Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Bill Clinton: Who Is This Guy?


Clinton turned against the war in Vietnam in 1966, when he was working as an intern for Arkansas senator William Fulbright. He avoided the draft with a student deferment and a high lottery number. In 1970, he was a coordinator in Joe Duffey’s antiwar Senate campaign in Connecticut. “A year later, we were trying to organize people from that campaign to work for Ed Muskie,” says Anne Wexler, who managed the campaign and later married the candidate. “We got most everyone in the room—except Bill. He said quietly, and firmly, that he was for McGovern.”

Clinton and the writer Taylor Branch managed George McGovern’s hopeless Texas effort. “He and Hillary came down from Yale,” says Betsey Wright, who worked on the campaign and later became Clinton’s chief aide in Arkansas. “I’d never been exposed to people like that before. I mean, they spent the whole semester in Texas, never attended a class—then went back to Yale and aced their finals. They were breathtaking.”

Friends remember Hillary Rodham as a fierce feminist who had trouble choosing between Clinton and a career of her own in politics. “I was kind of disappointed when Hillary married Bill,” says Wright, who is active in feminist politics. “I was hoping she’d run for office herself.”

Their marriage has been a successful political partnership. Hillary has taken the lead in Clinton’s education-reform efforts in Arkansas. “She’s one of the ten most knowledgeable people in the country on the subject of education,” says Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers.

Privately, however, friends say the Clintons have gone through some very rocky periods—which has led to a slew of rumors about Clinton’s personal life, rumors both he and Hillary acknowledged by admitting their marriage hadn’t been “perfect” at a Washington breakfast with reporters in September. “Bill did some pretty dumb things,” says a friend. “But he’s not crazy or self-destructive.” The marriage seems on firmer ground now, friends say. Both Bill and Hillary are devoted to their eleven-year-old daughter, Chelsea.

From the moment he entered politics in Arkansas, as an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 1974, Clinton had an aura of inevitability about him. “He showed up at the Pope County picnic in 1974—which is our traditional political kickoff—opened his mouth, and everyone just knew,” says George Jernigan, who ran against Clinton for state attorney general two years later. “He beat the living hell out of me.”

Clinton became, at 32, the youngest governor of Arkansas in 1978, and the youngest ex-governor two years later—a shocking defeat observers attributed to what seemed a condescending attitude toward his home state. “He brought in a lot of people from across the country to run the government,” says Ernest Dumas, a columnist for the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette. “People thought he was arrogant and decided to send him a message.”

Clinton returned in 1982 and won back the office—another unprecedented and unexpected political feat. He came back more humble, less Yankee (Hillary finally relented and took his name—an act that apparently made a difference out in the sticks), but also more cautious. “He’s been unwilling to use his political capital to challenge the Establishment,” says John Brummett.

“The fact is, it’s hard to accomplish much in a poor state like Arkansas,” says David Osborne. If you improve education too much, people take their skills elsewhere. If you don’t bribe businesses with tax breaks, they can easily leave, too. In that context, Clinton has done pretty well: Although it still lags behind most of the nation in economic development and educational achievement, Arkansas now has a reputation as one of the more innovative state governments. Last year, Clinton was voted the nation’s most effective governor by his peers. He’s a politician who loves talking about government, thinking through and trying out new ideas—especially of the “New Paradigm” variety, activist programs outside the usual bureaucratic structures that encourage individual initiative and competition.

“He really has changed attitudes about the importance of a good education in this state,” says Ernest Dumas. “He’s really wrestled with the flight of low-skill jobs to other countries. He’s been less effective in some other areas,” like attacking the state’s regressive tax code and forcing the coal-burning utility plants to clean up their act. “But the expectations were so high, his talents so awesome,” says Dumas. “We expected miracles. We’ve had to settle for just good works.”

A political miracle—more or less—will be required now if Bill Clinton is to become the next president of the United States. In the race for the Democratic nomination, his position is subtly precarious: suddenly the front-runner and yet unknown to most of the public—and, therefore, a likely target for his opponents, who’ll have the chance to define him (negatively) before he can define himself. “If he could meet people one-on-one, the way we usually do it here, I’d have no doubts,” said New Hampshire’s Jean Hennessey. “But this is going to be a fast TV campaign. None of these candidates are known. One great ad can change everything.”

At the same time, none of Clinton’s opponents has yet shown the capacity to produce the sort of lightning bolt that will be necessary to make an impression in New Hampshire, Kerrey and Harkin are well funded and will give it their best shots; former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas is well loved but an unlikely national candidate; Jerry Brown is well off the pace. Last week’s departure of Virginia governor Doug Wilder from the race should be a boon to Clinton, especially in the South, where Wilder stood to attract heavy black support.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift