"The road to tyranny, we must remember, begins with the destruction of the truth."
(October 15, 1997)
, forty-second president of the United States of America
, is probably the most controversial figure to occupy the White House
since the formation of the Union. That's about all you can say about him without incurring someone's wrath, because there's still no full consensus on what he did, why he did it, how he did it, or how well he did it.
Granted, when Clinton entered office in 1993, he was thrown into one of the most challenging policy environments ever. The foreign policy paradigms of the Cold War were moot, requiring the administration to completely rethink ideas that had been accepted by everyone for nearly half a century. Information technology was quickly making the old economic paradigms useless as well, and popular outcry over the dilapidated welfare system and the profuse deficit spending of the 1980's and early 1990's were forcing changes in the federal government as well.
In terms of transforming the government, the Clinton administration was only as revolutionary as Ronald Reagan's had been a decade before. But whereas Reagan had merely been a forgetful, somewhat dense president who was more interested in showmanship than anything else, Clinton was an individual who few people trusted in the beginning and nobody trusted in the end. He lied, he cheated, he stole... and in the end, the country largely forgave him, because they were too busy playing with their Worldcom stock to care about what their president had actually done.
Most Democrats laud Bill Clinton as the savior of their party, and quite possibly the greatest politician in history. Most Republicans loathe Bill Clinton as a hack who stole Republican policies wholesale and crafted them as his own, who worked entirely for personal gain without ideology or scruples of any kind. Possibly the biggest obstacle facing anyone who wants to learn about Clinton is that the story is always told from one of the two perspectives. So, in true Clinton fashion, I'm going to stake out the middle ground for maximum XP whoreage, and piss off half of the nodegel in doing so. Here goes...
A Star Is Born
William Jefferson Blythe IV was born in Hope, Arkansas on August 19, 1946. His father was killed in an automobile accident three months later, and his mother, Virginia Cassidy Blythe, raised young Bill until she married Roger Clinton in 1950. Roger Clinton was an alcoholic who repeatedly abused Virginia, and this went on until Bill was a teenager. (He didn't change his name to Bill Clinton until he was fifteen.)
These turbulent formative years were probably the biggest force that drove Clinton to power, and they were undoubtedly the most ruining force on his private life. An entire book, The Dysfunctional President: Inside the Mind of Bill Clinton (1995), posited that Clinton's flimsy political stances, penchant for compromising, and constant pandering to his constituents were all signs that he felt driven to power by others, which, in turn, was a sign that he was in denial of his family's dysfunctions. Many don't believe that Clinton approached this level of psychosis, but there is certainly plenty of reason to believe that the circumstances of his childhood made him into the politician he was.
In school, Clinton was a star: he excelled at everything he did, and he won a scholarship to Georgetown University in 1964. On his first day in the dorms, he organized his floor to petition the administration for a color television in their lounge—and that was how his Washington political career began. He was elected to the student council as a freshman, became student body president some time later, and ended up clerking for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in his senior year. Before he graduated, he won the ultra-prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford.
Clinton Dodges the Draft
By the time Clinton graduated, of course, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and Selective Service was rounding up able-bodied young men and sending them into the jungles of Indochina. In the summer of 1969, he visited the home of an ROTC recruiter at the University of Arkansas, and signed a letter of intent to enter the ROTC program at Arkansas upon his return from England. This gave him a 1-D deferment from the draft, and allowed him to continue his studies without having to worry about being sent off to the waiting small-arms of the Viet Cong.
However, Clinton had no intention to join ROTC, and he actively protested the war while he was in Oxford. In a letter he wrote to the recruiter that December, he said that "ROTC was the one way left in which I could possibly, but not positively, avoid both Vietnam and resistance." He explained why he couldn't go along with the draft, and concluded the letter by saying:
I am writing too in the hope that my telling this one story will help you to understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military, to which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes, of the best service you could give. To many of us, it is no longer clear what is service and what is disservice, or if it is clear, the conclusion is likely to be illegal.
In the meantime, Clinton had secured admission to Yale Law School
, which allowed him to continue his deferment from the draft until the war was effectively over. The draft evasion would come back to haunt Clinton in his later years, however—and coincidentally, a quarter of a century later, Clinton would become the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the end of the war.
