William Jefferson Clinton (1946-) was the 40th elected governor of Arkansas, 42nd president of the United States and the most buoyant political figure in American history.
Clinton was governor of Arkansas for 11 years and 11 months, the second-longest tenure in the state’s history, and president for eight years, making him only the third president and the first Democrat to serve two full terms since Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). Brilliant and charismatic but personally impetuous and self-destructive, he was compared variously to Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. He had imagined that he would be another Franklin Roosevelt.
Dogged by calamitous political missteps, sex scandals and colossal vendettas, Clinton regularly suffered defeat and humiliation, but it was always followed by a stunning resurrection. At the end of his presidency and a 30-year political career, he became the first elected president to be impeached, but he resisted expulsion by the U. S. Senate and enjoyed greater approval by voters than nearly every departing president of the 20th century.
He was president at the pinnacle of U.S. supremacy and basked in extraordinary admiration around the world, which may explain why he visited more foreign countries than any president in history. At home, although he was the father and master of social and economic policy, he failed at his most ambitious policy initiative, universal health insurance, and his most earnest goal, a sweeping national reconciliation that would close the country’s old racial divide. Instead, he had to settle for blocking the destructive ideas of Republican conservatives, who captured control of Congress during his first term. Still, he crafted the first consecutive balanced federal budgets and surpluses in modern times and coaxed the American economy into the longest uninterrupted expansion in the nation’s history.
Clinton was born on Aug. 19, 1946, at Hope, the son of William Jefferson Blythe III, a traveling salesman who died in a car accident in Missouri several months before Bill was born, and Virginia Cassidy Blythe. His name was William Jefferson Blythe IV, and he took the name of William Jefferson Clinton after his mother, a nurse-anesthetist, married Roger Clinton, a car dealer.
The stepfather was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler and often abused Mrs. Clinton and terrorized the children, which Clinton’s mother would finally reveal when he was running for president. According to pop psychoanalysis, pretty much embraced by Clinton in his post-presidential autobiography, “My Life,” the sublimated agony of his home life as a youngster and the spiritual search for his father (who was daddy to two other children, he would learn when he became president) produced the two celebrated weaknesses of the man: the tawdry and risky behavior with women and a pathological need for universal approval.
He was an outstanding student and musician at Hot Springs High School and received a superlative education: an AB degree in international affairs from Georgetown University, a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and a law degree from Yale University, where he met his future wife, Hillary Rodham of suburban Chicago. At Georgetown, he had worked as an intern for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), who by then had become Congress’ leading critic of the Vietnam War. It reinforced his dream of a political career. In high school and college, he had begun to demonstrate extraordinary political skills. While he was in law school, he was an organizer in Texas and Arkansas for Sen. George S. McGovern, an antiwar politician who won the Democratic nomination for president in 1972 and was defeated by Nixon.
Clinton took a job teaching at the University of Arkansas Law School at Fayetteville in 1973 and was joined a few months later by Hillary, whom he would marry in 1975. Six months after joining the law school faculty, he ran for United States representative from Arkansas’s Third District. He defeated three other Democrats for the party’s nomination but was defeated 52-48 by Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, a popular Republican who was elected that year to a fifth term. Two years later, in 1976, he was elected attorney general handily and in 1978, almost as handily, he was elected governor. At 32, Clinton became one of the youngest governors in the nation’s history. He was two months older than the youngest Arkansas governor, John Selden Roane (1849-1852). (Clinton might argue that he should be the youngest governor because Roane ought to have been disqualified from holding office because he had tried to kill Albert Pike in a duel at Fort Smith but shot the old man’s beard instead. A man guilty of dueling was then prohibited by law from serving as governor, but they let the matter pass.)
A big agenda that included highway building, school improvement, tougher environmental laws, a rural health initiative and regulatory reform, especially with utilities and banks, quickly got Clinton in trouble with powerful interests. To pass a highway program, he capitulated to trucking and shipping interests and loaded taxes on the owners of cars and pickups. That, plus TV footage of marauding Cuban exiles at Fort Chaffee, sent to the post by Clinton’s friend Jimmy Carter, cost him dearly. A newly minted Republican, Frank D. White, defeated him in 1980. But two years later, Clinton apologized for all his mistakes and voters put him back in office by a wide margin, the only defeated governor ever to win the office back. He had defeated former U.S. Rep. Jim Guy Tucker and former Attorney General and Lt. Gov. Joe Purcell to win the Democratic nomination, the last close election he would have in Arkansas.
