The American Presidents Series: The 42nd President, 1993-2001
by Michael Tomasky
It was the summer after Bill Clinton finished first grade. Roger Clinton, the man Bill grew up calling “Daddy” even though he was not Bill’s biological father, had grown tired of Hope, Arkansas, and its comparative lack of amusements, so he moved the family to Hot Springs—a town much more up his hooch-hitting, hard-living alley. Roger bought a farm, and one Sunday, Bill was out playing with his cousin Karla when the farm’s one mean ram began to charge at them. Karla, older and faster, got away. Bill tripped over a rock. As he tells the story in his autobiography, My Life:
Soon he caught me and knocked my legs out from under me. Before I could get up he butted me in the head. Then I was stunned and hurt and couldn’t get up. So he backed up, got a good head start, and rammed me again as hard as he could. He did the same thing over and over and over again, alternating his targets between my head and my gut. Soon I was pouring blood and hurting like the devil.
In due course Uncle Raymond, Karla’s father, smote the beast between the eyes with a rock, and it backed off. Bill’s injuries were surprisingly few—just a scar on his forehead. But he learned that “I could take a hard hit.”
He must have thought about that ram more than once when he was in the White House. Clinton’s was a presidency of many notable accomplishments, especially with regard to the economy. But easily his most notable accomplishment was simply surviving—and, just as with that ram, often emerging with surprisingly few injuries. Clinton’s rise to national prominence coincided with the ascent of what his friend and adviser Sidney Blumenthal had labeled, in a widely influential book published in 1986, the conservative “counter-establishment.” But not even Blumenthal could have predicted how hopped up that counter-establishment would be by 1992. For the ensuing eight years, it would hit Clinton with everything it had—although sometimes he helped its cause with his own poor judgment.
Through it all, from the various campaign controversies to the Whitewater allegations to the Lewinsky indignity—prominent television newsman Sam Donaldson told viewers just after the Lewinsky story broke that Clinton’s presidency “could be numbered in days”—Bill Clinton survived and even triumphed. He left an enviable record of achievements, helped guide the country into the new Information Age, and after a shaky start developed into a respected global leader. Fifteen years after he left office, Clinton consistently ranked as America’s most popular recent ex-president, and he’d jumped up several notches in the historical assessments of political scientists. At the same time, during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, some of his accomplishments underwent a withering reexamination by a younger and more liberal generation of voters for whom Clinton’s compromises on crime, welfare, and other matters were anathema. And the media persisted in its general posture of deep suspicion of both Clintons. So Bill Clinton still often found himself in survival mode, deflecting (not always artfully) various accusations and insinuations about the Clinton Foundation, his public speaking fees, or his record on crime. At either end of the political spectrum, and inside a political press often driven by scandal and pseudo-scandal mongering, Clinton could not completely shed the label—first affixed to him by right-wing Arkansas opinion columnists back in the early 1980s—of “Slick Willie.”
Back as far as his boyhood, Clinton lived on the edge. In 1992, his presidential campaign offered up some syrupy bio ads about “The Man from Hope.” What campaign publicist could resist such a fortuity? But in truth, Clinton spent most of his formative years, from age six onward, in the saucier town of Hot Springs. He was born William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946, but his father, William Jefferson Blythe Jr., died before he was born. He was raised by his mother, Virginia, and, even more, by her parents, while she was in New Orleans pursuing her education. Virginia met and married Roger Clinton, a car salesman, and it wasn’t long before Roger pined to return with his new family (which soon included another son, Roger Jr.) to his hometown.
That’s the milieu that largely formed Bill Clinton—Virginia, a hardworking nurse-anesthetist but also a salty good timer whom he utterly adored; Roger, his basically decent but alcoholic and sometimes violent stepfather; a raucous cavalcade of aunts and uncles, the women bearing names such as Otie and Ilaree and Falba; the Hot Springs thoroughbred racing track, to which his mother was no stranger; the town’s gambling parlors and whorehouses and bail bondsman storefronts, giving the place the feel of Frank Capra’s dystopian vision of post–Bedford Falls Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life; even the presence of the famed New York mobster Owney Madden, who had “retired” to Hot Springs and lived as a quasi-respectable senior citizen, and whom Virginia Clinton once put under anesthetic.
