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'Bill and Hillary' Are Focus of New Chafe Book
Durham, NC - Bill and Hillary Clinton may be the most famous political couple in modern American history, with shelves of books written about each of them. Yet "no book has focused on the personal and political dynamics between them, which is the secret to understanding their marital and political history," says Duke historian William Chafe.
In his forthcoming book "Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal," Chafe explores the complex, often bewildering relationship between the former president and current secretary of state. From their days in Arkansas through their White House battles over health care and impeachment, the private interactions between them guided the actions each took on the public stage, he concludes.
Bill Clinton allowed Hillary to continue leading health care reform in the face of fierce opposition largely because she had rescued his presidential campaign against infidelity accusations from Gennifer Flowers. Hillary Clinton decided to pursue a New York Senate seat as a way to reassert her own identity at the end of his presidency. Their relationship was the ground from which welfare reform, the Whitewater investigation and diverse other events blossomed.
"Everything that happens in their political lives is related to the chemistry between them," Chafe says. Theirs is the "quintessential example" of how history unfolds from the personal dynamics within and between people.
Chafe, a former Arts & Sciences dean and history department chair at Duke and former president of the Organization of American Historians, has explored this theme extensively in his recent work. His 2005 book on "Private Lives/ Public Consequences" described how the personalities and life experiences of eight famous individuals or couples influenced their public legacies, from Franklin Roosevelt gaining compassion through his bout with polio to former actor Ronald Reagan pursuing a "role of a lifetime" in the White House.
That book's final chapter, titled "A Flawed Co-Presidency," examined the Clintons, laying out many of the themes of the new book, to be published Sept. 4 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "The entwined personal and political lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton offer new insight into how pivotal it is to understand the personalities of our leaders if we are to understand the politics they have helped shape for us," Chafe explains in the introduction.
|Duke historian William Chafe|
It's a question he also studied in his last major political biography, which depicted how former Rep. Allard Lowenstein privately struggled with his sexual attraction toward young men while publicly recruiting them and others for progressive causes. Chafe also returns to the civil rights struggle and the changing roles of women, as well as to his interest in why some activists choose to work within political parties while others attack the system. This past spring, he led a group of undergraduates on a 3-week Duke Immerse trip to South Africa that compared protest movements in the two countries. He also was honored with Duke's University Scholar/Teacher of the Year award.
"I'm really interested in the split in my generation between liberals and radicals," he says, reflecting not only his status as one of the nation's preeminent modern historians but also his earlier career as a political activist. He says his focus has shifted in recent years from people joining in movements to the inner forces that drive them as individuals, but he remains fascinated by how and why history turns in one direction instead of another.
"We need to become more holistic and complex in how we deal with history and human life," says Chafe, who used archival materials and existing commentary on the Clintons but declined to pursue personal interviews with them. "I didn't want to," he explains. "They're so scripted. I felt better about not trying to break through that." He wrote much of the book in Australia and recently began speaking about it at book festivals and other venues.
In October, he will be honored at a two-day Festschrift, or academic celebration, at Duke to commemorate his long career. Ian Baucom, director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, is organizing the event. Yet even though Chafe will retire officially on Aug. 31, he continues analyzing the people and events that shaped our world. He's already deep into his next project, a revisionist history of segregation he is writing with several Duke colleagues and a former student.
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