I must preface this by saying that I would be delighted if either Hillary or Obama were elected. They both seem unlikely to slaughter civilians, endorse torture or torpedo the economy, so why quibble? And yet, there’s one difference I find telling: their dramatically different marriages.
My mother came over the other morning and said, “Well, I’m off Hillary.” This was shocking. From the first, she’s been a die-hard Hillary supporter. Loved Bill, loved Hillary. Even as my father became an Obama fan, my mother stuck by the Clintons.
What changed her mind? Bill. “Why doesn’t she send him to Iceland?” my mother asked of Hillary, furious over the Jesse Jackson remark, among others. “Why doesn’t he let her have her turn? It’s so like the men of our generation. He’s out to sabotage her.”
She’s not the first to notice how, in the name of support, Bill continues to undermine and dominate his wife. The New York Times ran a rather snide story in May 2006 about the Clintons’ marriage: ” Mr. Clinton is rarely without company in public, yet the company he keeps rarely includes his wife . . .” That portrait of a long-distance-by-choice marriage was discussed in the media ad nauseum, especially (with glee) by Fox News.
But even the worst insinuations in that piece weren’t as bad as the truth: they have an absolutely typical Boomer union, a rickety first-generation prototype of the modern marriage. They were early adopters of this “equal partnership” thing, so while they deserve all credit for having pioneered, their marriage is the romantic equivalent of the Apple IIe.
The Boomer marriage has a lot of things that got phased out in later development: male entitlement, female determination, resentment on both sides. They’re trying hard to be good at mutual respect and encouragement, but there’s only so far you can upgrade an old machine.
So the Clintons proclaim and demonstrate their love, convincingly: “No one understands me better and no one can make me laugh the way Bill does,” she wrote in her 2003 memoir. “He’s so romantic!” she coos to Essence. He kisses her on the forehead. They hug. I totally buy it. And then, like clockwork, he screws her over. Most recently, he says the thing about Jesse Jackson that turns off who knows how many supporters. She seethes, re-asserts her independence. They make up. Rinse and repeat.
Bill epitomizes the men of his generation: narcissistic, unable to share the spotlight, pulling the rug out from under her at every opportunity, but not malicious, never malicious. So she stays with him because she loves him, because he has a good heart. He stays with her because she’ll have him. And so they go on like this, and will probably until they die. It’s sort of sweet, sort of depressing.
Contrast that with the Obamas.
Hillary has tried to draw comparisons herself. When in a debate she was asked about some of Bill’s comments, she said, “We both have spouses who stand up for us.” But Michelle Obama isn’t out there alienating people. She’s not saying nasty things about Hillary, or bringing up Whitewater or Monica the way Hillary’s attack dogs have made insinuations about Barack’s high-school drug use and his race as liability. And yet, Michelle’s also not “baking cookies and having teas,” to recall another Hillaryism. “You know every time somebody told me, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ I pushed past their doubts and I took my seat at the table,” Michelle, a successful lawyer, told a group of students.
Yes, Michelle recently accused the Clinton campaign of using “win at all costs” tactics, but that’s pretty much objectively true. The little “Meet Michelle” video on barackobama.com is heartbreakingly sweet. It’s about how much they love their kids and how they want all kids to get a fair shake, and about how much she believes in her husband. You get the sense that she and Barack deeply love each other, and that unlike Bill and Hillary, that love hasn’t been overshadowed by years of dashed hopes and game-playing. Introducing her husband to a crowd in Iowa this summer, she said, and seemed to mean, in her heart: “There is something special about this man.”
In their marriage, and in many other ways, the Obamas present a vision of hope. Of course, as Hillary has pointed out time and again, they’re younger and less experienced; they haven’t had time yet to build up grievances. And she’s right. Maybe they’ll cheat on each other. (Michelle has said, in Ebony, “I never worry about things I can’t affect, and with fidelity . . . that is between Barack and me, and if somebody can come between us, we didn’t have much to begin with.”) Maybe they’ll seethe with resentment. (“I said, ‘I married you because you’re cute and you’re smart, but this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do,” she’s said of his involvement in politics.) Maybe they’ll start spending weeks away from each other by choice. (“Our future is making sure Barack can get to our daughters’ ballet recitals.”) Maybe in twenty years their marriage will look just like the Clintons’.I find all four of them attractive, interesting and smart, but I would not like to be in a marriage like the Clintons’ if it remotely resembles its outward appearance. The Obamas’ marriage, on the other hand, looks progressive, fair, fun. That’s not to say they don’t probably fight plenty, but there’s something remarkably bitterness-free about them. They seem to genuinely enjoy each other and they seem like a team. The Clintons seem like two strong oxen yoked together and not always wanting to go in the same direction. And judging by how young men and women relate to each other these days, the Obamas’ notion of partnership looks more like the future.
But I don’t think so. The generations have different relationships and will have different long-term problems. I’m not sure what ours will be. Arrogance, perhaps. Over-parenting. Fatigue. Who knows? For now, the Obamas seem to be fighting the good fight toward a new kind of union, a healthy, happy and modern one. Those of us who take issue with the Boomers’ rickety marriages — with their divorces and bargains — look to the Obamas and think, “Who knows? Maybe they — and we — will manage to always be in love.”
©2008 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com