As a teenager Clinton was chubby, as he acknowledges at several points in My Life. But he loved people, their stories, their company. He was smart, and he got As in school—except in citizenship, because he couldn’t stop talking in class. He marched in the band, but he also put his excellent saxophone skills to more sophisticated—and, to girls, alluring—use by playing in the high school jazz ensemble. Famously, he went to Washington, D.C., once as part of a Boys Nation trip and shook the hand of President John F. Kennedy. By his senior year, writes his biographer David Maraniss, “everything in the house revolved around the golden son.” He knew from about age sixteen that his vocation would be politics: “I loved music and thought I could be very good, but I knew I would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz. I was interested in medicine and thought I could be a fine doctor, but I knew I would never be Michael DeBakey. But I knew I could be great in public service.”
And soon it was time to get out of Arkansas and study it all close-up. So in the fall of 1964, off he went to Washington and to Georgetown University.
The Georgetown of that time was divided into two campuses—the Yard, the main campus, which was male and home mostly to Catholic boys from the Northeast; and the East Campus, which had the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a few other divisions, and a more diverse student body. Clinton was in the Foreign Service school and, being one of the few Southern Baptists around, added to the diversity. He won the class presidency in his sophomore and junior years, and landed a part-time job in the office of the legendary Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during this time, when American involvement in the Vietnam War was escalating. Clinton performed the types of menial tasks young aides still perform today, which in his case included delivering to Fulbright—and sometimes reading—confidential governmental memoranda about the war, which showed how badly it was going. Every day, Fulbright received a list of the names of Arkansas boys who’d died in Vietnam. One day Clinton looked down at the list and saw a good friend’s name. He was so overcome with grief and guilt, he writes in My Life, that “I briefly flirted with the idea of dropping out of school and enlisting in the military—after all, I was a democrat in philosophy as well as party; I didn’t feel entitled to escape even a war I had come to oppose.”
That is not the path Clinton took. During his senior year at Georgetown, he applied for and won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University after his graduation. And so in the late summer of 1968, Bill Clinton from Hot Springs, Arkansas, was on his way to England. He would “read” politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford, and during his two years there would visit several world capitals; he even traveled to the Soviet Union to see what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.
But the draft was always looming for young men of Clinton’s generation. During his time at Georgetown and Oxford, Clinton pursued avenues to avoid active duty in combat. He first tried and failed to win navy and air force commissions that would have ensured he wouldn’t be a frontline soldier. But the crucial events took place in the summer and fall of 1969, after his first year in England. Clinton told Colonel Eugene Holmes, the commander of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Arkansas, that he would attend law school that fall in Fayetteville and join the ROTC. But Clinton didn’t follow through on that promise and instead went back to Oxford. He writes in My Life that the delay was a function of ROTC rules, under which he couldn’t be formally enrolled until the following summer. Then, on December 1, he drew a high draft lottery number and was effectively in the clear. It was only then that he wrote to Holmes saying that he wouldn’t be attending Arkansas after all and thanking him for “saving me from the draft.”
In retrospect, there seems little chance that a graduate of Georgetown and a Rhodes scholar would have been placed on the front lines—surely the army would have valued him more for his brains than his brawn. Besides, for someone who wanted to be in politics, what could look better on the résumé than that he took his chances and served his country, even during a war he opposed? But there was no way of knowing these things at the time. Clinton opposed the war viscerally and wasn’t driven wholly by calculation, but at the same time it seems clear that it wasn’t principle alone that motivated him.
Anyway, he got out of it.
In May 1970, the time of the Kent State shootings, Clinton was finishing his second and final year at Oxford and learned that he had been accepted at Yale Law School. Like all Ivy League law classes, Clinton’s included a number of matriculants who would go on to join the elite—Richard Blumenthal, who would become a U.S. senator from Connecticut; a number of future members of Congress, federal judges, diplomats, and university presidents; and Robert Reich, who had been one of Clinton’s fellow Rhodes scholars and would later serve as secretary of labor in his administration.
