When I was a young man just out of law school, I bought one of those how-to books: How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, by Alan Lakein. The book’s main point was the necessity of listing life goals, then categorizing them in order of their importance, with the A group being the most important, the B group next and the C the last. I still have that paperback book, and I remember the A list. I wanted to be a good man, have a good marriage and children, have good friends, make a successful political life and write a great book.
Whether I’m a good man is, of course, for God to judge. I have been graced beyond measure by my family life with Hillary and Chelsea. No person I know ever had more or better friends, [and] my life in politics was a joy. As for the great book, who knows? It sure is a good story.
Born William Jefferson Blythe IV, in Hope, Ark., in 1946, Clinton never knew his father, car salesman Bill Blythe, who died after an auto accident three months before he was born. When Clinton was a toddler, his mother, Virginia, a nurse anesthetist, met the man who would become his stepfather, Roger Clinton. Only later would Virginia and her young son discover that Roger, who had a fondness for gambling, was also an alcoholic. Mother and Roger got married in Hot Springs in June, 1950, shortly after her twenty-seventh birthday. Mother and I left her parents’ home and moved with my new stepfather, whom I soon began to call Daddy, into a little white wooden house on the south end of town at 321 Thirteenth Street. Not long afterward, I started calling myself Billy Clinton. Roger really loved me and he loved Mother, but he couldn’t ever quite break free of the phony security of binge drinking and adolescent partying—and the verbal abuse of Mother that kept him from becoming the man he might have been.
My brother, Roger Cassidy Clinton, was born on July 25, his father’s birthday. I was so happy. Mother and Daddy had been trying to have a baby for some time (a couple of years earlier she’d had a miscarriage). I think she, and probably He too, thought it might save their marriage. Daddy’s response was not auspicious. I was with Mammaw and Papaw when Mother delivered by caesarean section. Daddy picked me up and took me to see her, then brought me home and left. Instead of making him responsible, the birth of his only son prompted him to run back to the bottle.
Junior high school brought a whole new set of experiences and challenges, as I began to learn more about my mind, my body, my spirit. Some of what came into my head and life scared the living hell out of me, including anger at Daddy, the first stirrings of sexual feelings toward girls and doubts about my religious convictions. I couldn’t understand why a God whose existence I couldn’t prove would create a world in which so many bad things happened.
Because of the way Daddy behaved when he was angry and drunk, I associated anger with being out of control and I was determined not to lose control. Doing so could unleash the deeper, constant anger I kept locked away because I didn’t know where it came from. I had real secrets of my own, rooted in Daddy’s alcoholism and abuse. They got worse when I was fourteen and in the ninth grade and my brother was only four. One night Daddy closed the door to his bedroom, started screaming at Mother, then began to hit her. Little Roger was scared. Finally I couldn’t bear the thought of Mother being hurt and Roger being frightened anymore.
I grabbed a golf club out of my bag and threw open their door. Mother was on the floor and Daddy was standing over her, beating on her. I told him to stop and said that if he didn’t, I was going to beat the hell out of him with the golf club. He just caved, sitting down in a chair next to the bed and hanging his head. Mother said she called the police and had Daddy taken to jail for the night. I don’t remember that, but I do know we didn’t have any more trouble for a good while. I suppose I was proud of myself, but afterward I was sad about it, too. I just couldn’t accept the fact that a basically good person would try to make his own pain go away by hurting someone else.
Clinton’s interest in politics came at a young age. His involvement in a civic organization called Boys Nation took him to Washington in 1963, where he shook hands with John F. Kennedy at the White House. After graduating from Georgetown University in 1968, and two years in England as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he enrolled at Yale Law School. One day in class, he became intrigued by a fellow student.
She conveyed a sense of strength and self-possession I had rarely seen in anyone, man or woman. After class I followed her out, intending to introduce myself. When I got a couple of feet from her, I reached out my hand to touch her shoulder, then immediately pulled it back. Somehow I knew that this wasn’t another tap on the shoulder, that I might be starting something I couldn’t stop.
One night I was standing at one end of the long, narrow library talking to another student [when] I saw the girl again, standing at the other end of the room. After a while she closed her book, walked the length of the library, looked me in the eye, and said, “If you’re going to keep staring at me and I’m going to keep staring back, we ought to at least know each other’s names. Mine’s Hillary Rodham. What’s yours?” I was impressed and so stunned I couldn’t say anything for a few seconds. Finally I blurted my name out.
A couple of days later, I was coming down the steps to the ground floor of the law school when I saw Hillary again. She was wearing a bright flowered skirt that nearly touched the floor. She said she was going to register for next term’s classes, so I said I’d go, too. We stood in line and talked. I thought I was doing pretty well until we got to the front of the line. The registrar looked up at me and said, “Bill, what are you doing back here? You registered this morning.” I turned beet red, and Hillary laughed that big laugh of hers. My cover was blown, so I asked her to take a walk with me to the Yale art gallery to see the Mark Rothko exhibit. It was our first date.
