One is hound dog sexy, the other warmly attractive. One got to be U.S. president, screwed up big time yet remains a global rock star. The other failed to become president, gracefully regrouped and now gets high marks for a shrewd and subtle diplomatic performance. Both commanded major attention last week for their important international missions.
The Clintons are the power couple whose public narrative, let alone private marital dynamic, still seems to confound just about everyone.
No question they have some significant emotional baggage that keeps many people from unequivocally celebrating the strengths of this extraordinary couple - from his appalling infidelities in office to her valiant attempts to bridle him during her run for the presidency - but does it always have to be a set-up in which if one is winning, the other has to lose?
This theme was clearly in evidence during the coverage of former president Bill Clinton's self-described "humanitarian" mission in which, on the day his wife, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarked on a 10-day visit to Africa, he dashingly flew into North Korea ("parachuting in with a knife in his teeth" joked one comic) and brought home two female American journalists who had been imprisoned for almost five months.
Of course the heart-wrenching photo ops of Mr. Clinton standing modestly in the background as journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee tearfully reunited with their families momentarily trumped anything Ms. Clinton could do in Nairobi. But it was notable how predictable and, well, retro, most of the commentary was: "Bill Upstages Hillary … Once Again" screamed the Huffington Post. The word "eclipse" was bandied about, as were those naughty sexual jokes that will dog the Big Dawg till he departs this vale of babes.
Comedian Jon Stewart, imitating Mr. Clinton's Arkansas drawl, joked, "Well ah guess ah just rescued two journalists … someone's gonna have to suck the Big Man's …," while everyone from late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel to Conservative bloviator Rush Limbaugh speculated on whether he had hit on the two women on the long flight home. (Salon.com contributor Joe Conason argued it was "sexual envy" animating these gibes.)
The bigger picture though is that of a formidable twosome, equally matched, with more brains, energy and leadership qualities than any couple in U.S. history. And more staying power. Each has weathered failure and found a way to move on and yet still remain, infuriatingly so to their critics, front and centre in American public life. As a family franchise they are only slightly less visible than the Obamas.
The general response to their high-octane missions should have been adulatory - while he swoops into North Korea, grimly pacing a dangerous dictator, she blows into Africa with a well-planned tough-talking tour to celebrate human rights and warn some African countries of their shortcomings. But society still has trouble accepting the very idea of a marriage in which two gloriously equal partners can thrive. We prefer the paradigm of the seesaw - when he's up, she's down, when she shines, he simmers.
Indications are that Ms. Clinton, as Secretary of State, had a hand in engineering her husband's return to the limelight, just as for all his ill-timed posturing during her campaign, Mr. Clinton was a major force in making his wife the first woman who came close to cracking the presidential glass ceiling.
Somehow in the public view their strengths become their liabilities. The Big Dawg's back howled the headlines, what's President Barack Obama gonna do with him now? And weren't the North Koreans (titter titter) just so rude about Ms. Clinton after she dressed them down, describing her as a "funny lady" who sometimes "looks like a primary-school girl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping." (Always, with powerful women, it's the looks that get savaged first.)
And yet, even when the Clintons are seen as the powerful couple they are, it's inevitably as a diabolical duo conspiring to reclaim the White House. As one online commenter to The New York Times put it, "the first visible move of the shadow presidency."
The more than 1,000 comments on the newspaper's main piece about Mr. Clinton's North Korean triumph were as revealing as anything else about the narrow lens through which ordinary people view the triumphs of the ultimate power couple: "You go Bill - better than sitting home in Chappaqua [N.Y.]waiting for Hillary to come back," wrote one reader.
Hello, this is what a power couple looks like, folks. They are two brilliant people married to each other, both having found a way, despite their failures, to stay firmly at the top of their game.
There should be more of them.