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Bill Clinton: Who Is This Guy?

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“I’m beginning to pick up the pattern,” David Broder noted while asking Clinton about term limits on Meet the Press several weeks ago. “Are you trying to have it both ways on these kind of controversial questions?”

Bob Kerrey, for one, has begun to suspect that Clinton’s performance is too smooth by half and intends to try to find a way beneath the surface in future confrontations. “Bob saw something in the first debate,” says an aide. “When Tom Brokaw asked Clinton to name two people he’d consult for advice outside his political circle, he seemed to choke—it was as if he hadn’t made that particular calculation yet.”

This is a slender reed upon which to build a campaign. Politicians calculate, Clinton massages words and issues better than most. “His mind is so quick,” says David Osborne, author of Reinventing Government and a leading “New Paradigm” political theorist. “He takes a new idea. He reads everything about it, integrates it, and winds up knowing it better than you do—even when it’s your idea.”

Often, though, Clinton’s version of the idea lacks edges; it has been translated into the vapid coinage of American political discourse—and is subject to further modification. Early on in the campaign, he pledged a “national health-care plan in the first year of a Clinton administration” and described three possibilities that might be tried. But with Kerrey proposing his own version of the Canadian health-care system, Clinton calibrated. He now supports “elements of” what he euphemistically calls “the Northern European system,” which is known to most health wonks as the German plan. He is careful not to use the word German, a nationality most Americans don’t associate with a pleasant bedside manner. This sort of slickness is good politics, but one waits in vain for a strong, passionate, unmassaged stand from Clinton: What does he really care about?

In fact, the main rap on Clinton among his enemies—and a few of his friends—in Arkansas (where opponents call him “Slick Willie”) is that he’s shifty, hard to pin down, tries too hard to please. “He’s a political chameleon,” says Sheffield Nelson, who lost to Clinton in the 1990 governor’s race. “He changes colors to convince people he’s what they want him to be.”

“I’ve been covering Clinton for a long time, and I couldn’t tell you what he really believes,” says John Brummett, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette who usually comes at Clinton from the populist left. “As far as I can tell, he’s completely flexibe—he’ll go with whatever the latest polls say.”

Friends see Clinton’s ability to accommodate different points of view, to build consensus, as a strength. “But he sometimes does it to a fault,” says one longtime friend. “Bill does try too damn hard to please everybody all the time. But you’ve got to understand where that comes from. It comes out of his childhood, which he almost never talks about because it’s so damn painful. If you want to know who Bill Clinton is, that’s where you go to find out.”

He wasn’t born Bill Clinton. He was William J. Blythe IV. His father died in an auto accident three months before he was born. His mother left him with her parents in Hope, Arkansas, while she went off to New Orleans to be trained in anesthesiology. He lived with his grandparents for the first four years of his life, staying on even after his mother completed her training; his grandfather ran a small country store. It was a modest existence but—by all accounts—a solid and loving home.

That changed after his mother married Roger Clinton, the local Buick dealer. “Roger was thirteen years older than me. He adored Bill,” Clinton’s mother now recalls. “But he was an alcoholic. A lot of times, Bill had to see . . . unacceptable behavior.”

At times, Roger Clinton was a violent drunk. “I remember once when I was four or five and he was screaming at my mother,” Clinton recalled recently, in a rare interview about his childhood, “and he actually fired a gun in the house. There was a bullet hole in the wall. It could have ricocheted, hit my mother, hit me. I ran out of the room. I had to live with that bullet hole, look at it every day.”

When Clinton was seven, the family moved to Hot Springs, where Roger Clinton became service manager in his brother’s Buick dealership. Hot Springs was a wild town in those days—a spa for rich northerners, a debauch of illegal gambling, fancy nightclubs, and the Oaklawn racetrack. The Clintons were known for living a “fast” life, hanging out at casinos and clubs like the Vapors. Bill’s mother developed a passion for the horses and remains a devoted $2 bettor to this day. The drinking and violence continued at home, but quietly so—Clinton’s childhood friends say they were never aware of it.


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