Politics & Policy

Understanding Bill

He was a disaster waiting to happen.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As he has rolled out his book this week, Bill Clinton has talked about his childhood and the way it affected him. This may be Clinton at his most honest and sincere (on Oprah yesterday, his hand trembled when he talked about his step-dad shooting a gun in the direction of him and his mom). I wrote about the forces that helped shape Clinton’s character in Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, from which this short piece is excerpted.

Bill Clinton grew up in the family equivalent of a log cabin, or perhaps a tar-paper shack.

His mother, Virginia Kelley married a ne’er-do-well traveling salesman, Bill Blythe, who was a bigamist and died in a car accident before Clinton was born. There is doubt whether he was actually Clinton’s father. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Blythe’s different marriages and his children by them began to turn up. Clinton aide and confidante Betsey Wright has said, “Virginia didn’t know how many marriages [he had had], and every time a new child showed up, she would just tell the staff to have me return the call.”

The flirtatious Virginia eventually remarried, to a man named Roger Clinton, and they moved to the mob-infested gambling town of Hot Springs. There were three warning signs about Roger: he was a drinker, he was a gambler, and his nickname was “Dude.” He turned out to be a miserable bastard. Young Bill routinely heard the sounds of fierce drunken late-night arguments between Virginia and a jealous Roger, who beat and sometimes kicked her.

All of this irresistibly lends itself to armchair psychoanalysis, about how Clinton utterly lacked a model of stable, affirming masculinity in his personal life, about the fast-and-loose ethos of Hot Springs where he grew up, about the sexual intrigue that surrounded Virginia.

The Clintons have talked about the impact of Bill’s upbringing. Clinton has said that he had an irrational fear of death from the early loss of his father that drove him to seek political success, and seek it fast. “He viewed his father’s death as so irrational–so out of the blue–that it really did set a tone for his own sense of mortality,” Hillary has explained. “Not just in his political career. It was reading everything he could read, talking to everybody he could talk to, staying up all night, because life was passing him by.”

Clinton told Betsy Wright how he had come to understand that growing up in an alcoholic household had made him eager to please. Wright has said Clinton experienced family therapy (after his brother Roger’s drug arrest) as a kind of revelation: “He got a much better understanding of why he did things the way he did. It was in the context of learning about how that comes out of an alcoholic home. Most notable was why he was always trying to please people. He was fascinated by it, and it rang so true.”

He has talked to various people how everyone has an “addiction,” which his listeners have taken as references to his own compulsive attachment to sex or to politics or both. Bill Clinton told a friend in the mid-1980s: “I think we’re all addicted to something. Some people are addicted to drugs. Some to power. Some to food. Some to sex. We’re all addicted to something.” When journalist Joe Klein asked him about the divergent paths between him and his brother Roger, a cocaine addict, Clinton said, “Well, there are different sorts of addictions.”

He has remarked the pull of adolescence on him: “I always wondered if I’d want to be sixteen when I was forty, because I never felt like I got to complete my childhood.” When he entered family counseling after Roger’s drug arrest, Clinton observed, “I was born at sixteen and I’ll always feel I’m sixteen. And Hillary was born at age forty.”

Finally, the hostility in Clinton’s early home life, by his own account, drove him inward. “The violence and dysfunction in our home,” Clinton has said, “made me a loner, which is contrary to the way people view me, because I’m gregarious, happy, all of that. But I had to construct a whole life inside my own mind.” Virginia would tell her children to put their troubles in “an airtight box,” a strategy Clinton publicly referred to as president when he said he put Paula Jones’ accusations “in a little box.”

According to his own lights, then, Clinton was, in part, a death-driven addictive personality with a strong streak of immaturity, an eagerness to please, and a tendency to live in his own, private world.

Other presidents have faced hardship growing up, and others have had grave character flaws, but Clinton’s emotional and psychological life must rank him among the all-time greats of presidential dysfunction. That he became president, rather than suffer some sad fate, is a testament to his intelligence, his determination, his marriage, and his character traits–the ambition, the compulsion to please, the ability to wall off bad news–that were adaptive to success in politics.

None of this is to absolve Clinton of moral responsibility for his actions. But he was a disaster waiting to happen. It is almost a marvel that his two terms featured–once the smaller flaps are put aside–”only” a reelection fundraising scandal, a sex scandal, and a pardon scandal. Each of them highlighted a different character flaw–respectively, the desperation to win, his sexual obsession, and the need to seize every last vestige of power.

Dick Morris, the political consultant who knows him best, quite seriously refers to Clinton’s “pathology,” and the most important operative his 1992 election and early presidency has said he never should have been elected. During the Monica scandal, Diane Sawyer asked George Stephanopoulos: “Should a man capable of doing that ever have been elected President?” Stephanopoulos answered: “No, I don’t think so. You know, the problem is that he hasn’t been a bad president. He’s achieved more than I ever could have imagined. But he is the head of state, where the person matters.” The equivalent would be former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer disavowing his support for George W. Bush, and announcing he never should have become president.

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