It all went back to Bill’s time at Oxford and the intense and intimate relationship he had developed with Frank Aller. Shortly after he returned from California with Hillary, Bill received a phone call. Frank Aller had committed suicide.
Aller had gone back to California to face the consequences of his decision to resist the draft. He turned himself in to the authorities, prepared to go to jail. But then he failed the army physical. Suddenly, what had begun as a long journey to martyrdom and prison became a roller-coaster ride to liberation. Aller was a free man. Yet when Clinton visited him in early 1971, he reported that he still “seemed caught in the throes of a depression.” Aller was spending the year writing an autobiographical novel about the life of a draft resister. “It was an exciting but also sobering experience,” Aller wrote a friend, “as I tried to assess what the decision meant after two years of living with it and what it was likely to mean in the long run. At the end of the period when I was actively revising the second draft … I realized that I was being led toward another decision just as difficult as the first one, if not more so.” It was an ominous sign.
Brooke Shearer, a woman friend from Oxford and the partner of his Rhodes classmate Strobe Talbott, was the one who called Clinton with the news. She had been one of the last people to see Aller. On the surface, everything seemed to be rosy. The Los Angeles Timeshad just offered him a job as a correspondent in Southeast Asia, writing about the war he hated. Yet something did not feel right to Shearer. A few days later, Aller put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. His friends—soulmates, really—were devastated. They had lived through the traumas of his resistance decision, providing the support he so desperately needed. And now, just as things turned right, they went horribly wrong. It seemed, his Rhodes classmate John Isaacson said, that Aller “needed the war to stay alive. He needed the external crisis to avoid the internal crisis.” Another friend, Mike Shea, believed the resistance had given him something to live for. Now there was only nothingness—and the “other decision” Aller had referred to.
Clinton was devastated. Aller and he had lived through the drama of the draft decision together. It had been Aller who told Clinton he must not choose the path of resistance because he had so much to offer as a political figure. They had pondered, struggled, explored, and finally come to resolution together. Now his closest existential partner during this struggle was gone. Clinton began once again to question his own choice, the very purpose of his existence. “I am having trouble getting my hunger back up,” he wrote Cliff Jackson, “and someday I may be spent and bitter that I let the world pass me by.” The optimist became a skeptic, the do-gooder a naysayer. Greg Craig remembered a paper Clinton wrote during this time that questioned the worth of the entire social system and condemned the life of politics as inherently corrupt. “It was … an angry, hostile period of his life,” Craig said, “consistent with what a lot of us felt.”
Writing more than three decades later, Clinton reflected further on his friend’s suicide. “As I learned on that awful day, depression crowds out rationality with a vengeance. It’s a disease that, when far advanced, is beyond the reasoned reach of spouses, children, lovers, and friends … After Frank’s death, I lost my usual optimism and my interest in courses, politics, and people.”
It was in that period of crisis that Hillary came through for him. She had lived through her own periods of self-doubt and confusion. Despite being one of the most inner-directed and self-motivated students at Wellesley, she had experienced bouts of ennui, reluctance to get out of bed in the morning, alienation from the tasks before her, and a pervasive case of the “blahs.” In February of her junior year at Wellesley, and then again for a brief period at Yale, she felt doubt about the meaning of it all and wondered whether anything could make commitment and hard work worthwhile. Now, during these darkest days with Bill Clinton, she shared that part of her inner self. “She opened herself to me,” Clinton wrote. It was almost as though he were seeing a different person, less rock-hard, straight-ahead, and singularly focused than the one he had first encountered. Her willingness to be vulnerable, to share, to reveal her most private self “only strengthened and validated my feelings for her.” And in doing so, Hillary helped remind Clinton “that what I was learning, doing, and thinking mattered.”
Excerpted from “Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal“ by William H. Chafe, to be published in September 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by William H. Chafe. All rights reserved.