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What shaped the Life and Career of Former President Bill Clinton
by David Kukoff
If one were to play a psychological association game in which the topic of Bill Clinton arose, the first word that would probably come to mind would be "character." Clinton's questionable character practically became a truism of the death and taxes variety during the course of his precedent-setting campaign and two-term presidency. His detractors labeled Clinton a waffler and compared him to Elmer Gantry, the slick-talking charlatan preacher of lore. His fans, however, while conceding Clinton's maddeningly frequent inability to be pinned down on political topics (as well as his maddeningly frequent ability to be pinned down in the bedroom), pointed to evidence of an indomitable spirit that had taken him from the seedy environs of Hot Springs, Arkansas all the way to the lofty perch of the White House. Indeed, it is this very juxtaposition of weakness and fortitude that makes Clinton one of the more fascinating Presidents in recent American history.
Bush the elder, as one-time head of the CIA, may have known where more bodies are buried, and no eyebrow-raiser Clinton ever participated in could even come close in scope to the Iran-Contra debacle that took place on Reagan's clock, but it is Clinton whose scandalous failings continue to fascinate us long after his departure from the Oval Office. Perhaps it is because of the very humanity in which they are rooted; l'affaire Lewinski (or "Tailgate" as it became known in less politically correct circles), with its garden-variety, adolescent fumblings and ersatz, whispered sweet nothings, could just as easily have taken place under the buzzing fluorescent lamps of a high-rise office building's coffee room as it did in the darkened chambers of the most powerful man in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps it is the blend of animal magnetism and force of will we commonly refer to as charisma. Every attempt Clinton's opponents ever made to use his weaknesses against him not only strengthened his resolve, but that of the public to embrace him as well; he was dubbed "The Teflon Candidate" and later continued to earn some of the highest Presidential approval ratings in history even in the wake of his impeachment.
So what then makes Clinton… well, Clinton? Insomuch as successful careers are the result of several determining factors, there are few paths to success that one can study as a template for attaining the Presidency. Ultimately, the root of Bill Clinton's success can be found in forces and events that range far beyond the standard pie chart of ambition, charisma, and character issues - good or bad. And though we may never truly understand the "why's" of the man (as tends to be the case with most people we either like to think we know well or would like to get to know better), we can understand the "how's": namely, how the choices he made as a young man not only shaped his psyche, but also led to his being elected to the highest post of the most powerful country in the free world.
If overcoming childhood adversity were a prerequisite for success in the same way that conquering organic chemistry is a prerequisite for attending a top medical school, then Bill Clinton would have skipped right through to his residency. Much has been written about Clinton's youth: the death of his father before Clinton was born, the alcoholic stepfather who abused Clinton's mother, the story of a man from a place called Hope. In fact, while Clinton was born in Hope, Arkansas, his family later relocated to nearby Hot Springs, a town whose racy demeanor was every bit worthy of the image of heat gushing forth from the earth's loins that its name evoked. There are the stories of how a thirteen year-old Bill walked to church every Sunday - notably, without the rest of his family in tow - and often got there before the minister did, folklore so squeaky-clean and mythology-ready that it seems a natural fit for the pantheon that includes Abe Lincoln's homey log cabin and George Washington's felled cherry tree. More emblematic of things to come were the incidents in which a sixteen year-old Clinton assumed the leadership of his home by standing up to his stepfather and demanding that the abuse of his mother end (Clinton, to his immense credit, forgave the man years later as he lay on his deathbed). It would not be a stretch to assume that Clinton's subsequent career in - and love of - law lies rooted not in the need to exert control, but rather in the ability to restore the order that saved his family.
This ability to take on authority when necessary is precisely the kind of common denominator we tend to identify in future leaders whenever we look for signs of distinction in their youth. However, just as key a factor in Clinton's nascent career was his ability to step into authoritative shoes at a young age and, without compromising the authority necessary to be effective, still earn plaudits. Though he'd always had jobs while a student at Georgetown, then later at Yale Law School and even at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Clinton's first real career move came when he earned a spot as a law professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Again, as with all things Clinton, the story of how he got the job bears retelling; according to then Law School Dean Wylie Davis, Clinton called him from the side of the road in Interstate 40. The twenty-six year old told Dean Davis that he had learned through a Yale Law School professor that Davis had a pair of vacancies. Clinton told Davis that he would teach anything, did not believe in tenure, and that Davis could get rid of him anytime. With this approach, it is no wonder that Clinton soon found himself on the faculty of the University's Law School, despite Davis' initial contention that at twenty-six Clinton was too young to teach. As a rejoinder, Clinton maintained that he had been too young for everything he'd ever done.
Davis' concerns were no doubt well founded; it is reasonable to surmise that someone as young and inexperienced as Clinton might misuse authority - either through overuse or underuse - but Clinton displayed remarkable maturity and an adaptability to his role as a professor that went well beyond his years. Some of this was most likely due to his desire to please - a trait always mentioned whenever the subject of his psychological makeup is addressed - but a mere pleaser would simply have excelled in the half-court basketball games in which he joined, perhaps striving to entertain in the classroom but falling well short of actually molding the minds before him. And yet Clinton showed a remarkable sense of balance in participating in his fair share of the former while bringing a passion to his role as an educator of people who, in most cases, were no more than a year or two younger than he was. One former student recalls that he frequently strayed off the topic at hand to discuss issues of the day, such as Watergate, adding, "He was not the kind of instructor to read from a book." So profound was Clinton's influence that several of his students wound up in politics themselves, notably David Mathews who would become state representative for Benton County, and Lu Hardin who became a state senator.
