A Young Fellow in a Hurry

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.

Read the full excerpt here.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael Tomasky. Excerpted from Bill Clinton: The American Presidents Series: The 42nd President, 1993-2001.

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Michael Tomasky is a special correspondent for The Daily Beast and the editor in chief of Democracy, as well as a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. He was previously executive editor of The American Prospect and the founding editor of Guardian America. He is the author of Left for Dead: The Life, Death, and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America and Hillary’s Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign. He lives outside Washington, D. C.