Bill Clinton: Who Is This Guy?

Photo: Steve Liss / Getty Images

*From the January 20, 1992 issue of New York Magazine.

‘Aren’t you the guy,” the editor from South Carolina’s largest newspaper asked the governor of Arkansas, “who gave that awful speech for Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic Convention?”

“You want to hear the rest of it?” Bill Clinton laughed. “Go get yourself another cup of coffee.”

“But what does that say about your ability to communicate your ideas to the nation?” the editor pressed.

Clinton shrugged, then retailed some boilerplate. The question seemed moot: The governor had been communicating his ideas quite nicely for the better part of an hour to several dozen editors from across South Carolina. He had, in fact, overpowered them with the clarity and detail of his answer—a Clinton trademark in this presidential year. He appeared to devour each question; he launched himself enthusiastically into each answer. The tougher the better, he seemed to say—hit me with your best shot. “What would you do about the budget deficit?” someone asked.

“Well, there are five things you need to do, but you have to do them all,” and then he was off, in a fury of facts and statistics, using simple words but radiating a well-organized, serious intelligence … . “But wait a minute,” one of the editors interrupted. “You said one of the five things you had to do was control health-care costs; how on earth do you do that?”

“Well, there are three areas you absolutely have to deal with,” and off again—to the five-point outlines for what had to be done in each of those subareas. There seemed no bottom to his specificity—indeed, it has become something of a joke among the traveling press; reporters have taken to counting the number of ideas and proposals that seem to erupt from Clinton at each appearance, just as they’ve taken to counting the number of times Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey cites his Vietnam War record or uses the words “fundamental change.”

There was a casual, effortless quality to the performance. Clinton wasn’t reciting. He was having fun. Each new stat had a get this quality to it: “One reason why the average German worker can be paid 20 percent more than his American counter-part is energy conservation—the German can produce the same amount of goods for half the energy.” The clever economy of many of his formulations was exhilarating. On trade: “The Japanese have to understand that if they don’t play by our rules, we’ll play by theirs.” This was a master politician strutting his stuff. The editors clearly were impressed. And yet: Something wasn’t quite right. Clinton had engulfed the audience but still seemed amorphous himself: He didn’t have any edges. It was all just a little too smooth. “Governor, I’ve just experienced you as a torrent of information,” said Gil Thelen, executive editor of The State. “But I feel that I don’t know anything about you as a person. Could you tell me the three values that are most important to Bill Clinton as a human being?”

The room fell silent. For once, Clinton didn’t have a quick answer. He clasped his hands in front of him and stared at them. He took a long time. Finally, he said, “Integrity.” Another long pause. “Family … and service.” He proceeded to explain, but the words weren’t nearly so important as the time he’d taken. Afterward, when asked if he was satisfied with Clinton’s response, Thelen said, “I was really glad that he stopped and thought about it.”

But what about that pause? Was it real, or just a very clever calibration? Integrity … family … service: Was this just another three-point plan? Clinton had shown his brains and spirit, but his essence—his soul—remained elusive. Who was this guy, anyway?

So here we are, at the start of another presidential campaign, and the Democratic Party seems to be moving—quietly, inexorably, tectonically—toward another largely unknown governor, this one named Bill Clinton, in much the same way it moved toward Michael Dukakis in 1988. One of the other leading lights—Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska or senator Tom Harkin of Iowa; or perhaps even former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, a New Hampshire favorite—might still catch fire and steal the show; not a single vote has yet been cast. But a determination has been made: Clinton seems the most solid of this crowd. And a subtle stampede is on in the salons of New York and Washington. “Clinton is the very heavy favorite,” said a prominent New York fund-raiser. “Most people think Bob Kerrey isn’t ready for this. And Tom Harkin just seems dated—something from out of the past.”