But there was one student in particular whose presence would change Clinton’s life, and he hers. He described first laying eyes on Hillary Diane Rodham thus:
Then one day, when I was sitting in the back of Professor Emerson’s class in Political and Civil Rights, I spotted a woman I hadn’t seen before. Apparently she attended even less frequently than I did. She had thick dark blond hair and wore eyeglasses and no makeup, but she conveyed a sense of strength and self-possession I had rarely seen in anyone, man or woman.
They were, by all accounts, inseparable from that point on, even if, as we know, he sometimes separated himself into the embrace of other women. They spent the summer following their second year of law school in Texas, helping coordinate the statewide efforts of Senator George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, where Bill worked alongside a young television director named Steven Spielberg. The following year, with their law degrees secured, Hillary headed to Washington to join the staff of the House Judiciary Committee during the height of the Watergate scandal, and Bill moved back to Arkansas to teach law and pursue a political career. In biographies of Hillary, this is inevitably adjudged the fateful moment: when, after President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, she decided not to stay in Washington or move to New York, where a limitless future awaited her, but to go down to a hayseed state and subordinate her ambitions to a man’s. It’s a story that has been elaborately, and inaccurately, adorned over the years. They married on October 11, 1975.
Bill Clinton ran for Congress in 1974, the year of the Democrats’ most overwhelming electoral triumph in the past half century, immediately in the wake of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. It was an uphill race against an entrenched Republican incumbent, John Paul Hammerschmidt. In that year of the “Watergate babies,” when so many young Democrats won election to the House and Senate, Clinton didn’t quite make it to the mountaintop; he got 48 percent. But even while losing that race, he left a footprint. “He showed up at the Pope County picnic in 1974—which is our traditional political kickoff—opened his mouth, and everyone just knew,” said George Jernigan, an Arkansas politician.
Two years later, Clinton set his sights on the office of Arkansas attorney general, where he faced Jernigan and one other opponent in the Democratic primary (oddly, no Republican ran). As Jernigan would succinctly recall, “He beat the living hell out of me.” In the South especially, where regulations are few and state legislatures tend not to be energetic with respect to their investigatory powers, a state attorney general can make a good name for himself by taking on a well-chosen powerful interest. Clinton chose very well indeed: he battled Arkansas Power and Light, opposing a rate increase and an attempt to build a costly coal-fired power plant in the state.
The profile he gained in that office positioned him well to run for governor in 1978. He breezed past four opponents in the Democratic primary and swamped his Republican foe, becoming at age thirty-two the nation’s youngest governor.
He was a young fellow in a hurry, and by all accounts too much of a hurry. He was credited in that first term with doing good work on education, getting the legislature to raise teachers’ salaries. His other big goal was transportation and road improvement. He proposed increasing the car tag levy, and he wanted to do it by the value of the car, so that Arkansans driving old pickup trucks would take less of a hit than those tooling around in new Lincolns. But the state legislature approved an increase based on vehicle weight, which hit working people harder. The young governor had a choice: sign a bill that accomplished his goal but in what he considered to be a bad way, or have no bill at all. He signed. “It was the single dumbest mistake I ever made in politics until 1994,” he writes in My Life, referring to the year of his fateful decision to agree to the appointment of a Whitewater special prosecutor.
Then, in Clinton’s reelection year of 1980 (gubernatorial terms in Arkansas were then just two years), Fidel Castro deported 120,000 political prisoners and “undesirables,” who sailed to Florida for refuge. President Jimmy Carter, facing reelection that year, had a huge crisis on his hands, which he had to deal with by locating these people in various federal facilities, one of which was Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. On the night of June 1, about a thousand of them broke out. The National Guard defied Clinton’s instructions to block the Cubans from getting anywhere that might bring them into contact with Arkansans, who, Clinton knew, would be worked up—and armed. No one died that night, but sixty-two people were injured before order was restored.
Car tags and Cubans were the main reasons Clinton was defeated for reelection in 1980—the last election he ever lost. There were others. An ancillary one revolved around the birth of his daughter, Chelsea, in February of that year. This man who’d never known his biological father wanted to make sure that his child knew hers, and some say he lost a little focus then. But mainly the explanations are centered on the widely shared impression that he was a know-it-all who had stopped listening to people.
