NOBODY EVER SAID BEING FIRST BROTHER would be easy. Take Roger Clinton’s recent trip to New York City. It started when a pesky New York Post photographer tried to snap him shopping for Jerry Garcia ties at Bloomingdale’s department store. When an annoyed Clinton called security, the newspaper played it up big. Then, that night at a midtown nightclub, a transvestite named Brandy-wine planted a big kiss on Roger’s check after Clinton finished singing with his blues band. Politics.
But the topper came the following evening when a fan at a New York Knicks playoff game started mouthing off about Roger’s big brother. Roger tussled with the man—and the city’s media went wild. Afterward, Roger wasn’t exactly contrite. “The hardest thing for me to do is to do the right thing, which is to ignore it,” he says. “I do tell people that if they have anything bad to say about my mother or brother to keep it to themselves.”
For some reason, the world is often unkind to presidential brothers. Presidents Nixon, Carter and Bush, for example, all had uncomfortable moments with errant siblings, and now it is the Clinton Administration’s turn for some heartburn. One cause for concern is Roger’s past. He had a serious drug problem and in the 1980s spent 18 months in prison for selling cocaine. Although he says he has given up drugs, he’s still just a guy who can’t say no to a night on the town. “I’ll never grow up completely,” he says, “because that is when you start getting old.”
Being First Brother has its advantages, of course. A $200,000 Atlantic Records deal allowed Roger, 36, to leave a gofer job at a television production company run by close Clinton friends Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and move into a two-bedroom condo in Marina del Rey, Calif. His band will tour South Korea later this summer. “I want people around the world to see the First Brother, who is in the know a lot more directly than most [delivering the message] that things are okay in this country,” he says.
That’s not all. Roger is writing a book about his hardscrabble childhood, revealing how half brother Bill protected the family from the alcoholic and often abusive Roger Clinton Sr. “I’m going to wake some people up,” he predicts. “And I’m going to open some folks’ eyes about the situation in this count!) with regard to drugs and prisons.” Meanwhile, manager-cum-minder Butch Stone. 47, says Clinton will eventually travel the country to deliver inspirational accounts of his battle with coke. “The way I see it, this song’s gonna play one time—my song, my life,” Clinton says. “And I don’t want it to end on a bad note.”
Throughout his childhood in I Hot Springs, Ark., Roger always looked up to half brother Bill, whose natural Father had died in a car accident before Bill was born. In 1950, Bill’s mother, Virginia, married Roger Clinton Sr., a car dealer. Growing up, Bill increasingly stepped in to protect his mother and half brother from Roger Sr.’s rages.
Roger, who was never as ambitious as Bill, briefly attended Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. He formed a local band called Dealer’s Choice. Along the way, the charming Roger got a reputation as a ladies’ man that his boosters say is well deserved. “I run into his old girlfriends in town all the time,” notes Virginia. Adds Lori Shelton, 33, a childhood friend: “He’s a very good kisser—-and he’s had a lot of practice at it.”
Playing in dives exposed him to a darker side of life, and he developed a cocaine habit. In a bitter irony, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, in 1984, made the painful decision to okay a police drug-sting operation—even though he knew it would lead to Roger’s arrest. “It tore Roger up that he had hurt us like this, especially since he considered Bill almost like a father,” says their mother.
After a year and a hall in prison, Roger was paroled. At Bill’s request, he was released into the custody of Butch Stone, a family friend who had become wealthy managing the rock group Black Oak Arkansas during the 1970s. Roger’s singing at his brother’s 1990 gubernatorial inauguration impressed Little Rock optometrist Danny Thomason, brother of Harry, who marveled that Roger was “the blackest-sounding while man” he had ever heard. Later that year, Roger began working in Los Angeles for Thomason’s Mozark Productions and formed a baud to play for the studio audience during breaks from filming Designing Women.
In many ways the shadow of Big Roger, who died of cancer in 1967, still falls on his son. During a December appearance on the The Maury Povich Show, Clinton broke down as he talked about sharing the same birthday, July 25, as his father. “You know something,” he says, leaning forward for emphasis, “relatives would tell me I was get-tin’ to be just like my daddy. That desperately scared me, so I went out to his grave and said, ‘I will never be like you. I will never do what you did.’ ” He joined Alcoholics Anonymous for a while but now says that wasn’t a good idea because it stigmatized him as an alcoholic—something he doesn’t believe he is. Although he still drinks alcohol, Roger denies rumors of continuing drug use and claims to be voluntarily undergoing cocaine testing. “I could become a priest, and I would still be a drug dealer in some people’s eyes,” he says.
These days, brother Bill is a distant presence. “It’s tough when there’s a procedure just to see your brother, but I hang on the line,” he says. Aware of his reputation with the White House staff, he enjoys keeping them on their toes whenever he pays brother Bill a rare personal visit. “They take a collective deep breath when I come around,” he says. “Some of them are leery of me—it’s really hilarious! I walk up to them and go ‘Boo!’ ”
Despite the jokes, Roger’s link to his famous brother is clearly a vital bond. Sitting at home, he points to a painting of two cherubs in his living room. He calls the artwork “R&B” after the most important things in his life: “It stands for Rhythm and Blues—or Roger and Bill.” Big brother, he notes, is the larger figure on the left. “Doesn’t it look like he’s the one doing all the thinking and the other guy is doing the dreaming? Now the wings are in question—thank goodness they weren’t halos.”” he says with a laugh. “But we’re both looking at our dreams.”
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Marina del Rey and LISA GREISSINGER in New York City