Clinton Enters the Establishment
Bill Clinton started at Yale in 1970 and graduated in 1973. During this time, he was a long-haired, bearded rebel against the establishment—"like a Viking," in the words of his future wife. Hillary Rodham, a homely, bespectacled policy nerd who had graduated at the top of her class from Wellesley College, met Clinton in the Yale law library, and followed him back to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they were married in 1975.
Clinton's first job in the Real World (if you could call it that) was teaching law at the University of Arkansas, while Hillary worked on the legal team investigating Watergate. Less than a year after his graduation, however, Clinton was already knee-deep in his first political campaign, running for a House of Representatives seat in an upstart battle against a well-entrenched Republican incumbent. He lost, but impressed more than a few higher-ups with his charisma and energy. In 1976, he became the state's attorney general, and in 1979, he became the youngest governor in Arkansas history.
The first Clinton administration in Arkansas, however, was a failure. Clinton had passed an unpopular round of tax increases, and Hillary had insisted on keeping her maiden name, both of which incensed conservatives and led to a Republican winning the election in 1980. (Clinton's only daughter, Chelsea Clinton, was born that year.) Over the following two years, Clinton re-branded himself as a pro-business centrist Democrat, and was able to recapture the governor's mansion in the elections of 1982, where he remained for the next ten years.
In 1988, Clinton gained his first fifteen minutes of nationwide notoriety when he delivered a speech to the Democratic National Convention. It was supposed to be fifteen minutes long, but Clinton drug it out to more than thirty boring minutes, aggravating many of the attendees.
The Shocker of 1992
"If you had it to do over again, would you inhale?"
The 1992 U.S. presidential election
"Sure, if I could. I tried before."
(June 16, 1992)
was billed early on as a probable Republican landslide, and many prominent Democrats were reluctant to run against a conservative juggernaut that had enjoyed twelve straight years of power. Clinton entered the race in 1991, but was a virtual unknown a year before Election Day, when Paul Tsongas
and Jerry Brown
were leading the Democratic pack.
Clinton, however, did what neither Tsongas nor Brown could do: he stirred up the pot. In January of 1992, Gennifer Flowers addressed the media with details of a relationship with Clinton that had lasted since 1980. Clinton brushed off the charges, but the scandal brought him to the front pages of newspapers nationwide, and spread his name to the far ends of the country overnight. With more scrutiny came more shocking stories: the draft-dodging story was big, but when Clinton admitted to smoking marijuana ("I didn't like it, and I didn't inhale"), his pop culture notoriety was secured. By the Super Tuesday races of March, Clinton was ahead of his competitors. He won the Democratic nomination.
While all this was going on, a diminutive Texan billionaire by the name of Ross Perot was running his own non-partisan presidential campaign, leeching support from President George Bush by televising lengthy rants on the balanced budget and other often-ignored issues. Perot's presence seriously weakened Bush's public image—but just as things were looking good for Perot, he dropped out of the race. Clinton's campaign, led by James "The Ragin' Cajun" Carville, continued where Perot had left off, fighting Bush with the famous slogan "It's the economy, stupid!" Despite Perot's eventual return to the race, Clinton had the advantage over Bush for the remainder of the campaign. The final popular vote was a five-point victory for Clinton—43 to 38 to 19 percent—but the Electoral College gave Clinton the White House by a landslide-scale margin of 370 to 168.
1993: President Bubba Flounders
Things were looking good for the Democrats on the day after the election. They had control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since Jimmy Carter's administration. The Republican Party seemed to be crippled beyond effectiveness by the "New Democrats" that Clinton had led to victory.
Clinton's new administration was unique in modern history because Clinton rarely asked for advice. His cabinet secretaries and top "advisors" spent most of their time listening to his ideas, rather than supplying him with their own. Many speculated that Clinton did this because he felt a need to control his adminstration personally, rather than delegate authority out to a chief of staff as both Bush and Reagan had done before. In any event, Clinton stuffed his cabinet with personal friends and small-time politicians, rather than career bureaucrats: when he needed advice, he usually turned to his wife.
The new administration won an early victory with the Family and Medical Leave Act, its first legislative initiative. The second initiative, allowing openly gay people to serve in the military, fell on deaf ears in both major parties. Clinton eventually replaced the idea with the modern "Don't ask, don't tell" policy (which was actually conceptualized by Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).
After an uneventful Hundred Days, Clinton laid out his most ambitious plan ever: a national health care system, something America had never developed but that most other industrialized nations took for granted. Hillary headed up the task force to propose a series of reforms, but the task force was unable to win anything it asked for, even from the Democratic Congress. That, coupled with the ongoing Somalian intervention and the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, made the administration seem ineffectual at best and dangerous at worst: its only legislative victories were in gun control (the Brady Bill) and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (an initiative from the Bush administration). At the end of his first year in office, "Bubba," as Clinton was called by some detractors, began to look very weak.
1994: The Republican Revolution
Newt Gingrich, in the meantime, was coordinating the largest Republican revival in modern history through his GOPAC organization, which funded Republican candidates in congressional races across the country. It was the most effective national political organization in modern history (and perhaps in the history of the country), and seriously challenged many poorly-supported Democratic incumbents.
Shortly after Clinton's election, his lawyer, Vince Foster, died. The official investigation ruled his death a suicide, but shortly afterward, the White House counsel removed documents dealing with an old investment in the Whitewater Development Corporation. The Clintons had been investigated by the SEC for their role in Whitewater, and were accused of fraud. So the chain of events following Foster's death rekindled interest in the Clintons' financial dealings, and made some conspiracy theorists believe that Clinton played a role in Foster's death. After a round of public suspicion, Clinton had an independent counsel appointed to investigate the Whitewater transactions.
To add to his problems, Clinton was also being called in for his sexual indiscretions. In the middle of the year, a woman named Paula Jones was interviewed in American Spectator magazine, where she detailed how Clinton had propositioned her in a hotel room in 1991. She filed a sexual harrassment lawsuit against Clinton a few months later.
With America admitting failure in Somalia, and everything looking rocky for Clinton personally, the Democrats lost both houses of Congress in the elections that year. The new Republican regime signed a blood oath, the Contract with America, to keep liberal policies out of Congress.
1995-7: The Republican Devolution
The Contract was imposing at first, but Clinton's veto power whittled it down quite a bit, and both sides were soon willing to compromise on many of its points. The one point where they were not willing to compromise was the federal budget, and the federal government was forced to shut down for several days late in 1995 simply because neither Congress nor the President wanted to release funds to pay for it.
The 1996 U.S. presidential election saw a crowded Republican field facing a relatively strong incumbent in Clinton. Long-time Senate leader Bob Dole emerged as Clinton's challenger after an excellent early campaign by Pat Buchanan. But Dole was old, angry, and vaguely Nixonian in style: despite his experience and Clinton's personal problems, the race was never really in his favor. When Dole made an impassioned speech about young Americans "building a bridge to the past," Clinton turned the quote around to form his own slogan, "building a bridge to the future."
In the 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton pledged to "end welfare as we know it." He signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that August, dramatically limiting welfare payments and allowing states to have more say in how the money was distributed. Even though it was a Republican victory, Clinton could claim it as well, much to the chagrin of many Democrats. A few months before that, Clinton had also signed the Communications Decency Act into law, which attempted to regulate content on the internet (to, obviously, little avail). Another Republican initiative that Clinton approved was the Defense of Marriage Act, which made it legal for individual states to refuse homosexuals the right to marry.
Clinton won re-election by eight percent of the popular vote (49 to 41 to 8), and by an electoral vote of 379 to 159. Dole retired from politics and became a spokesperson for Visa, Pepsi, and eventually Viagra.
The following year, 1997, was perhaps the very peak of the Clinton administration. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose nearly 3,000 points over the course of the year, and dot com mania was sweeping the country. Although Whitewater and the Paula Jones suit continued, they were in the background of the national consciousness, and Clinton was still evading his prosecutors. With the economy booming and Clinton taking credit for the Republicans' ideas, it was hard not to approve of his job as president. Approving of him as a person, of course, was another story, and Clinton's indiscretions were about to chase him down and bite him in the arse.
In January of 1998, Clinton was called to testify in the Jones suit, becoming the first sitting president to testify as a defendant in court. Jones's lawyer questioned Clinton about a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, whom few people had even heard of before. Clinton denied ever having a relationship with Lewinsky, but Matt Drudge broke the story to the public and it eventually landed on all the nightly newscasts. Later that month, amid intense media pressure to divulge more about Lewinsky, Clinton made his most famous public statement ever:
"I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie. Not a single time. Never. These allegations are false... and I need to get back to work for the American people."