Clinton set out to make big improvements in education in 1983.
At a special legislative session, he pushed through higher sales taxes for teacher salaries and a wider curriculum, a reformed system of distributing state aid, new college scholarships, a pass-fail test for entering high school and a law requiring teachers and administrators to pass a basic skills test to keep their jobs. The state Board of Education adopted tougher standards devised by a committee headed by Clinton’s wife that raised the requirements for schools to be accredited and students to graduate. In the years afterward, Arkansas scores on college-entrance tests improved materially but remained well below the national average, the dropout rate plummeted and the percentage of graduates going to college sharply improved to near the national average.
In 1985, he turned his attention to economic development and persuaded the legislature to enact almost in toto a large package of laws, including tax abatements for industries locating in Arkansas, aimed at stimulating investment and job growth. In the seven years afterward, Arkansas ranked among the top states in the country in the growth of jobs, including manufacturing jobs, but they tended to pay low wages, and family incomes remained far below national and regional averages.
Business groups coalesced to block Clinton’s efforts in the late 1980s to raise taxes again for a second round of educational gains and to impose ethical restraints on public officials. In 1990, in a particularly bitter campaign, he decisively defeated former Democrat Sheffield Nelson, a former utility executive, and many lawmakers lost their jobs, too. In 1991, Clinton won legislative approval for an array of taxes for education and health care and new environmental laws. Violating his pledge in the 1990 campaign to serve a full four-year term rather than run for president, he announced Oct. 3, 1991, that he would run for president, having fulfilled his agenda for Arkansas much sooner than he had expected. He would resign as governor on Dec. 12, 1992, after his election as president. If his vast talents and ambitions had promised people miracles, they had produced merely good works.
President of the United States
Democrats had lost five of the previous six elections, and President George Bush’s popularity was stratospheric after the quick victory over Iraq in the Gulf war. Clinton positioned himself as a new Democrat who eschewed the old liberal New Deal formulas although he embraced the paramount item on the liberal agenda, universal health coverage. He promised practical solutions to economic problems and to lead the country into the information age and a global economy. He said he would reform the bloated welfare system, cut taxes on the middle class, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, reduce the budget deficits and reform campaign finance. Though he rushed to the top of the polls and excelled at fund-raising, his campaign seemed to collapse on revelations of extramarital affairs and his artful avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War. But he rebounded and defeated five Democrats for the nomination. He chose U.S. Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee as his vice presidential running mate. A laggard economy and reneging on a promise in 1988 not to raise taxes (“Read my lips: No new taxes.”) made Bush vulnerable. Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote, compared with 38 percent for Bush and 19 percent for Ross Perot, an independent.
His presidency got off to a disastrous start when, in answer to a reporter’s question, he said he intended to quickly fulfill his promise to let homosexuals serve openly in the military. The firestorm consumed the interregnum and early months of his presidency. Republicans instantly formed a united front against him.
Clinton became persuaded that the huge annual deficits — they reached $290 billion under Bush — impeded economic growth. The government was borrowing so much money that businesses could obtain capital only at high rates of interest, discouraging investment in plants. His budget reduced federal spending by $255 billion over five years and increased taxes, mainly on people with high incomes, by $241 billion. The budget passed in both houses without a vote to spare and without a single Republican vote. The bond markets were ecstatic. The tax vote would cost a number of Democratic congressmen their seats and cost Democrats control of Congress in the next election, but in five years the federal budget would be balanced and the country began to run what seemed likely to be vast surpluses far into the future. No one anticipated the fiscal folly of his successor.
In his budget battles with the Republicans, Clinton prevailed on what may be his single greatest economic achievement besides ending the deficits: significantly raising the purchasing power of working families earning less than $30,000 a year through expansions of the earned income tax credit (EITC), college tax credits and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The benefits of those three programs totaled $91 billion over five years. Arkansas workers were particularly big beneficiaries.
But the promise of universal health coverage foundered. A plan drafted by a committee headed by Hillary, which sought to extend coverage to everyone through the existing employer-based private insurance system and without a tax increase, seemed too complicated for anyone to understand. Insurance companies and many businesses fought the plan. Neither Clinton nor Republican leaders reached out for a compromise and the effort collapsed. That, the tax increase and general gridlock made the Democrats look weak and they lost both houses in 1994, one of the most dramatic upheavals in Congress in the 20th century. Clinton could claim some victories in his first term besides the budget blueprint: a trade agreement that reduced trade barriers across the North American hemisphere, a comprehensive world trade agreement called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a family leave law and a national service program called AmeriCorps.
Clinton had dreamed of a truly heroic presidency on the order of Franklin Roosevelt, but after the 1994 congressional elections, which made a right-wing ideologue from Georgia the most powerful man in Washington, he had to scrap the next six years merely to keep his job and to prevent the Republican right from destroying the nation’s social fabric and rolling back the modest gains in economic justice since the New Deal. He would say in 2004 that his greatest achievement as president had been to fight off expulsion from the presidency.
The rearguard strategy came into play soon after the 1994 elections. In 1995 and 1996, Republican leaders threatened to withhold all spending authorizations and thus shut down the federal government if Clinton did not go along with the GOP budget, which shaved money from education and social programs. Federal offices shut down but public opinion sided with the president. The battles elevated Clinton in public esteem and helped sink the Republican candidate for president in 1996, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas. Clinton won that election with 49.2 percent of the vote to Dole’s 40.7 percent. Thereafter, while Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress, Clinton got pretty much what he wanted in the annual budget battles.
But Clinton also flummoxed the liberal wing of his own party, first by emphasizing budget balancing at the expense of public investments in his first term and then by signing a Republican-crafted version of his own welfare-to-work nostrums. He had campaigned since 1987 on the need to “end welfare as we know it.” Welfare rolls plummeted after the law mandating work or education kicked in, although many would insist that the economic boom of the late 1990s was the real cause of the reduction.
The right-wing conspiracy
Though he was one of the least ideological presidents of the 20th century, Clinton somehow sparked the greatest partisan hatred since Lincoln. For more than seven years he conducted the affairs of the presidency amid a maelstrom of investigations. For three years after Republicans gained control of the Congress, congressional committees conducted long-running probes and hearings on alleged misdeeds by the president, his wife, White House aides and cabinet members, most of them stemming from a business relationship in the 1970s and early ’80s with a free-lance land developer and friend in Arkansas, Jim McDougal, and McDougal’s wife, Susan.
Special prosecutors were appointed for an unprecedented seven separate investigations of activities by the Clintons or people in his administration. No one in his administration was found to have violated the law except for Clinton, who was impeached for not being completely truthful about sexual liaisons in the White House with an intern, and his housing and urban development secretary, Henry Cisneros, who misled FBI agents during his screening for the Washington job by fudging on the details of an old extramarital affair while he was mayor of San Antonio.
One special prosecutor was as persistent as Clinton, and his investigation was particularly insidious: Kenneth Starr and Whitewater. The investigation and its prologue went on for 10 years, from January 1994 until March 2004, and cost $80 million. In mid-1993 Clinton’s Small Business Administration gave the United States attorney in the eastern district of Arkansas an accounting report insinuating massive fraud in the operation of a small-business lending company run by a Little Rock municipal judge, David Hale, who was channeling federal loan funds to himself and cronies through dummy companies, including money that was laundered into Frank White’s third campaign against Clinton in 1986.
Hale, once a supporter of Gov. Orval E. Faubus, had switched his allegiance to Republicans by 1980 and was rewarded with the judgeship by Gov. White. Hale said he was stampeded into making some of the rotten deals by politicians, including one loan to Susan McDougal by then Gov. Bill Clinton. Hale gave various accounts of chance encounters with Clinton in which Clinton asked him about the status of Susan’s loan. Clinton said the meetings never occurred and that he didn’t know about the loan.