In 1988, Dukakis insinuated his way into the conventional wisdom by winning what was then called the “Money Primary,” the first real test of the campaign. He got his credibility by raising a ton of cash and by seeming, well, solid in the early debates (the party learned too late that his “solidity” was emotional catatonia). This time, no one has raised much money. The first primary has been about IQ rather than cash—and Clinton is the easy winner, a fact he likes to joke about: “A fella up in New Hampshire said, ‘I hear you’re the smartest guy in the race. That’s sorta like saying that Moe’s the smartest of the Three Stooges.’”

That’s another thing: In addition to brains, Clinton brings to the table a sense of humor and a love of the game—neither of which Dukakis ever had (nor Mondale, Hart, or Carter, for that matter). “I think maybe I’ve flipped,” said Jean Hennessey, a prominent liberal party activist in New Hampshire, speaking not of her sanity but of her affiliation—first with Kerrey, now with Clinton. “I don’t agree with him on everything, but he’s genuine. He knows a lot … I also think I just like him. He seems to be having a good time. He gets a kick out of this.”

Clinton has proceeded through the early turbulence with a certain dignity. He hasn’t made many mistakes. He’s built a solid organization. He’s made some smart strategic moves as well, consolidating his base in the South (including a rare, and enthusiastic, endorsement from Georgia senator Sam Nunn, who once said of Clinton, “He’s been a boy wonder in three different decades”) and establishing a strong beachhead in Illinois, which votes a week after most of the South goes to the polls on Super Tuesday (March 10).

But, most important, Clinton seems to be benefiting from a rare confluence—the political equivalent of a solar eclipse. It involves, on the one hand, a sudden gust of pragmatism on the part of Democratic Party activists, who spent most of the past quarter-century searching for heretics but whose battle cry this year has become “I can live with that.” Clinton started with the support of the party’s moderate wing, led by the Democratic Leadership Council—and has been building out ever since. Last week, the major public employees’ union (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Teachers hinted they were moving in his direction. “In the past, they [the activists] would be interested in a laundry list of issues,” Clinton said last week of the New Hampshire Democrats. “If you were wrong on question five or seven, it was good-bye, Charlie. But there’s a different level of engagement this year. They’re concerned about their own families, their own futures.”

The other half of the confluence and the key to Clinton’s early success is a message that transcends traditional labels (and therefore is often called “moderate” or neo-something) but appears to be connecting with actual civilians. Clinton is offering activist government—national economic, educational, health, and energy plans—but he’s also ready to acknowledge that it hasn’t been just the Republicans or the Congress, the rich or the poor, but a lack of responsibility across the social spectrum that has caused the economic drift and strange, sour mood that permeates the country. His signature program may well be a college trust fund that will offer four-year loans to anyone who can qualify academically, to be paid back as a small percentage of income (collected like a payroll tax) or with two years’ public service in a “Domestic Peace Corps” as police officers, teachers, nurses, or social workers. “We can educate a generation of Americans and solve half our social problems,” Clinton often says, in a rare bit of hyperbole. “It’d be the best money we ever spent.”

’Specificity is a character issue this year,” says George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s deputy campaign manager. In New Hampshire, audiences get angry if the candidate explains only four points out of any given five-point plan. They insist on knowing how he’ll pay for what he’s selling. And they appreciate it when he, inevitably, delivers: “I give him high marks, though I still want to see the others,” said Ken Massey, an engineer who came to a Nashua house party very skeptical about Clinton’s reputed conservatism. “He was very good when I asked him about health care. He gave more than just platitudes.”

“He’s the early phee-nom, no doubt about it,” says Rich Bond, an adviser to George Bush’s re-election campaign. “On paper, given that he’s the least liberal major candidate the Democrats have had in a while, he looks to be the toughest for us in this field.” Other Republican strategists breathed a sigh of relief when Mario Cuomo withdrew from the race—because they were convinced Clinton would beat him and become “a giant-killer,” as one said. “Now, if he wins, he’s just a munchkin-killer.”