The loss devastated him. He thought his political career was over, and he nearly ended it of his own volition—he seriously considered multiple job offers, from heading the World Wildlife Fund to becoming the president of the University of Louisville. But in the end he stayed in Little Rock and joined a law firm. Then one day in the spring of 1981, at a small-town gas station, he ran into a man whose rage at that car tag increase was so thoroughgoing that he bragged to the ex-governor that he’d persuaded ten family members to vote against him. Clinton then asked the man if he’d consider voting for him if he ran again. The man said, “Sure I would. We’re even now.” Clinton ran to a pay phone, called Hillary, and told her he thought he could regain the governorship in 1982.
Here, Dick Morris enters the picture for the first time. Clinton brought in Morris, a New York political consultant, to advise him on his comeback. Morris worked with Tony Schwartz, the adman who had made the famous Goldwater-daisy-nuclear-countdown commercial for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, to create a mea culpa ad starring Clinton to launch his 1982 campaign. “My daddy never had to whip me twice for the same thing,” the once and future governor said. Meanwhile, another quasi-apology: Hillary announced that she would henceforth be known not as Hillary Rodham but as Hillary Rodham Clinton, finally bowing to custom and taking her husband’s name. Bill Clinton went around the state talking about the lessons of defeat, and he won over the voters who had thrown him out two years earlier. It also helped that the state’s economy wasn’t in great shape, and come election night Clinton won 55 percent of the vote.
Back in office, Clinton now set his sights higher. He began an aggressive effort to transform his state, in an attempt to receive some national notice. The biggest marker here was a package of education reforms, an effort that he appointed Hillary to lead. The state greatly increased its investments in education; more controversially, the package included a teacher testing program that infuriated the Arkansas Education Association, and Governor Clinton and the union’s president had numerous debates about it that sometimes drew national attention. He also raised the sales tax to help fund Arkansas’s schools, after the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school financing system was inequitable and unconstitutional. Results in the classroom were positive if short of overwhelming; graduation rates rose and many more high schools began to offer advanced science classes, in some cases where they hadn’t taught chemistry at all.
Arkansas has never been known as a laboratory for cutting-edge progressive change. Its political culture has historically been dominated by big industries such as oil and gas, poultry, and lumber—and, by Clinton’s time, the Walton family, whose Wal-Mart stores started in Bentonville. Clinton certainly made his peace with these interests, but he did change the political culture of the state to a considerable extent. He expanded access to health care for poor children. His economic development and job-training efforts helped buffer the state against the worst effects of two recessions. He fought the old-line segregationists, led by the notorious “Justice Jim” Johnson, an associate justice on the state supreme court, and pushed hard for the integration of the state’s schools and workplaces. (Clinton always wore their enmity as a particular point of pride.) And he developed a reputation as an innovator at a time when many Democrats were talking about “reinventing government” as a way of pushing back against the prevailing anti-government sentiment of the Reagan years.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party nationally was in its worst shape since the 1920s. In the 1984 presidential election, Ronald Reagan destroyed Walter Mondale, who carried only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The postelection conventional wisdom held that the party had become reflexively paleo-liberal, chained to its special interests. If it didn’t modernize, it might never win the White House again. An Indiana native named Al From, who’d worked on the Johnson-era War on Poverty and in the Carter White House, took it upon himself in 1985 to create the vehicle that would remake the Democratic Party: the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Clinton was involved from the start, invoked by the group as a model for the type of “New Democrat” who could make the party competitive again in national elections.
Clinton kept at his job, winning reelection every two years and shifting his emphasis toward the state’s economic development. Hillary settled in to her work at the Rose Law Firm, one of Little Rock’s largest and most influential firms. The Clintons were not among Arkansas’s richest citizens; he barely made $35,000 as governor, and she usually brought home around $100,000, which was a very nice living in Little Rock, but not all that much for a law partner in a major firm. In 1986, in an effort to build up their personal wealth, they invested in a land-development deal in the Ozarks called Whitewater. They entered into the arrangement with Jim McDougal, a friend and political science professor, but in the end the investment didn’t pan out—they lost around $50,000 on the deal and had good reason to think that that was the end of it.
