone.
It’s completely plausible that, against that backdrop, Hillary felt a reflexive desire to assert herself when she was asked a question that seemed to reduce her to second-class status. And it’s a lot more plausible than the notion that, after so many years of practice and perfection, she suddenly lost her ability to keep everyone guessing about her feelings toward Bill.