Meantime, Vincent Foster Jr., a Little Rock lawyer and friend of the Clintons who had gone to Washington to be deputy counsel to the president and who was despondent over attacks by the Wall Street Journal, shot and killed himself in a suburban military park. During the campaign Foster had handled questions about Clinton’s relationship with McDougal and the Whitewater Development Corp., an unsuccessful joint venture with the McDougals in 1978 on a 230-acre land development on Crooked Creek a few miles from Flippin. Rush Limbaugh went on the air with a rumor that Foster had been murdered at a hideaway apartment of the Clintons in Washington and the body dumped in the park. Republicans demanded a special prosecutor to look into all these matters and Clinton, in the dumbest decision of his life, agreed and told his attorney general to arrange for an independent counsel.
In January 1994 Attorney General Janet Reno named Republican Robert Fiske to direct the investigation. Fiske obtained indictments of the McDougals and a number of businesspeople involved in deals with Jim McDougal’s savings and loan and with David Hale. But he concluded that Foster committed suicide and that nothing was amiss in other complaints about the Clintons, including Clinton’s firing of the White House travel director, who had been channeling public monies through his private bank account.
A three-judge panel quickly removed Fiske and replaced him with Kenneth S. Starr, a right-wing ideologue with a personal vendetta against Clinton. Starr would pursue his quarry until Clinton left office. Though he never found any wrongdoing in any of the financial episodes that he investigated, he kept the probe going by looking into rumors of Clinton’s infidelities.
In 1999, a confidante of Monica Lewinsky, an intern at the White House, gave Starr recordings in which Lewinsky talked about oral sex with the president. Starr gave the House of Representatives a lengthy report on Clinton’s indiscretions with Lewinsky and his efforts to cover them up in grand jury testimony and in a deposition that he gave in a civil case involving a Little Rock woman who alleged that he had exposed himself to her in a hotel room while he was governor. On a party-line vote, the House impeached Clinton on one count each of perjury and obstruction of justice. The Senate tried Clinton and, with a few Republicans joining Democrats, refused to convict him on either count, which would have expelled him from office.
The perpetual investigations and the intense partisanship complicated the conduct of foreign policy. Soon after he admitted the Lewinsky affair in January 1998 Clinton ordered four days of intense bombardment of military targets in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after Hussein expelled U.N. weapons inspectors. The bombing destroyed much of the tyrant’s military capacity. That December, as the House was debating impeachment, Clinton retaliated for terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by ordering cruise missile attacks on suspected training facilities of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Sudan. Republicans both times condemned his actions as efforts to divert attention from the sex scandal.
Clinton was inattentive and bungling in foreign affairs early in his presidency, but in the end they afforded him his greatest achievements.
The United States was no longer confronted by global communism, but Clinton had to decide what role, if any, the United States would play in smaller countries where suffering was intense but the interests of the United States were not clear. Although he was at first hesitant to commit military forces to regions torn by religious and ethnic strife, he developed an expansive view of the nation’s strategic interests in protecting human rights and promoting stability abroad. In spite of partisan opposition and polls showing that most people opposed it, he sent forces to end fighting and protect civilians in Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
He took a hand in trying to arrange peace between religious and ethnic rivals in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. His intervention brought an accord and peace in Northern Ireland, a declaration of peace between the nation of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization and an agreement between Israel and Jordan to end their state of war. When the Mexican peso collapsed in 1995, threatening the failure of the Mexican economy, Clinton proposed a loan package to Mexico to ease the crisis. Polls showed public opposition to the bailout and Congress balked. Clinton then devised a $20 billion loan package to restore world confidence in Mexico and executed it alone. Mexico rallied and paid off the loans with interest in 1997, three years ahead of schedule.
Clinton completed and signed a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty in 1996 but Senate Republicans blocked its ratification.
While Clinton’s popularity was high as his presidency ended, a number of controversial pardons that he issued in the hours before leaving office caused his standing to plummet. But in four years his popularity had returned and voters ranked him among the outstanding presidents.