He was first elected [governor] in 1978. Some writers, absurdly, mentioned this young incoming governor of a small state as a possible president. The likelihood is that [Bill] Clinton will continue as a regional political figure of note—an officeholder of some accomplishment but of limited national ambitions.
—Excerpts from the authoritative Almanac of American Politics, 1986
Bill Clinton’s earlier biographers might be forgiven their blunder. At the time, the youthful governor of Arkansas had given little outward indication that he had set his sights on even higher office. And despite the fact that he had risen from humble origins to the governor’s mansion through hard work and remarkable intellect, there were more prominent and seasoned Democrats then climbing the party ranks. But last week, the 46-year-old Clinton was clearly a far cry from “a regional political figure.” Defying the early odds, he had defeated incumbent President George Bush to bring an end to 12 years of Republican rule. He was presidentelect Bill Clinton.
There was little in Clinton’s early childhood to indicate that he would one day attain greatness. A fifth-generation Arkansan, he was bom in the little town of Hope, in the southwest comer of the state, on Aug. 19,1946, to a 22year-old widowed mother of extremely modest means. Three months earlier, his father, William Blythe, a travelling heavy machinery salesman, died in a tragic car accident. The 29year-old Blythe was thrown from his car, landing unconscious in a ditch where he drowned.
Memories: Fatherless, young Billy Blythe— as Clinton was known until he was 15—was raised by his maternal grandparents while his mother, Virginia, studied in Louisiana to become a nurse-anesthetist. One of his earliest memories is of a tearful goodbye at the railway station in Hope when she was returning to school after a visit. “I remember my mother crying and actually falling down on her knees by the railbed,” Clinton has recalled. “And my grandmother was saying, ‘She’s doing this for you.’ ”
When Billy was four, his mother returned to Hope and married automobile salesman Roger Clinton. Shortly after the wedding, the family moved to Hot Springs—a town southwest of Little Rock then known for its rowdy nightlife and illegal gambling—where Roger Clinton took a job as a service manager in his brother’s
Buick dealership. But Roger was an alcoholic who sometimes turned violent. “I remember once when I was four or five and he was screaming at my mother and he actually fired a gun in the house,” Bill Clinton has said. “There was a bullet hole in the wall. I had to live with that bullet hole, look at it every day.”
Virginia Clinton had a second son, Roger, when Billy was 10. But the senior Roger continued to drink. Despite the emotional hardship of his troubled home life, Billy excelled in his studies and demonstrated a natural aptitude for music. He played saxophone for the Hot Springs High School Trojans band and went to music camp for six summers. But when he was 14, something happened that forever changed his life—and the life of his family. The teenager decided to confront his stepfather and put an end to the domestic violence that was tearing his parents apart. “I broke down the door of their room one night when they were having an encounter,” Bill Clinton has recalled, “and told him that I was bigger than him now and there would never be any more of this while I was there.” And although shortly after the incident his parents divorced, they were soon remarried and the beatings stopped. In a gesture of family unity, Bill Blythe, then 15, took his stepfather’s surname, becoming Bill Clinton.
In high school, Clinton considered becoming a doctor or a musician. But in the summer of
1963, as a delegate in Boys Nation, an American Legion-sponsored civics program, he travelled to Washington. There, he met his hero, President John F. Kennedy, at the White House. From that point on, Clinton has often said, he was determined to devote himself to public service.
University: The next year, Clinton attended Georgetown University in the nation’s capital. While working part time as an assistant to Arkansas Senator William Fulbright, he earned a degree in foreign policy. And in 1968, after his stepfather died of cancer, Clinton went to Oxford University in England, where, as a Rhodes Scholar, he studied political science. An opponent of the Vietnam War, he avoided the draft by promising to attend a Reserve Officers Training Corps program at the University of Arkansas on his return. But that fall, Clinton changed his mind, briefly made himself eligible for the draft and, after drawing a high number in a selective service lottery, returned to the United States in 1970 and enrolled in Yale Law School.
At Yale, Clinton met Hillary Rodham, a bright, young student from Park Ridge, 111.
The two began dating, worked together on Democrat George McGovern’s unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1972,
'BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE'
To many Americans, she is an inspiration, a determined and sensitive modem woman who, against the odds, has balanced the often conflicting demands of motherhood and career. To others, she is a scheming harridan, a feminist upstart who represents an affront to traditional family values. Throughout her husband’s long, bumpy bid for the presidency, prominent attorney and tireless social activist Hillary Rodham Clinton has, like the Arkansas governor, been different things to different people. But almost everyone expects that the 45-year-old woman, who once said “if you elect Bill, you get me,” will be an unconventional and outspoken first lady—a presidential spouse markedly different from any who have come before.
While many first ladies have used their position to launch projects ranging from volunteerism to literacy, never before has the wife of a president had a career of her own. Twice Usted as one of the country’s 100 most influential lawyers by the National Law Journal, Hillary Clinton has earned a reputation as a brilüant Utigator with a sharp intellect practising with Arkansas’s prestigious Rose Law Firm. A former member of several corporate and pubUc-interest boards, she has been active in causes ranging from educational reform to providing legal assistance to the poor. And the Yale Law School graduate has made it clear that she intends to play a “comprehensive” role as the president's wife, offering advice to her husband once he moves into the Oval Office. “The idea that I would check my brain at the White House door,” she said during the campaign, “is something that just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Her active involvement in election strategy7 led Bill Clinton to quip early in the campaign that,
and soon fell in love. After graduating from Yale in 1973, Clinton taught law at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville for two years.
