Love Lessons From Bill Clinton: The Comeback Kid

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/.

Want to find your own President, First Lady, or sexually available intern? Check out Nerve Dating.

Commentarium (14 Comments)

Feb 22 12 - 10:22am
Jesse

Spine-tingling? hardly...more like harrowing...the guys a predator....interns??...trailer-trash??...while he was in high public office?...politics aside...there are no "love lessons" to be learned by this bozo.

Feb 22 12 - 12:28pm
Litsa

What did I say about holding our shit together? Don't make me turn this car around.

Feb 22 12 - 10:41am
Silenus

How do you know Hilary didn't have lovers? She may just have been more discrete. The 1960's was full of relationship experimentation. The Clintons could hardly have not known about it, and likely sampled it, at least. Perhaps they are the first polyamorous first couple.

Feb 22 12 - 12:34pm
Litsa

Great point, Silenus. I'm going off of what Hillary's friends and Hillary and Bill's friends say in the documentary and what I've read over the years in books as pro-Clinton as Bill's autobiography and anti-Clinton as Christopher Hitchens' No One Left to Lie To. (Yes, former Clinton adviser Dick Morris said years ago he thought Hillary was a lesbian, but he meant it an old-school, awful, homophobic way. I.e. he was trying to insult her. He's interviewed in the documentary, but acts like a relatively sentient being while the cameras are on. And he discusses Bill's infidelities openly.)

Feb 22 12 - 5:00pm
Charlie

Litsa, I am so old that I remember a time when we had a social contract: I won't talk about any marriage I am not a part of, and I won't speculate about the sexual orientation of anyone unless I plan to go to bed with them. Dick Morris is a member of that generation, but he figured he could make a buck with the tabloids.

Feb 22 12 - 7:53pm
Litsa

Charlie, I think somewhere between that code--which was eminently more dignified but ascribed a certain shame to sexual proceedings--and today's ethos where so many have no filter at all--lies the truth. And as you already know, Dick Morris worked for Jesse Helms at one time. Adept political strategist but a reprehensible human. And neither you nor I are so naive to think there aren't many more like him behind the scenes in both parties.

Feb 22 12 - 5:01pm
Teddy Shackleford

I think this is nicely written. I actually met Bill Clinton once at the APEC Conference and he told me an epic story about feeling up an employee at a Little Rock Wendy's back in the 80's. Smooth operator; Comander in Beef.

Feb 22 12 - 7:56pm
Litsa

If the Lewinsky scandal had occurred a few years later, by which point porn was not only mainstream but inescapable, "Commander in Beef" undoubtedly would've been a title of a film depicting the whole affair. Alas, like everything, it's all in the timing.

Feb 23 12 - 9:48am
acapo

BC was a pussy-hound extraordinaire. Not so good on the down-low part.

Feb 23 12 - 12:59pm
Litsa

If "Commander in Beef" would be the porn film, "Pussy-hound Extraordinaire" would be the film to play at Sundance. By the way, for everyone who loves politics and might have missed it originally, the Mike Nichols/Elaine May film on the Clintons, "Primary Colors", based on the book of the same name, holds up incredibly well. As does the documentary, "War Room" based on the 1992 election.

Feb 23 12 - 1:31pm
C

Can I just say, Litsa, that I think it's very cool that you're taking the time to appreciate everyone's comments and intelligently respond.

Feb 23 12 - 3:22pm
Litsa

Thanks so much, C! Greatly appreciated. I really enjoy how great Nerve's commenters usually are and it's a kick to interact w/ each of you. (Even the handful of loons can at least spell.) Hope all is scrumptious in your world. Cheers!

Feb 24 12 - 5:22am
French

Not to distract anybody, but the "world's most famous adulterous marriage" is held by Dominique Strauss-Kahn/Anne Sinclair.

Feb 24 12 - 6:23am
Litsa

You could definitely make a case that, metaphorically speaking, Bill Clinton is the Beatles and DSK is the Rolling Stones of adulterers. I.e. not everyone might recognize Charlie Watts, but the whole world knows Ringo. So, I'd say the slight edge goes to Clinton. But I love that as someone of French descent, you're proclaiming, "Hey! *Our* politician is the world's best known fuckhound, not yours!" Would love to see the U.N. take this one on.