Despite her initial reluctance to move to a place she barely knew, Hillary agreed to join Bill in Fayetteville, Ark., after law school in 1974. Bill had already begun his political career, running unsuccessfully for a U.S. congressional seat. Hillary eventually found work as a corporate lawyer at the Rose Law Firm. In the meantime, on Oct. 11,1975, they married. Three years later Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas, and in the summer of 1979 Hillary learned she was pregnant.
We attended Lamaze classes in anticipation of my participating in a natural childbirth. On the night of February 27 [I returned from a trip to Washington, D.C.]. Fifteen minutes after I walked into the Governor’s Mansion, Hillary’s water broke, three weeks early. Soon after we arrived at Arkansas Baptist Hospital, we learned Hillary would have to give birth by caesarean section because the baby was “in breech,” upside down in the birth canal. I was told that hospital policy did not permit fathers in the delivery room. I pleaded with the administrator, saying I had been to surgeries [before]. They relented. At 11:24 p.m., I held Hillary’s hand and looked to see the doctor lift our baby out of her body. It was the happiest moment of my life, one my own father never knew.
Fatherhood may have been a joy for Clinton, but balancing it with the demands of his schedule was sometimes a struggle.
No matter how far away the event was or how long it lasted, I always came home at night so that I could be there when Chelsea woke up. That way I could have breakfast with her and Hillary and, when Chelsea got old enough, take her to school. I also put a little desk in the governor’s office where Chelsea could sit and read or draw. I loved it when we were both at our desks working away. At bedtime, Hillary, Chelsea and I would say a little prayer or two by Chelsea’s bed, then Hillary or I would read Chelsea a book. When I was so tired I fell asleep reading, as I often did, she would kiss me awake. I liked that so much I often pretended to be asleep when I wasn’t.
In the fall of 1991 Clinton launched his bid for the Presidency.
For me, election days have always embodied the great mystery of democracy. No matter how hard pollsters and pundits try to demystify it, the mystery remains. Ifs the one day when the ordinary citizen has as much power as the millionaire and the President. Some people use it and some don’t. Those who do choose candidates for all kinds of reasons, some rational, some intuitive, some with certainty, others skeptically. Somehow, they usually pick the right leader for the times; that’s why America is still around and doing well after more than 228 years. I had entered the race largely because I thought I was right for these times of dramatic change in how Americans live, work, raise children and relate to the rest of the world. I had worked for years to understand how political leaders’ decisions play out in people’s lives. I believed I understood what needed to be done and how to do it. I thought I knew what [the voters’] answer would be, but on that long November day, like everyone else, I had to wait to find out.
On Nov. 3,1992, Clinton won the election with nearly 43 percent of the vote, unseating George Bush, the current President’s father.
After a last look at my victory speech, Hillary and I said a prayer thanking God for our blessings and asking for divine guidance in the work ahead. We walked onto the stage to greet Al and Tipper Gore [Clinton’s Vice President and his wife] and the thousands of people who had filled the downtown Little Rock streets. I was overwhelmed when I looked out at the faces of all those people, so full of happiness and hope. I loved seeing my mother’s tears of joy, and I hoped that my father was looking down on me with pride.
During Clinton’s first term in office, having Chelsea in the house provided a welcome retreat from the ups and downs of politics—until the day arrived in 1997 for her to go to college.
On September 18, Hillary and I took Chelsea to Stanford. Chelsea was happy and excited; Hillary and I were a little sad and anxious. Hillary tried to deal with it by scurrying around and helping Chelsea organize things, even lining her drawers with Contac paper. I had carried her luggage up the stairs to her room, then fixed her bunk bed. After that, I just stared out the window, as her mother got on Chelsea’s nerves with all the fixing up. When it was time to go, Hillary had pulled herself together and was ready. Not me; I wanted to stay for dinner.
Chelsea’s departure from the White House marked a period of adjustment for Clinton. But a true crisis for the President—both political and personal—was just over the horizon.
When 1998 began, I had no idea it would be the strangest year of my presidency, full of personal humiliation and disgrace, policy struggles at home and triumphs abroad, and, against all odds, a stunning demonstration of the common sense and fundamental decency of the American people. Because everything happened at once, I was compelled as never before to live parallel lives, except that this time the darkest part of my inner life was in full view.
In his deposition in a sexual harassment case brought by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, Clinton was questioned about his relationship with a young intern named Monica Lewinsky. In a televised statement on Jan. 26,1998, Clinton proclaimed that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” But the truth, as Americans eventually learned in lurid detail, was that he had.