In 1974, Clinton convinced Rodham—who had been working in Washington with the House Judiciary Committee in the preparation of the impeachment case against President Richard Nixon—to move to Arkansas. “I had no choice but to follow my heart there,” she has since said. “Following your heart is never wrong.” In 1976, the year after they were married, Clinton was elected state attorney general and became well known as a consumer advocate, fighting utility rate hikes and pushing for stricter environmental controls.
After one term as attorney general, Clinton was elected governor in 1978, becoming, at 32, the youngest sitting state chief executive in the country. In his first two-year term, he oversaw an activist liberal administration, opening rural health clinics and raising school budgets by 40 per cent. But Clinton also made political miscalculations. He took on the powerful timber industry by opposing clear-cut logging and substantially increased the state’s ücence-plate fees to improve roads. Perceived by voters as brash and arrogant, in 1980—the same year that his only child, Chelsea, was bom—he failed to win re-election. It seemed that Clinton’s political career had ended almost as soon as it began.
Fighter: But Bill Clinton proved to be a fighter. He decided that the best way back to the governor’s mansion was to admit that he had been “out of touch” and apologized for raising highway taxes. Meanwhile, Rodham, who in conservative Arkansas was criticized for keeping her maiden name after marriage, took her husband’s surname. Re-elected in 1982, Clinton declared: “I have been given something that few people get in life—a second chance.” He has been governor of Arkansas ever since.
In the poverty-stricken state, he has spearheaded an ambitious educational reform pro-
by electing him, voters could “buy one, get one free.” And she also was instrumental in defending her husband against charges of having a longstanding affair with Gennifer Flowers, a sometime lounge singer. But many traditionalists were opposed to her direct involvement in the campaign. “If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent,” said former president Richard Nixon, “it makes the husband look like a wimp.” Responding to the attacks, the Democrats began to downplay Hillary Clinton’s influence, stressing that, in addition to being a successful career woman, she had been a committed spouse during 17 years of marriage and a loving mother to the couple’s 12-year-old daugh-
ter, Chelsea. And she began to play a less prominent role in the campaign, often gazing admiringly at her husband during his speeches rather than seeking the spotlight herself.
But Republican opponents continued the offensive against her, claiming that the governor’s wife was a member of “the liberal, radical wing of the feminist movement.” They used her own legal briefs, out of context, to claim that she likened marriage to slavery and encouraged children to sue their parents. And they implied that by pursuing a career, she had put her own interests above those of her family. But the assault appeared to backfire, with many voters—especially working women,
now a majority of mothers in the United States—expressing disgust at the attacks on her character.
For her part, Hillary Clinton has denied that there was a conscious effort to give her image a makeover, claiming instead that she realized that voters were getting a false impression of her. “It wasn’t that I changed,” she said in her defence. “It was that I grew in my understanding of how better to communicate what I care about and who I am.” And having predicted that a woman will lead the country by 2010, she has also said: “The presidency has not yet experienced the change in relationships and roles that have been played out everywhere else but there.” That claim is undoubtedly open to debate. But in January, Hillary Clinton will almost certainly use her new position to attempt to prove her point.
gram requiring mandatory testing, smaller classes and higher standards. Clinton has also attracted investment to the state by offering tax credits to new and expanding businesses, creating 200,000 new jobs over the past decade.
The governor’s detractors claim that he has been soft on polluters and has favored industry over workers. His equivocation on controversial issues earned him the nickname “Slick Willie” from critics. But supporters prefer to describe him as a consensus-builder. And, they argue, he has demonstrated both fairness and compassion. In 1984, Clinton approved a sting operation leading to the arrest of his half brother, Roger, after police discovered that he had been selling cocaine. Jailed for a year, Roger Clinton recovered from drug and alcohol addiction with the help of the governor, who accompanied him to therapy sessions.
With a promise to “reinvent government,”
MEETING PRESIDENT KENNEDY AT 16 IMPRESSED CLINTON
Clinton announced that he was seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency on Oct. 3,1991. But despite being the early frontrunner, his campaign came to the brink of collapse several times—first over allegations that he was a womanizer and, later, when opponents questioned his credibility because
he had given differing accounts of how he avoided military service. But Clinton again showed his ability to take a blow and fight on, using humor and sheer persistence to capture the party nomination and the presidency.
With his carefully crafted victory last week, Clinton, once just the “governor of a small state,” began to prepare to move to Washington. The avid music fan is sure to bring along his two saxophones—tenor and soprano—and an extensive record collection ranging from his favorites by jazz great Stan Getz to folksinger Judy Collins. But once he takes over the Oval Office, Clinton will have many opportunities to hear a refrain that has stirred the soul of many American politicians: “Hail to the Chief.”
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