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The Tragedy of Bill Clinton

My Life

by Bill Clinton
Knopf, 957 pp., $35.00

So far, most readers of President Clinton’s book seem to like the opening pages best, and no wonder. Scenes of childhood glow from many memoirs—by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry Adams, John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, and others. It is hard to dislike people when they are still vulnerable, before they have put on the armor of whatever career or catastrophe lies before them as adults. In fact, Gilbert Chesterton advised those who would love their enemies to imagine them as children. The soundness of this tactic is proved by its reverse, when people become irate at attempts to imagine the childhood or the youth of Hitler—as in protests at the Menno Meyjez film Max. So it is hard, even for his foes, to find Clinton objectionable as a child. Yet the roots of the trouble he later had lie there, in the very appeal of his youth.

Another reason we respond to narratives of childhood is that first sensations are widely shared by everyone—the ways we became aware of the world around us, of family, of school, of early friends. One might expect Clinton’s pineywood world to be remote from people who did not grow up in the South. But since he experienced neither grinding poverty nor notable privilege, there is an everyman quality to what he is writing about. His relatives were not blue-collar laborers but service providers—as nurse (mother and grandmother), heavy equipment salesman (father), car dealer (first stepfather), hairdresser (second stepfather), food broker (third stepfather). This was no Dogpatch, as one can tell from the number of Clinton’s childhood friends who went on to distinguished careers. (The daughters of one of his ministers became, respectively, the president of Wellesley and the ombudsman of The Washington Post.)

Admittedly, Clinton’s family was notably fissiparous, with a litter of half-relatives filling the landscape—but even that is familiar to us in this time of frequent divorce and divided custodies. It may seem out of the ordinary for Clinton’s father to have been married four times by the age of twenty-six, his first stepfather to have been married three times (twice to Clinton’s mother), his second stepfather to have been married twice (with twenty-nine months in jail for fraud bridging the two). His mother, because of the mortality rate of her husbands, was married five times (though two of the times were to the same man). Clinton, who has had the gift of empathy throughout his life, remained astonishingly close to all the smashed elements of this marital kaleidoscope—even to his stepfather, whose abuse of his mother Clinton had to stop with physical interventions and calls to the police. He took time from college to give his stepfather loving care at the end of his life. The most recurrent refrain in this book is “I liked him,” and it began at home.

Clinton usually looked at the bright side. What the jumble of marriages gave him as a boy was just more relatives to charm and be cosseted by. Later the same people would be a political asset. The first time he ran for office, “I had relatives in five of the district’s twenty-one counties.” Later still, he could rely on “a big vote in south Arkansas, where I had lots of relatives.” One might think he was already preparing for a political career when he got along so well with all his scattered families. But he was, even then, a natural charmer, with an immediate gratification in being liked, not looking (yet) for remoter returns from politics. Clinton won others’ affection for a reason Aristotle famously gave—we enjoy doing things that we do well.1

Clinton claims that his sunny adaptability as a child was a front, that he lived a secret “parallel life” imposed on a “fat band boy” by his father’s violence and alcoholism. He is preparing his explanation of the Monica Lewinsky affair as a product of this secret life. It is true that we all have a public self and several private ones. It is also true that childhood and adolescence prompt dark or lonely moments in most people. But the India-rubber-man resiliency of Clinton makes it hard to believe his explanation-excuse for later aberrations. “Slick Willie,” the nickname he says he dislikes most, was always an unlikely brooder. The thing that would impress others about Clinton’s later philandering, which long preceded the Monica stuff, was its lack of secrecy, its flamboyant risk-taking.

His attempt at a Dickensian shoe-black-factory childhood is therefore unconvincing. One of the afflictions he says he had to bear in silence was going to church in shoes his mother bought him, “pink and black Hush Puppies, and a matching pink suede belt.” But since he shared his mother’s idolatry of Elvis, his S-C (sartorially correct) attitude is probably retrospective. In fact, the “fat band boy” was very popular, with a wide circle of friends who stayed true to him (and he to them) ever after. His ability to enthrall others would become legendary, and one of the pleasures of his book is watching him get around obstacles by force of personality and cleverness:

—As a Yale law student organizing New Haven for the nascent McGovern campaign, Clinton goes to the city’s Democratic boss, Arthur Barbieri, who tells him he has the money and organization to crush the McGovern insurgency:

I replied that I didn’t have much money, but I did have eight hundred volunteers who would knock on the doors of every house in his stronghold, telling all the Italian mothers that Arthur Barbieri wanted to keep sending their sons to fight and die in Vietnam. “You don’t need that grief,” I said. “Why do you care who wins the nomination? Endorse McGovern. He was a war hero in World War II. He can make peace and you can keep control of New Haven.”