All of which is very impressive. But still, the ghosts of other Democrats—Dukakis and Carter and, to an extent, Gary Hart, neo-liberals and technocrats who came out of nowhere and then proved fatally flawed—haunt Bill Clinton. He seems a more polished, creative, engaging politician than any of them. He is constantly compared, in looks and spirit, to John Kennedy as he travels about (Kerrey seems, in size, inflection, and irony—if not in substance—more like Bobby, which gives the campaign a curious fratricidal edge). At 45, Clinton—like JFK—could be the first of his generation to be nominated for the presidency. But there is a sense, too, that the whole thing may be a little too carefully massaged. Clearly, the governor has been preparing for this moment for a long time—for most of his life, perhaps. He has thought through every imaginable issue. His answers are often creative but always carefully calibrated. There are no bitter pills; few real challenges beyond the resonant call for “personal responsibility.” If left to his own devices, Clinton tends to describe issues rather than take stands on them.

“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.

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.”

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.”

Apolitical 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.

Even if Clinton manages a convincing victory in New Hampshire and surges to the nomination, he will be up against overwhelming odds in facing a (healthy, presumably) sitting president. “No one knows who he is,” says one Republican strategist. “He has an indifferent record in Arkansas, absolutely zero experience in foreign policy, and, we hear, a history with the ladies. Are we worried? You guess.”

But maybe they should be. Clinton has shown the ability to grow and learn in this campaign—he’s the only Democrat who has improved his stump speech since September—and he’s shown an ability to connect with substance-starved voters. He’ll have to continue growing if he hopes to compete with George Bush. His challenge is different from most candidates’ who seek the presidency: He doesn’t need to smooth out the rough edges. For Clinton, the challenge is to create a few—to tell some unpleasant truths to his party and the nation, to show some passion, to stop trying to finesse all the people, all of the time.

The real litmus test is one that Clinton himself set: If the Democrats are going to win a presidential election this millennium, they will have to convince the public—as Clinton said last summer—that they’re interested in more than taking people’s money and giving it to “public employees or poor people who won’t spend it right.”

Clinton hasn’t done that yet. He has promised, but not delivered, major speeches about crime (a euphemism in the political trade for “race”) and government reform (“reinventing government”)—speeches that should challenge the ground-zero Democratic constituencies, minorities and public employees. Since specificity is the character issue of the year, Clinton should be held to a high standard: Will he speak clearly about subjects that are too ambiguous to be circumnavigated by a five-point plan—like the causes of the appalling family disintegration in the black community, or the debilitating consequences of racial preferences, while making clear that he stands for social justice? Will he directly challenge government employees to throw off the shackles of the civil-service system, to be more accountable, to compete against the private sector and one another, instead of stagnating in the current monopolistic public system?

That’s a lot to ask of any politician. But Clinton has begged the question by appearing to care about these issues, and the moral complexities they raise. Sometimes, in his stump speeches, he talks about how a spirit of community needs to be reestablished in the society and can happen only if everyone is willing to assume more responsibility. He goes through the litany, from welfare recipients to business executives, and says, “We’re all in this together. We all have to change. There’s no them and us in America. There’s just us.” One evening in South Carolina, he took it a step further: “I desperately want to be your president,” he said very softly. “But you have to be Americans again.”

Ashiver ran through the crowd—prominent local Democrats, black and white. The line had powerful resonance: Clinton was digging very close to the heart of the national psyche, to the inchoate sense of loss that runs so hard and deep beneath the surface of the electorate this year. He was summoning a national altruism that was assassinated a quarter-century ago in Vietnam and the streets of our cities (as well as in the obvious places—Dallas, Memphis, and Los Angeles). It’s high time some politician tried to do that again: But if Bill Clinton wants to play those stakes—to get that personal, to mess with the American soul—he’s going to have to come clean himself and show us who he really is.

Bill Clinton: Who Was This Guy?