There are many possible ways to respond to an alcoholic parent. Bill Clinton’s was to become the perfect child: “He was always so thoughtful,” his mother says. “From the very start. And later, when he was a teenager, if he was out on a date and knew his stepfather had been drinking, he’d always call in a couple of times to see that I was all right. . . . The only bad mark he ever had in school was in conduct one time, when the teacher decided to send him a message to stop trying to answer every question”—a tendency Clinton has brought to the presidential campaign.
“I was 40 years old by the time I was 16,” he admitted. “I think my desire to accommodate is probably due in part to the sense that I had from my childhood, that I was the person who had to hold things together in my home, to keep peace. And on balance, those skills are very good—I mean, basically we’re living in a world where cooperation is better than conflict.”
The need to smooth things over, the eagerness to please, had a desperate quality at times. When Clinton moved to officially change his name at the age of fifteen, the family was in a state of collapse. His mother says that Clinton made the move because his half-brother, Roger Jr., was entering school, “and Bill didn’t want people confused by them having different names.” But he’d been known as “Billy Clinton” ever since the family had arrived in Hot Springs and now admits that the change was “an expression of family solidarity.”
Ultimately, though, there was no way to massage the situation. "When he would get drunk, he was so consumed with self-destructive impulses," Clinton recalled. "And one of the most difficult things for me was being fourteen years old and putting an end to the violence."
“How did you do that?” I asked.
Clinton sighed. “I just broke down the door of their room one night when they were having an encounter and told him that I was bigger than him now, and there would never be any more of this while I was there.”
In the end, his mother divorced Roger Clinton, then remarried him. He died of cancer when Bill was 21, but the family’s troubles continued. The other Roger Clinton—Bill’s half-brother—had a difficult time overcoming his childhood. In 1983, during his second term as governor, Bill Clinton received word from the state police that his brother had been filmed selling cocaine to an informant in a sting operation. “What do you want us to do?” the state police colonel asked.
'Do what you’d normally do,” Clinton said, knowing that it meant his brother would remain under surveillance for at least another month while the police tried to roll up the rest of his drug network. “I couldn’t tell my mother, or her [third] husband, or my brother. It was a nightmare,” Clinton recalled. “But it was the right thing to do. He had a four-gram-a-day habit. They said if he hadn’t been in incredible physical shape, he would have died.” Roger Clinton spent a year in jail; he’s now a studio musician in Los Angeles.
“So the two options in your family were to become governor or a coke-dealer?” I asked.
“Well, a lot of the literature suggests that’s exactly what happens to children of alcoholics,” he said. “Sometimes they do both in different ways . . . . I understand addictive behavior. You know, a compulsive politician is probably not far from that.”
And a compulsive politician is what Bill Clinton has been since high school—but not a ruthless one. On the contrary, he seems to have accumulated platoons of friends every step along the way. From Hot Springs, he attended Georgetown University (majoring in international studies), then Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and Yale Law School. He was strongly committed to the two great moral crusades of the time—the civil-rights and antiwar movements.
“I remember visiting Bill in Washington during spring vacation in our senior year,” remembers Carolyn Y. Staley, a lifelong friend. “When I landed, Martin Luther King had just been shot, the city was in flames, and Bill said, ‘We’ve got something to do.’ He had a white Buick then, and we went to a relief center where they put a red cross on it, then loaded the car with food, medicine, and blankets that we took to the area that was in flames. It was very dangerous; we raced through red lights. But Bill just had to be there. He was devastated. Afterward, I remember him wandering around in a daze, muttering parts of King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech under his breath—to himself; I don’t even think he was aware I was listening. He’d memorized it in high school.”