Remember the Gores? Al and Tipper? At the Democratic convention in 2000, they shared that hungry, happy kiss, and it was more than a meeting of lips. It was a window, or so we thought, into a partnership of enduring passion and inextinguishable tenderness.
They’re separated now. Have been for more than five years.
And the Edwardses? John and Elizabeth? He resembled a Ken doll. She didn’t take after Barbie. That endeared them to voters — endeared him to voters. Only later did we learn about his double life, the furious fights and the copious tears.
We know nothing of other people’s marriages. Nothing at all.
So why do we pretend otherwise? Why do we make so many assumptions and judgments?
And why, every election cycle, do we treat candidates’ spouses and unions as the keys to their characters?
We can’t trust what’s paraded in front of us any more than we can take what journalists and opponents dig up as the essential truth. A person’s intimate life isn’t readily fathomed, and on the inside tends not to look anything like it does on the outside.
Bill Clinton hit the campaign trail this week. That brought back memories, or rather Donald Trump hauled those memories to the surface, and we were reminded anew of all that Bill and Hillary have been through (and have put us through): the infidelities, the intern, the lies, the smears.
We were also reminded of Hillary’s role in defending him. How did that square with her claim to be a champion of women? It’s fair to ask.
But the fascination with the Clintons as a couple goes beyond that question, beyond those scandals, to the belief in many quarters that we can divine something essential about each of them by the fact that they teamed up and stayed together.
According to her fans, it’s a measure of her understanding that people are broken, of her capacity for forgiveness, of her belief in commitments. According to her foes, it reveals a thirst for power that redeems any heartbreak and transcends all humiliation.
It could be proof of both — or neither. The answer isn’t gettable. Talk with six different people who know the Clintons well and you hear six different appraisals of their bond, each presented with unalloyed confidence.
I’ve been told that they light up around each other as they light up around no one else.
I’ve been told that there’s no extraordinary spark there, just a storehouse of shared memories, an accretion of endurable disappointments, a daughter, a granddaughter and a friendship.
I’ve been told that they’re really business associates, intricately involved in each other’s lives because they’re jointly invested in the perpetuation of their political relevance.
I’ve been told that they talk more than anyone would imagine. I’ve been told that they talk less.
In New Hampshire on Monday, when he described his first encounters with her some 45 years ago, he called her “the most amazing person” and said, “Everything she touched, she made better.”
Maybe that was a deeply felt tribute. Maybe just a great line.
Heidi Cruz will also be in New Hampshire this week. She’s a busy evangelist for Ted, half of a couple who present themselves as perfect. Perhaps.
Or perhaps, as the cringe-worthy outtakes from a Cruz campaign commercial suggest, they’re just equally meticulous about the script on which they’re collaborating, equally intent on a triumphant denouement.
I’m less and less interested in guessing, because I’m more and more aware of how compartmentalized people are, of how flawed and fruitless it is to extrapolate from one chamber of their lives to another. The stingiest spouse and parent can be the greatest boss, and vice versa. Someone who’s selfless and principled in one context is sometimes the opposite in another, as if there’s only so much goodness to go around.
And no chamber resists exploration and explanation like that of a marriage or comparable relationship.
We’re certain that we have it figured out — who musters the most patience, who makes the greatest sacrifices, who’s pure, who’s sullied — until it falls apart. Then we gape at the pieces, because none are recognizable.
We’re certain that social climbing or religious devotion is a couple’s glue, when what matters more is the secret language of goofy endearments that they speak. Or the unremarkable daily rituals that they’ve grown to relish. Or the tempo of his speech. Or the timbre of her laugh.
And when we come to our sweeping conclusions, we’re not perceiving but projecting, and we’re using couples to cling to our idealism or validate our cynicism. It’s a foolish game under any circumstances. It’s a dangerous one en route to the election of a president.
Frank Bruni is the author of The New York Times bestseller about George W. Bush called “Ambling into History” and is a restaurant critic and columnist for The New York Times.