Love & Sex

Love Lessons From Bill Clinton: The Comeback Kid

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A new documentary offers insight about the world's most famous adulterous marriage.

by Litsa Dremousis

Let's make a pact: regardless of our politics, we'll hold our shit together as we discuss the captivating new PBS documentary Bill Clinton: The Comeback Kid. We know scads of male politicians from both parties have cheated, and while it might have sucked to be their wives, the nation didn't collapse. So in light of the film's revelations, let's examine Bill and Hillary Clinton not as a Democratic President and First Lady, but just as a couple whose marriage survived the most famous infidelity of our time.

At its start, The Comeback Kid examines a defining element of Bill Clinton's life, one that's too often overlooked (even though he wrote about it in his autobiography): his father died months before Bill was born, and his stepfather was a savage, adulterous drunk. Yet Bill's childhood peers recall him as vivacious, and by all objective measurements, he was enormously accomplished. (The live footage of his meeting President Kennedy during a 1963 Boys Nation Convention at the White House is spine-tingling.) 

From a young age, Bill learned to compartmentalize his emotions, a survival skill common among children of alcoholics and/or survivors of abuse. In this light, his constant philandering — dating back to his days as Arkansas Attorney General — isn't excusable, but it is more understandable. It seems the same compartmentalizing that got him through childhood eventually got him both into and out a panoply of adult messes.

Given all that, it's strange that Hillary has always been the more controversial of the two. Contemporaries from their days at Yale Law School recall both as smart, but Hillary as the disciplined one. A self-proclaimed feminist whose career took off immediately when she landed a job after graduation on the House committee investigating Watergate, Hillary was the rising star. And not only did she stay sexually faithful, she left Washington to join Bill in Arkansas. Her friends were apparently confounded, but believed she really loved him. And those who know them both say he has always loved her and that their shared drive for the White House helped keep them together. 

So having achieved their common goal, why did Bill choose to shoot a load on his intern's dress and watch her perform vaginal parlor tricks while Hillary worked down the hall? Why risk subjecting her to worldwide humiliation? Think about your darkest heartbreak. Now imagine half the planet is debating it. No one deserves that. 

This highlights the most moving part of The Comeback Kid. Hillary, knowing that she'd incur public wrath no matter what she chose, opted to stay. Of course, her career benefited. But it might have benefited by leaving, too. 

Only Bill and Hillary Clinton really know why they remain a couple. There's something touching about two people with so much power, wealth, and fame who might just be together because they want to be. Who would have thought their marriage would rate among their most notable accomplishments?

Litsa Dremousis' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, Huffington Post, Jezebel, McSweeney's, MSN Music, The A.V. Club, on NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis. She archives her previously published work at http://theslipperyfish.blogspot.com/.

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