(January 26, 1998)
Unbeknownst to Clinton, there was a smoking gun
in the form of Lewinsky's friend, Linda Tripp
. Tripp had recorded phone calls with Lewinsky that contained all sorts of lurid details about her relationship with the president. Kenneth Starr
, the new independent counsel for Whitewater, was able to obtain the tapes from Tripp. If Lewinsky was telling the truth, then Clinton was guilty of perjury
On July 28th, Lewinsky testified before the grand jury investigating Whitewater. Starr used the testimony as part of The Starr Report, which detailed their relationship down to oral sex, rimjobs, and freaky cigar acts. Lewinsky even provided a dress to Starr that was stained with Clinton's semen. The investigation was apparently in the bag.
Clinton testified to the grand jury on August 17th that he had an "inappropriate" relationship with Lewinsky, and admitted on national television that night that he had misled the American people. He continued to dispute the perjury charge, however, by an (in)famous questioning of the meaning of the word "is."
Public opinion was firmly in Clinton's camp, and the Democrats were able to pick up several House seats in that year's elections. However, on December 19th, the House impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice, by a vote that followed strict party lines. It was only the second presidential impeachment in history (the first was Andrew Johnson).
1999-2001: Clinton Fades Away
The Senate trial of Clinton convened on January 7th, presided over by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. A majority of 67 was needed to convict Clinton on either charge. On the perjury charge, Clinton was acquitted by a vote of 55 to 45. The obstruction of justice vote was a 50-50 tie, but Clinton still kept his office. In fact, the only punishment he faced for the Lewinsky case was a $90,000 fine, as well as a motion for disbarment which Clinton responded to by relinquishing his law license. On September 20, 2000, the Whitewater investigation officially ended, with the prosecution conceding that there was no further evidence to convict the Clintons of anything.
On the day after his acquittal, Clinton sent 4,000 American troops to join the NATO force in Kosovo, the beginning of a long foreign policy tour that many believed was Clinton's attempt to create a meaningful legacy for himself. The only real victory Clinton had in this was arranging permanent trade status for the People's Republic of China.
Facing the end of his term, Bill's attention turned to Hillary, who was running for an open Senate seat in New York. The Clintons purchased a house in Chappaqua, New York, and Bill set up office space in the Harlem district of New York City, a largely symbolic move by the man whom Toni Morrison had called "our first black president, blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime."
As Clinton left office, he pardoned 140 people, many of whom were supporters of his campaigns. Among the people pardoned were a cocaine trafficker and a really questionable fellow named Marc Rich. Many people saw the pardons as Clinton's final "screw you" gesture to the world: others saw them as mere political graft.
In either case, Clinton largely disappeared from the spotlight to give occasional speeches and work on a memoir, and that's where you'll find him today.
Bill Clinton and Me
I think that one of the defining moments of my own political life was seeing Bill Clinton in person. It was in April of 2003, when George W. Bush's attack on Iraq had taken over all of the news. Some Republicans I knew were planning to picket Clinton's speech, but when the actual day rolled around, the crowds outside were all supporters, waving signs that said "Bring Back Bill."
Clinton smiled the whole way through, refusing to criticize Bush outright except to say that he believed the current foreign policy to be "dangerous." He talked about Russia and China and Northern Ireland and North Korea, and had everyone's attention until the end. The only point from his speech that I can remember now was that he regretted not intervening in Rwanda.
But when he was done speaking, rather than merely step off the stage and disappear to his motorcade, he came down into the audience. The Secret Service men around him were obviously nervous, but the crowd went wild, stampeding toward the barriers for a chance to shake his hand.
I didn't follow them. Instead, I watched him down there, with a huge beaming smile on his face and a thousand people fighting for the chance to see him up close. He looked in every person's eye with the same expression as a dog begging for a Milk-Bone. I thought to myself, He's just a puppy. He just wants people to love him.
So even though Bill Clinton was a bad president, a horrendous role model, and an utterly buyable politician, I can't hate him. And if he were to run again, I would probably at least give him the benefit of the doubt. Reagan might have been made of Teflon, but Clinton was downright slick.