And it seems to be at this junction in Clinton's career where his choices merge with his character and we are given our first window of insight into where he was headed. While it is no small feat to go from Hot Springs, Arkansas to Oxford and Yale Law School, most people in Clinton's shoes would have parlayed their experience into a high-paying job at a firm in New York or Washington D.C. Perhaps a few would have taught, but they no doubt would have viewed this as "settling." Few, if any, not only would have viewed their position as the first of many steps forward, as Clinton did, but also used it to inspire others to follow suit. It is analogous, to borrow an image from an earlier paragraph, to the basketball player who eschews mere scoring in favor of making the players around him better.
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Clinton's next position followed a hiccup of sorts, as he ran unsuccessfully for a Congressional seat in 1974 against the incumbent Republican candidate John Paul Hammerschmidt. The young law professor put a bad scare into the heavily favored Congressman, winning forty-eight percent of the popular vote. However, so impressive was his campaign, so taken were people with this boy wonder of Arkansas that he won his next contest quite handily. But his destination wasn't Washington; rather, Clinton again elected (and was elected) to remain in Arkansas and serve as the state's Attorney General.
Again, it is worth pausing to mull over the choice Clinton made at this point in his career. Still a relative neophyte by any standards at the age of twenty-eight - much less those of politics in which one's forties, fifties, and sixties tend to be the prime of their career - Clinton decided that the national stage could wait. Of course he would have wound up in Washington had he defeated Hammerschmidt, but the loss was by such a slim margin that it stood to reason that Clinton might very well have prevailed his next time out. Why, then, would a rising star of Clinton's caliber choose to remain in Arkansas rather than jockey for a higher profile seat in Washington? Certainly the most cynical-minded of critics would be within their rights to point out that Clinton stood a far greater chance of a slam-dunk victory with the Attorney General position, and that it was fine for him to lose one contest but another loss might have labeled him an instant also-ran. But those same cynics would also have to concede that risk-aversion was hardly the engine that powered Clinton's political vehicle. More likely was that Clinton's motivations lay rooted in the public servant's desire to give something back; years later, prior to his first gubernatorial campaign, when mulling over whether to make a bid for the State Capitol or Washington, he told his friend David Matthews "I believe I can do more good for the people of Arkansas as governor." This sense of allegiance to his home state has often been overlooked in the volumes that have been written about Clinton.
The spirit in which Clinton conducted himself as Attorney General only furthers the notion that the young Clinton was a passionate proponent of the needs of his constituents. Arkansas was notoriously beholden to its utility giants, who were perceived to inflate prices at the expense of Arkansans (hardly among the nation's top earners per capita to begin with). Clinton, now marrying his ability to wield righteous authority with his passion to take on less-righteous authority, took on the utilities; appearing to be quite fearless, if not reckless in his attempts to keep them from raising their rates.
It could be argued by Clinton's critics that he was merely grandstanding to make himself seem like a champion of the people, pandering to the statewide mood of personal exploitation at the hands of the utilities. However, when one factors in the success previous candidates had had in appeasing the interests of the utilities, it appears that Clinton's actions while in office were the very opposite of hollow self-promotion. Indeed, the criticism from his enemies followed him throughout his first term as a governor, costing him, in the opinion of many, his job for two years before he was ultimately re-elected.
The rest is, as they say, history. Clinton enjoyed massive popularity as Arkansas' governor, then ultimately defeated George Bush in 1992 to win the Presidency. But what is it about his rise to national prominence that makes Clinton a model worth studying as a template for success? For starters, Clinton, like most of us, was not born into wealth and political prominence; "he was not, as Molly Ivins once famously pointed out about Bush Senior, "born on third while going around thinking his whole life that he hit a triple." Clinton was keenly intelligent; brilliant even, but he chose early on to make the exercise of his intellectuality a crucial part of his makeup by putting it through some of the most rigorous challenges that his chosen field had to offer. But in opting to forego practicing law in a large firm and by choosing instead a faculty post, Clinton put forth perhaps his most valuable lesson: to take it upon oneself to overlook the shortsighted solution in favor of achieving a long term goal. There is no doubt that Clinton always wanted to be President; the look on his eyes in that famous photograph taken with JFK in the Rose Garden tells the observer that this is where Clinton envisions himself in thirty years, but what separated Clinton from the rest of the ambitious teens present was Clinton's ability to see all the moves that lay en route. And yet mere political foresight will only get you so far; witness Gray Davis, who made a career of putting the cart of the office before the horse of the people. Clinton was never uncomfortable with people; indeed, his early choices reflect a desire not only to be surrounded by people but also to improve their lot in life. His experience standing before his classes and discussing the issues of the day no doubt proved invaluable during his first Presidential campaign when he conducted his (revolutionary, truly) series of televised "Town Halls." And learning how to appoint a fresh, energetic staff (as well as, let's face it, understanding the code of political favors) as he did while Attorney General could only have been something to draw upon when it came time later on to make his choices for his Cabinet.
Clinton's legacy will likely be forever tarnished by the bad judgment he showed later in life, but it is more than amply clear that he displayed something quite the opposite on his way to the national stage. And while Clinton may be the human embodiment of the adage regarding man's ability to create being directly proportional to his ability to destroy (in Clinton's case, himself), his career and overall character should be studied for far more than their cautionary tale appeal, as evidenced by the choices he made as a brilliant young man with foresight and empathy well beyond his years.
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