Leading With My Heart
The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House
Highwire: From the Backroads to the BeltwayThe Education of Bill Clinton
The first time Imet Bill Clinton, I was sitting next to him at a late-night dinner in New Hampshire. Clinton had concluded that Mario Cuomo would not challenge him for the 1992 presidential nomination, and the governor of Arkansas was having some fun at the expense of the governor of New York. Clinton told us that Cuomo rarely attended governors’ conferences, unless they were held in Washington and involved a visit to the White House, when Cuomo would fly in just for that, his limousine sweeping up in lonely splendor to the president’s mansion. After the meeting, Cuomo would address the clustered journalists, then race straight back to the airport.
Clinton had similar deflationary stories to tell about his other rivals. He replayed a telephone call Jerry Brown made when Clinton was supporting his fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter. Brown hoped that Clinton would back him (Brown) if anything went awry in the Carter bid. Clinton said he was willing to deal, but that he would want a vacation in the Bahamas with a beautiful rock singer. Brown, after a quizzical pause, ventured:”That’s possible.” Clinton, howling, said he answered:”Jerry, you can’t be president till you learn when your leg is being pulled.”
Clinton was funny, unfair, and very shrewd in his political comments. He recounted his efforts to coach Michael Dukakis for his final debate with President Bush in 1988. He told Dukakis it was not enough to answer critics of the ACLU, who accused him of a lack of patriotism, with the defensive claim that the state supreme court of Massachusetts had ruled against requiring teachers to recite the pledge of allegiance. “In the part of the country where I come from, the courts’ approval of a thing is more reason to be against it.” Clinton says he advised Dukakis to say, “I did not fight in Korea so that Amish children can be forced to violate their conscience by reciting the pledge.” The subject of Clinton’s non-fighting in Vietnam had not arisen then. When it did, I thought back to that conversation and wondered if Clinton likes to flirt with danger, or has some ironic sense of his own situation when he gives advice like that. But time seems to reveal that nothing is farther from Clinton, for all his wit about others, than a sense of irony in his own case.
What impressed me most about the conversation was Clinton’s discussion of the rigors of campaigning. Cuomo, he felt, did not want to face criticism and innuendo; but Clinton said a good politician must be able to welcome the bad times along with the good. I doubted that welcome was the right word—“endure” might be more like it. Clinton said people’s opposition shows that you are engaging them deeply, challenging them, and that is what politics should do.
Apparently Clinton’s “welcome” threshold has been lowered since that evening. He is not relishing the assaults now made on him and his wife—who could? The amount of sheer personal meanness is staggering, even to the casual bystander. If Clinton is right, he certainly has challenged others at some very deep and obscure level. No charge against him is inconceivable to his foes—that he suborns murder in Arkansas, covers up the murder of Vince Foster in Washington, and schemes against morality in general. His wife is greeted with placards that say HEIL HILLARY. A magazine presents her as Lady Macbeth, intoning:”Come, ye Wellesley-spawned Eumenides of spite, unsex me here! Replace my blood with quarts of chilliest testosterone, and butch my hair….”1 Even the Clintons’ child is made the object of vicious laughter:Rush Limbaugh holds up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, then he says he will show viewers the White House dog—a picture of Chelsea Clinton.
What is this all about? Presidents have been vilified in the past. National hysteria led to accusations of treason against Harry Truman, or of “killing kids” against Lyndon Johnson. But those crimes arose out of the apocalyptic stage of the cold war or the frustrated stages of the Vietnam War. We are not in the grips of a Depression, fueling fear of a Roosevelt dictatorship. Real crises and a focusing ideology underlay the harshest moments of the past. But now we are at peace, our economy is growing at a rate of over 3 percent. Anti-Communist, antisocialist, antidictatorship ideologies are not plausible or in play. There is something oddly pure, somehow free from ideas, about this frenzy of dislike. Clinton is not disliked as a socialist, as a Communist dupe, as one who holds views subversive of the Constitution. Clinton is disliked as Clinton. Even Nixon, who inspired his share of personal enemies, was resented mainly as the thinking man’s McCarthy, as an extreme anti-Communist. Those who most hate Clinton believe he is not even capable of having a consistent ideology.
For some, the personal dislike began with the Gennifer Flowers episode, which occurred shortly after my evening conversation with Clinton. A different man appeared then, defensive, having to explain long conversations with a bimbo, supported by an intelligent wife who claimed she was not just playing Tammy Wynette’s role even while she was. Clinton had a terrific if unorthodox defender, at this point, in James Carville. Carville admits that this was his own personal breakthrough into a position of major power in the campaign. Other candidates have had people who were their surrogates for rough-and-tumble response. Carville took on an imaginative new role with the press. He was Clinton’s surrogate womanizer.
