Politics & Policy

The Woes of Bill


Linda Tripp thinks Hillary Clinton is behind her current troubles. She may be right, but in this one instance she should thank the First Lady. By giving Talk magazine her insights into her husband’s behavior, she has eclipsed an opportunity for Tripp-bashing by the national press.

#ad#There is so much silliness to dissect, one risks the paralysis of Buridan’s Ass (no, this wasn’t a man with a butt so large he couldn’t move. Buridan’s Ass is a notion about a riddle of free will popularized by the medieval philosopher Jacques Buridan, but first introduced by Aristotle (yes, Buridan came from the land of people named Jacques. His real achievement, by the way, was developing the concept of inertia, breaking with Aristotelian physics). In fact, Buridan’s Ass can’t be found in any of his surviving writings. The idea is that if an ass were placed between two equidistant and identically yummy stacks of hay, the ass would starve to death trying to choose which is better. Buridan actually used a dog as his example, but because it is such a stupid point and because he was French, his critics changed it to an ass. (Besides, I bring this up not so much to discuss the paralysis one feels when choosing between equally good options, so much as to use the word “ass” a lot).

The thing that has gotten the most attention is Hillary’s statement or suggestion that her husband’s problems are the result of childhood abuse. No, he wasn’t beaten. No, no, he wasn’t overly criticized or verbally abused. No, he wasn’t sexually exploited. You see, she’s getting at the soul-wrenching trauma a four-year-old feels when his grandma and mommy argue over who loves him more. Yes, yes, it’s true. It’s amazing he isn’t living out of an RV eating road kill, considering all he’s been put through.

This Hillary episode isn’t the first time we’ve heard about this from the Clintons. The biographies are full of such analysis. The Man from Hope film at the Democratic convention in 1992 was brimming with such subtle and not-so-subtle touchy-feely psychoanalysis.

Just to provide a backdrop for the president’s own accomplishments, we should review the comparative psychological luxury of other children who became presidents.

Abraham Lincoln grew up in back-breaking poverty on the frontier, often living off what they could kill. His family was illiterate and they shared the same bed. His sister Sarah, who at the age of twelve had to cook for the family because their mother died, would often sit by the fire weeping out of self-pity and loneliness. His father found a new mother in a business-like transaction whereby he paid off the woman’s debt and she agreed to do the housework.

Teddy Roosevelt — who President Clinton aspires to emulate, had asthma that was so bad, it was regularly presumed he would die from it. He spent days on end coughing up blood and would often have to sleep upright. He often felt like he was a burden. Later his beloved first wife died while he was at college. Hours later, his mother died.

Harry Truman — another model for President Clinton — grew up in and out poverty. But by his own words he was a “sissy” as a child. His father was domineering and diffident. When John Truman lost everything the family owned gambling on the stock market, young Harry put aside his dreams of college and went to work in the fields. Eventually he found a job as a teller in Kansas City; unfortunately, Dad lost everything in the market again, and forced Harry to come home and work on Grandma’s farm for eleven years.

JFK — another role model of the president — had a classically dysfunctional childhood. His father raped Gloria Swanson and then had an enduring affair with her. Joe Kennedy even traveled with her on the same cruise ship as the rest of the family and had a mentally disabled daughter with Swanson. Doubtless JFK and his mother were aware of much of this. But then again, Donna Shalala, when one cabinet member criticized — though quite meekly — President Clinton, used JFK’s antics as a defense of Clinton’s.

Lyndon Johnson grew up so poor they had to rent dirt. His family was rude and crass. Let’s just leave it there.

Richard Nixon grew up with stern Quaker parents.

Gerald Ford had perhaps the most traumatic childhood of all. His biological father was a murderous cretin who threatened his mother with a knife. The mother escaped the man only to be hunted by him. And yet, James Cannon writes, “more than any other president of this century, Ford was chosen for his integrity and trustworthiness; his peers in Congress put him in the White House because he told the truth and kept his word.”

Carter — the last Southern moderate Democrat president — grew up on a farm run by blacks. His father was a stern man who treated the blacks on his farm, shall we say, curtly. The Carter children were raised by “black mammies.” After Jimmy Carter’s father died, his mother confided in him how she dreamed of being black. She tried to fulfil her dream by moving to India.

Ronald Reagan would regularly come home to find his alcoholic father unconscious on the front porch.

This is not to say that Bill Clinton did not have trauma when he was a child. Many of us do. But what is so revolting is the liberal fixation on the notion that we are the product of our traumas. Truman and TR willed themselves into heroic manhood. George Bush matter-of-factly signed up to be the youngest combat pilot in the Pacific. FDR conquered polio. Lincoln taught himself not merely to read but to be perhaps the most learned president in U.S. history, save perhaps for Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt (and I guess that racist utopian Woodrow Wilson). Jimmy Carter became a nuclear sub commander, physicist, and president. Billy Carter, with the same childhood, drank a lot of beer. Ronald Reagan had his family problems to be sure, but he never said “I can’t fight Communism or lower taxes this week because my dad was a drunk.”

But for some reason it seems reasonable to say that Bill Clinton — a graduate of Yale, Georgetown, and Oxford — cannot overcome the trauma of Grandma and Mom arguing about him when he was four years old.

We have free will. The fact that Bill Clinton might indeed die of starvation if caught between two comely interns is not an example of Buridan’s Ass or the existence of iron-bound determinism. It is merely an example of how this (literally) careless and tacky man is always looking for some.

Ass, that is.


If Bill was always trying to “please” women because of this childhood trauma, how does that explain Monica Lewinsky? After all, Clinton still swears he never touched her that way. And, even according to Lewinsky’s own testimony, there was very little effort on his part to “please” her. It was all pretty much one-way — his way.

We won’t even mention Juanita Broaddrick’s displeasure, because in the words of Lucinda Franks, the woman who wrote the Hillary piece, that would be invading Hillary’s privacy.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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