06/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Should Hillary Leave Him Now?

Q: I have a question. For many years, a lot of people wondered if Hillary would leave Bill. It was a topic of much speculation by pundits and normal folk alike. Most people felt that she showed weakness by not walking out on a philandering husband. In fact, many women were so angry with her that they vowed to not support a woman for President who didn't seem to have the pride or courage to publicly chastise the man who publicly humiliated her.

So, this is my question. Why is no one asking the same question now that she is no longer in the race? Before it seemed to be the top question on everyone's mind and one of the major indicators as to how they viewed her character. Now all we hear are questions about what she will do in the future, how her loss to Obama changes her stature, how Democrats will fare without her, and why she waited so long to exit. But no one seems to care that she is still married to the man who many feel was a hindrance to her ambitions.

Why is that what was curious to people before no longer seems so interesting?

A: Good question! I have been wondering the same thing and your question gave me the opportunity to think things through. You're right. Not too long ago, Bill and Hillary's relationship seemed to be the top question in everyone's mind and a way for many people to judge her character. Now, though, as you said, all we hear are questions not related to their marriage. Haven't these people noticed that she is still married to the person who once loomed larger thnt she did?

Nevermind that I, for one, have always wondered why, for some people, fidelity was the one thing that seemed to matter most in a relationship -- the sole standard by which to judge its worth. I've always wondered, too, what any of this had to do with being chief executive. No doubt, we've seen with many famous couples like Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford, Eliot Spitzer and Silda Wall, and, of course, the ever-amusing McGreevy performers that public exposure puts strains that most people cannot imagine on a relationship. But in two out of three of these cases, the parties seemed to have invested the requisite time and effort to work through the issues, some of which almost certainly have nothing to do with infidelity. In these cases, the parties involved probably looked at their marriage as a package - some good things and some bad things, but still worth trying to keep the business going. Infidelity may not have outweighed everything else - assuming that there was a something else.

Obviously I look at everything not as much from the political point of view, but from a psychological one. All along, when it came to the Clintons, when everyone was questioning why she would stay, I theorized that they were a strong couple who shared so much and had a common vision - part of which, clearly, was alternating ambitions. Now, though, much has changed - if not in their marriage, then the public's perception of it. Why?

Interestingly, putting the question in the context of the shifting interest in Hillary's motivations gives you the answer. She is now more interesting as a politician in her own right than as the member of a power couple. Unconsciously, Hillary has managed to shed her role as wife, First Lady, cookie baker, and the little woman behind the man. Her long path of recognized accomplishments encompassing a legal career, involvement in community affairs, First Lady of the United States and two-term New York senator, was not enough to establish her as an independent person. From the very beginning, her run for the presidency raised questions about HIS role -would he help, would he hurt? Now, for good or bad, Hillary is finally seen as a separate entity. Any analysis of her failures would have to be put in the context of her own actions and not her husband's. So, whether or not she stays with him now is irrelevant -- the same way it was irrelevant if Geraldine Ferraro would stay with her husband when she was running for Vice-President.

Let's take a moment to talk about whether Hillary would actually leave Bill, and then we can return to people's shifting perceptions. I agree with you that there was no reason for her to leave Bill before. In her mind and, I am sure, in the analysis of a lot of her advisors, Bill was an asset that could help her in her race for the nomination. He could raise money. He could draw large crowds. He has a constituency of his own. He is a master of the process. It looks good if they're together--and he would entice voters who were not all that enamored of Hillary. If he could marry her, then they could vote for her. Good reasoning! Or not!!

Something went wrong. And since all of that didn't work out, now is the time for Hillary to re-analyze her marriage. Before, with shared goals and ambitions, infidelity on its own was not a deal-breaker. Now, though, being part of a couple is no longer necessarily helpful. So, are there enough other attributes in the marriage that will keep it going? Together, they seemingly did a wonderful job of parenting. It may be enough of a shared reason to remain a couple, but their parenting days are over. They will decide.

Whatever they decide, they are now two separate people on their own separate paths in life. The one victory for Hillary in this race has been the new perception of her in the minds of others. It seems she can now frame her path and pursue her goals independently. If people truly no longer care whether she's married or not, then Bill himself is no longer a help or a hindrance.

So, why did it take people so long to separate the two issues or entities? Because when Hillary had defined herself as attached to Bill, people then felt free to question her marriage. Now she has defined herself separately, so people are not as interested in her marriage. (Incidentally, I would assume that the people who are still transfixed by the Clinton marriage are saying something about their own struggles with and questions about their own marriage. But that's another column and question.)

I have written many times that it is not always the stated "issues" that are important in how we decide our political favorite. Rather, it is our unconscious perception of who they are and how they make us feel that usually determines who we choose. How Hillary handled her marriage was at first interesting to us, but then how she handled herself became more important to us. Maybe that's because this is precisely what became--and always has been--most important to her. Her shifting perceptions of self mirrored the shifting perceptions of the people asking "the question": "Why is she still married to him?" has become "Who the hell cares?"