Gennifer Flowers was taping him to sucker-punch him, and if they had had an affair, it would have been incredibly easy. If any woman that I’ve ever had an affair with called, it would take five seconds to get something inculpatory on tape. Like, “Do you suppose they’ll find the American Express card from the night in Dallas?” …Try as she might, the [Flowers] tape had none of that.
Carville was ready to be a kind of scapegoat, proving he was all the things he argued that Clinton was not. When Clinton’s smoking marijuana, but not inhaling, was the issue, James (Experto Crede) Carville came forward again:
I have smoked marijuana, I have inhaled. For somebody who had never smoked marijuana before, the first time you take it, if you did a survey I guarantee you that for half the people not inhaling would be sort of a normal reaction.
These defenses were novel, if nothing else; but they took the issue to a different level. If Clinton did not sleep with the bimbo, what was he doing talking for hours with her? The witty putdown of Cuomo that I had heard sat ill with Clinton’s accommodating chuckle when Flowers called Cuomo Mafia-tainted. There is a profound culture shock in moving from the man who played so skillfully on Jerry Brown’s weaknesses to a man who can be manipulated in conversation by a lounge entertainer who considers Mario Cuomo unqualified to become her president.
That culture shock is a recurring phenomenon for those who follow Clinton’s career. The very image of competence and rectitude in the President’s Little Rock contingent is Bruce Lindsey, who has worked for other Arkansas eminences, including Senators Fulbright, Pryor, and Bumpers. But one of his duties during the campaign was to tell flight attendants on the campaign plane that it would be better if they did not take up the candidate’s request that they work out with him at the Little Rock YWCA. As recently as this March he was still calling one flight attendant, to discourage her from repeating her conversations with Clinton. Sample icebreakers from Clinton, at a time when he was trying to live down the Flowers allegations:”Oh, I could get lost in those blue eyes!” Or “You don’t know what that outfit does to me.” 2 This may or may not pose a problem in morality. It certainly poses one of style. Our president still thinks his imitation of Elvis Presley is pretty irresistible. Whatever John F. Kennedy’s seductive techniques were, we can assume they did not include his launching into favorite Frank Sinatra impressions.
Something of Clinton’s cultural range is suggested by his closeness to the other Presley fan in his family. In her posthumous book, Clinton’s mother says of Elvis:
I had never heard such a spiritual sound coming from anyone; it was the sweetest, most beautiful singing in the world. And of course you can’t discount the man’s sex appeal. I’ve told my girlfriends, if I hadn’t had children and a job, I’d have spent the rest of my days traveling around from Elvis concert to Elvis concert.
I can testify, as can anyone else who spent time with her, that Virginia Kelley was a winning and effusive person. But her taste in men was usually unlucky. She found Roger Clinton, her second husband, “hilarious” because he would say things like “Let’s all get drunk and talk about the chances we had to marry.” Of course, he beat her up. But she admits that sometimes she asked for it:
I’m sure I drove him to anger on many nights when we were out. I won’t try to pretend that I’m oblivious to the power of female sex appeal, and I certainly recognize a handsome man when I see one. I won’t even deny that I was often put out with Roger and didn’t mind seeing him suffer a little.
Roger had not told her, when they met, that he was married, and he hid his payments (often delinquent) to his former wife and the children from her previous marriage. This deception was one Virginia seemed peculiarly liable to. Her first husband (Clinton’s father) was married at least two times previously, and maybe three. Indeed, her four husbands (one of whom she married twice), along with their multiple wives, accumulated between them a dozen or more marriages. The third husband went to jail for fraud. She warned Clinton before her death that he could expect to hear from more half-siblings or quarter-siblings as time goes by.
She survived, as she admits, by a gift for forgetting. When I asked her questions about her divorce from and remarriage to Roger Clinton, she could not remember giving a deposition against him. She did not recognize the name of her lawyer. She could not recall when or where the remarriage took place. When a relative suggested the divorce may not have become final, she admitted that was a possibility until I found the date of the remarriage in the county courthouse. Her happy-go-lucky attitude was a necessity of life, she felt. If she forgot a lot, it was because there were a lot of bad times to forget.
Though she considered herself a tolerant person in a tolerant town, there were some things she treated as beyond the pale of social acceptability—like Hillary Rodham’s keeping her own name after marriage:”I had never even conceived of such a thing. This had to be some new import from Chicago.” Clinton’s half-brother, Roger, was even more disapproving of Hillary’s shocking behavior. These odd defenders of marital decorum made things as difficult as they could for the goggle-eyed Yankee whose appearance they mocked. Virginia felt it was a kindness that she offered to paint Hillary an inch thick in her own remarkable style.
"The Tragedy of Macdeth," The American Spectator, August 1994.↩
Sharon La Franiere, "The Man at the Portal of the President's Past," The Washington Post, July 7, 1994, pp. A1, A7.↩