Maraniss describes reasons for Clinton's duality of character

October 15, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

David Maraniss, author of the Bill Clinton biography "First in His Class" (Simon and Schuster, 1995), gave a talk at UC Davis earlier this month focusing on the duality of the president's character.

Maraniss, a journalist at The Washington Post since 1977, covered Clinton's run for the presidency in 1992. For his efforts, he won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting the following year. He then took a leave to write "First in His Class" and is now back at the Post writing articles on the new Congress since the 1994 election.

Clinton's duality of character is reflected in Maraniss' opinion of him. The journalist said he found much to admire in Clinton's life and much that was less than admirable.

"He was raised by two women who were polar opposites," said Maraniss. Clinton's grandmother was a God-fearing and repressed woman while his mother, Virginia, was fun-loving and much more free-spirited. His father was killed in a car accident three months before Clinton was born.

In order to research his book, Maraniss moved for a time to Hope, Ark., "where half the people said they were related to Bill Clinton and half probably were." Then he moved on to Hot Springs, Ark., where the town itself represented a study in contrasts. The heart of the Bible Belt, it also was at one time the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the South.

"In Hot Springs, living with an alcoholic stepfather, another part of Clinton's character was shaped," said Maraniss. "He tried to be responsible and make peace at all costs when his father was abusing his mother."

Clinton wanted to please everyone, redeem his family name and be in control at all times. These three traits also can be seen throughout Clinton's political career.

In fact, Clinton achieved a lifetime goal - to be a successful politician - at an early age when in 1963 he was elected one of two "boy senators" from Arkansas to serve in a mock government, Boy's Nation.

"I interviewed 40 of the 100 people who took part in Boy's Nation that summer," said Maraniss. "Civil rights was the main issue and Bill Clinton stood up for civil rights, not states' rights."

That summer, Clinton had his photo taken with President John F. Kennedy.

"It was not pure luck getting that picture taken," said Maraniss. "Clinton race-walked from the bus (to get ahead of the other boys) to get that handshake."

Clinton's idealism and ambition paid off. He became the third youngest president in U.S. history behind Teddy Roosevelt and JFK.

But Maraniss said Clinton's climb to success has been marked more by defeat than triumph. His first major defeat came at Georgetown University when he ran for senior class president. Clinton was absolutely positive that he had the election won. He belonged to the right clubs (16 of them) and had established himself as a big man on campus. But he lost the election because he failed to accurately read his constituency, which was, in 1967, beginning to rebel against the Jesuit administration. Clinton, at age 21, was devastated by this loss.

He then went on to Yale Law School. Later he became involved with the Democratic Party, serving as co-campaign chair for George McGovern in Texas and later still he moved back to Arkansas. He was elected governor in 1978 but was defeated two years later, thus becoming the youngest ex-governor in American history.

Maraniss described two people who helped Clinton through good times and bad: his wife, Hillary, and a low-profile political consultant named Richard Morris. It was Morris, Maraniss suggested, who helped Clinton regain the governorship in 1982 by advising Clinton to do two things: apologize for his mistakes of the past and move to the political center.

Clinton has kept in touch with Morris in the intervening years, calling him in for consultation after the 1994 elections, which Clinton viewed as a personal defeat. Morris advised him and the first lady to concentrate on a few key issues. Hillary was to zero in on breast cancer prevention and medical care for those who served in the Gulf War while the president was to concentrate on middle-class tax cuts, education and the environment.

"Morris and Clinton have a plan now," said Maraniss.

He said that Clinton's career has been marked by defeat, recovery and comebacks. Bleak as things may look now, his re-election is entirely possible.

"It would be difficult in 1996," said Maraniss, "but I would never cut him out."

Maraniss described a young man who wanted to be president from an early age, a politician who has had poor relations with the press since his first term as governor of Arkansas, and a man who has had many extra-marital affairs with women. In this regard, Clinton failed to show good sense morally or politically and this has caused him problems. Polls show he is one of the least-popular presidents since Richard Nixon.

"Clinton almost announced (a run for the presidency) in 1987 for the '88 race but didn't," said Maraniss.

"Sex was a factor in his decision not to run." Maraniss said Clinton sat down with his advisers and went over a list of women he'd had relationships with, trying to decide which ones would cause him trouble and which ones wouldn't. It must have been a disturbing list, for the decision was made not to run.

"There were times (writing the book) when I felt that Bill Clinton had no moral center," said Maraniss.

"And there were times when I found him very admirable.

"He hasn't totally lost his idealism but is trying to compromise his way...and when that doesn't work it looks like he doesn't stand for anything."

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