During the government shutdown in late 1995, when very few people were allowed to come to work in the White House and those who were there were working late, I’d had an inappropriate encounter with Monica Lewinsky and would do so again on other occasions between November and April, when she left the White House for the Pentagon. For the next ten months, I didn’t see her, although we talked on the phone from time to time.
In February, 1997, Monica was among the guests at an evening taping of my weekly radio address, after which I met with her alone again for about fifteen minutes. I was disgusted with myself for doing it, and in the spring, when I saw her again, I told her that it was wrong for me, wrong for my family, and wrong for her, and I couldn’t do it anymore.
What I had done was immoral and foolish. I was deeply ashamed of it and I didn’t want it to come out. In the deposition, I was trying to protect my family and myself from my selfish stupidity. I believed that a contorted definition of “sexual relations” enabled me to do so.
I went on doing my job, and I stonewalled, denying what had happened to everyone: Hillary, Chelsea, my staff and cabinet, my friends in Congress, members of the press and the American people. I was back to my parallel lives with a vengeance.
On Saturday morning, August 15, with the grand jury testimony looming and after a miserable, sleepless night, I woke up Hillary and told her the truth about what had happened between me and Monica Lewinsky. She looked at me as if I had punched her in the gut, almost as angry at me for lying to her as for what I had done. All I could do was tell her that I was sorry, and that I had felt I couldn’t tell anyone, even her, what had happened. I told her that I loved her and I didn’t want to hurt her or Chelsea, that I was ashamed of what I had done, and that I had kept everything to myself in an effort to avoid hurting my family and undermining the presidency. I still didn’t fully understand why I had done something so wrong and stupid; that understanding would come slowly, in the months of working on our relationship that lay ahead.
I had to talk to Chelsea, too. In some ways, that was even harder. Sooner or later, every child learns that her parents aren’t perfect, but this went far beyond the normal. I had always believed that I had been a good father. Now Chelsea had to learn that her father not only had done something terribly wrong, but had not told her or her mother the truth about it. I was afraid that I would lose not only my marriage, but my daughter’s love and respect as well.
The Clintons’ painful family crisis was also compounded by troubling world events. On Aug. 7, 1998, two bombs detonated at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya killed 257 people—and marked one of the first salvos in the terrorist assault against the U.S.
The initial evidence indicated Osama bin Laden’s network. I became intently focused on capturing or killing him. The CIA had intelligence that he and his top staff were planning a meeting at a camp in Afghanistan on August 20 to plan their next operations. I asked National Security Advisor Sandy Berger to manage the process leading to a military response. [On vacation in Martha’s Vineyard], I spent days alternating between begging my wife for forgiveness and planning the strikes on Al Qaeda. At 3 a.m. on August 20 I gave Berger the final order to proceed, and U.S. Navy destroyers in the Arabian Sea launched cruise missiles at the targets in Afghanistan, while missiles were fired at the Sudanese chemical plant from ships in the Red Sea. Most of the missiles hit the targets, but bin Laden was not in the camp. Some reports said he had left only a couple of hours earlier.
Working to repair their marriage, the Clintons entered counseling, separately and as a couple, one day a week for about a year.
For the first time in my life, I actually talked openly about feelings, experiences and opinions about life, love and the nature of relationships. I didn’t like everything I learned about myself or my past, and it pained me to face the fact that my childhood and the life I’d led since growing up had made some things difficult for me that seemed to come more naturally to other people.
I also came to understand that when I was exhausted, angry or feeling isolated and alone, I was more vulnerable to making selfish and self-destructive personal mistakes about which I would later be ashamed. There was no excuse for what I did, but trying to come to grips with why I did it gave me at least a chance to finally unify my parallel lives.
In the long counseling sessions and our conversations about them after-ward, Hillary and I also got to know each other again. I had always loved her very much, but not always very well. I was grateful that she was brave enough to participate in the counseling. We were still each other’s best friend, and I hoped we could save our marriage.
Meanwhile, I was still sleeping on a couch in the small living room that adjoined our bedroom. I got a lot of reading, thinking and work done, and the couch was pretty comfortable, but I hoped I wouldn’t be on it forever.
Eventually, Clinton would weather the strains in his marriage. The political scandal, however, led to his dubious distinction as the second U.S. President ever to be impeached by Congress—though the attempt to remove him from office fell short of the requisite two-thirds majority, and he served out his second term.
On my last night in the now-barren Oval Office, I thought of the glass case I had kept on the coffee table between the two couches, just a few feet away. It contained a rock Neil Armstrong had taken off the moon in 1969.
[In the past], whenever arguments in the Oval Office heated up beyond reason, I would interrupt and say, “You see that rock? It’s 3.6 billion years old. We’re all just passing through. Let’s calm down and go back to work.”
It was almost dawn when I returned to the residence to do some more packing and share some private moments with Hillary and Chelsea. Then I walked out of the Oval Office for the last time.