No particular aura of scandal surrounded Arkansas’s first couple. There was the sense that he was overly clever and calculating (the “Slick Willie” business). There was gossip about Bill’s extramarital excursions, presumed to be numerous, and he aroused the kinds of passionate emotional responses in supporters and (especially) detractors that one would expect of a brash, young governor trying to alter a sedentary political culture, but few thought him genuinely corrupt.
By 1988, Clinton was running for his fifth term and was enough of a national figure that he was given a coveted slot at that year’s Democratic convention: placing Governor Michael Dukakis’s name in nomination. He was supposed to talk for fifteen minutes. The convention delegates, who started chanting “We Want Duke!” just six minutes into Clinton’s speech, were first bewildered and then exasperated and finally infuriated—and booing loudly—as Clinton just wouldn’t stop talking, insouciantly smiling through the catcalls. When he finally finished, thirty-three minutes had elapsed. At least he was talking about Dukakis and not himself, but it was impossible to imagine what he was thinking—his first national exposure, and he turned himself into a punch line. It did, however, land him a guest spot on The Tonight Show soon thereafter, and he was appropriately self-effacing as Johnny Carson needled him.
Dukakis’s loss was the Democrats’ third straight, and now From, who felt that the DLC had failed to have sufficient influence on Dukakis’s platform, saw his opening. Clinton was the horse From hoped to ride to the White House. From had met Clinton in 1979 or 1980, he says, but started to get to know him well in 1987, soon after Clinton had impressed From with a speech he gave at a DLC meeting. Over the course of 1987 and 1988, From says, the two spoke constantly, and From quickly became persuaded that Clinton could carry the New Democrats’ message to victory. From was also impressed by Clinton’s recall, his attention to detail, and his exuberance with people. And so he made his pitch. As he later recalled:
A little after four o’clock on the afternoon of April 6, 1989, I walked into the office of Governor Bill Clinton on the second floor of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock.
“I’ve got a deal for you,” I told Clinton after a few minutes of political chitchat. “If you agree to become chairman of the DLC, we’ll pay for your travel around the country, we’ll work together on an agenda, and I think you’ll be president one day and we’ll both be important.” With that proposition, Clinton agreed to become chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, and our partnership was born.
From soon saw for himself that he’d made the right choice. After Clinton became the DLC chair, he and From traveled to about twenty-five states together. “We’d leave from Little Rock or maybe Washington,” From recalled, “and we’d travel the whole day and get to San Francisco at eleven o’clock at night, and he’d see somebody in the lobby and he’d go, ‘Oh, I remember you. You did this and this and this when I first ran for Congress in 1974.’ It was just out of sight.”
From’s strategy was broader than just finding the right candidate. It involved intellectual spadework, which in 1989 produced one of the most famous white papers in white-paper history: “The Politics of Evasion,” by the scholars and party activists William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck. It argued that “too many Americans have come to see the [Democratic] party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments, and ineffective in defense of their national security,” and laid the groundwork for a DLC platform that departed from liberal orthodoxy in all three realms. As Kenneth S. Baer, who participated in and chronicled the rise of the New Democrat movement, has noted:
Throughout 1990 and 1991, the DLC plied [Clinton] with critical aid during this important “invisible primary” phase of the campaign. The organization unveiled a developed and distinct public philosophy that took controversial stands on a variety of issues, and it established state chapters to give its putative candidate a reason to travel the country and a chance to construct a network of supporters in key states.
Most of the national media, and many Democrats, were waiting to see what New York governor Mario Cuomo was going to do. Though he was more of a traditional Democrat, he was considered in the fall of 1991 the strong favorite for the Democratic nomination—he was the governor of a large and important state, and he had won liberal hearts and minds with a galvanizing speech at the party’s 1984 convention. The thinking among the experts was that if Cuomo ran, he filled the “governor slot” and there was no room for Clinton. But Clinton saw matters differently.
Copyright © 2017 by Michael Tomasky. Excerpted from Bill Clinton: The American Presidents Series: The 42nd President, 1993-2001.