Barbieri is struck by this law student—he and Matty Troy of New York are the only old-line bosses to endorse McGovern in the primary.

—Wanting to take Hillary Rodham to a special exhibit in the Yale art gallery for their first date, he finds the gallery locked, but talks his way in by telling the custodian that he will clean up the litter in the gallery courtyard if he lets them go through the exhibit.

—Fresh from law school, Clinton hears his application for a teaching job is turned down by the dean of the University of Arkansas Law School because he is too young and inexperienced, and he says those qualities are actually a recommendation:

I’d be good for him, because I’d work hard and teach any courses he wanted. Besides, I wouldn’t have tenure, so he could fire me at any time. He chuckled and invited me to Fayetteville for an interview.

He gets the job.

—After doing the whole Lamaze course to assist his wife when their first child is born, he learns that she must have a Caesarean section because the baby is “in breech.” No one is allowed in the operating room during surgery. He pleads that Hillary has never been in a hospital before and she needs him. He is allowed to hold her hand during the delivery. Can no one say no to this man?

Persuasiveness on Clinton’s scale can be a temptation. The ability to retrieve good will can make a person careless about taking vulnerable steps. Indeed, a certain type will fling himself over a cliff just to prove he can always catch a branch and crawl back up to the top. There is nothing, he begins to feel, for which he cannot win forgiveness. This kind of recklessness followed by self-retrieval is what led Clinton to think of himself as “the comeback kid” (the use of the word “kid” is probably more indicative than he intended). Famous charmers are fun to be around, but they are not people to depend on.


David Broder at his sniffiest declared that Clinton was a social usurper in Washington: “He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.”2 Clinton was simply “not one of us.” But unlike Broder he had gone to school there. From the time he saw Washington as a high school member of Boys Nation and shook President Kennedy’s hand, Clinton wanted to get back there. His college placement counselor, Edith Irons, told me she urged him to apply to several colleges, not just one. But he filled out forms only for Georgetown—not because it was a Jesuit school, or a good school. Because it was in Washington. And so ingratiating was this Southern Baptist in a cosmopolitan Catholic school that he quickly became class president as a freshman and sophomore. He did not run for the office in his third year because by then he was an intern in Arkansas senator William Fulbright’s office. He had to be given security clearance because he ran classified documents from place to place on Capitol Hill. Already he was a Washington insider.

Some of the freshest pages in the book register Clinton’s impressions of the senators he observed. These were models against which he was measuring his future career, and the images were printed deep in him. He saw Carl Hayden of Arizona, whom a friend called “the only ninety-year-old man in the world who looks twice his age.” The senior senator from his own state, John McClellan, had sorrows “drowned in enough whiskey to float the Capitol down the Potomac River.” Clinton was especially interested in Senator Robert Kennedy, brother to his own fallen hero:

He radiated raw energy. He’s the only man I ever saw who could walk stoop-shouldered, with his head down, and still look like a coiled spring about to release into the air. He wasn’t a great speaker by conventional standards, but he spoke with such intensity and passion it could be mesmerizing. And if he didn’t get everyone’s attention with his name, countenance, and speech, he had Brumus, a large, shaggy Newfoundland, the biggest dog I ever saw. Brumus often came to work with Senator Kennedy. When Bobby walked from his office in the New Senate Building to the Capitol to vote, Brumus would walk by his side, bounding up the Capitol steps to the revolving door on the rotunda level, then sitting patiently outside until his master returned for the walk back. Anyone who could command the respect of that dog had mine too.

One of Clinton’s housemates at Georgetown worked in Robert Kennedy’s office, and another was in Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s office. A Georgetown girl he was dating hated Kennedy because she was working for his rival, Eugene McCarthy, whose lassitude Clinton compared unfavorably with Kennedy’s energy. He especially admired his own boss, Senator Fulbright:

I’ll never forget one night in 1967 or ‘68. I was walking alone in Georgetown when I saw the Senator and Mrs. Fulbright leaving one of the fashionable homes after a dinner party. When they reached the street, apparently with no one around to see, he took her in his arms and danced a few steps. Standing in the shadows, I saw what a light she was in his life.

  1. 1

    Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1097– 1098.

  2. 2

    Sally Quinn, “Not in Their Backyard: In Washington, That Let Down Feeling,” The Washington Post, November 2, 1998.

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