By Landon Y. Jones
July 20, 1992 12:00 PM

Bill Clinton slumps into a sofa and glowers. His usually ebullient smile has faded along with his jeans. With the Democratic Convention just days away, he and Hillary Clinton have returned to the Arkansas Governor’s mansion for their first real time off together in eight months…and now here is a reporter with more personal questions, a film crew pressing to shoot a campaign documentary—and no Chelsea. Their 12-year-old daughter will not be back from two weeks at a foreign-language camp in Minnesota until the next day, barely in time to rescue her father from campaign fatigue.

“This has been the hardest part of the campaign,” says Hillary, 44. “We have never spent this kind of time away from her.” Early in the campaign Hillary tried to return to Little Rock every three or four days to be with Chelsea, playing tag-team parenting with Bill, home less often and still adjusting to the challenge of being a good father to a preteen amid a presidential campaign. “We’re sort of making it up as we go along,” he says. “I think one of the things that has made Chelsea’s life bearable as an only child is that we have done so many things together. I have driven her to school every day since kindergarten, unless I was away. The morning is our time.”

On this afternoon, however, family matters are on hold for 24 hours until Chelsea’s return. Instead, in their first joint print interview of the campaign, the Clintons reflected for PEOPLE on the election, their family life, the controversies that have flared around them, the friends who support them, and the personal convictions they say have kept them pointed to true north in a tumultuous year.

At the center of their lives is Chelsea. A bright student who has skipped one grade already, she is a sweet-natured eighth grader who plays volleyball for her school and soft-ball for a dentist-sponsored team called the Molar Rollers. Her favorite activity, though, is ballet. Chelsea has danced in Nutcracker productions in Little Rock and will go to ballet camp later this summer. “She has a busy schedule, which gives her a lot of structure when her parents are away,” observes Susan Fleming, whose daughter Elizabeth is one of Chelsea’s best friends.

Adolescence is already being foreshadowed by early skirmishing over pierced ears. “We really held out against it,” Hillary says, laughing. “We’ve hung tough,” Bill agrees. Sort of. “Well, we’ve walked back and forth on this,” Hillary admits. “I don’t have pierced ears, and her grandmothers don’t.” Bill: “One of her grandmothers doesn’t.” Hillary: “And the other grandmother now says it’s a mistake and tells her stories about infected earlobes. So now we’ve agreed not to talk about it until her 13th birthday.” Bill: “Until February we have.” Neither Clinton is eager to rush Chelsea into adulthood. “I feel strongly that children deserve to have some childhood and some innocence and time to accommodate to the world of adulthood,” says Hillary.

The Clintons are careful about movies Chelsea sees, though Bill, a movie buff, recently took her to her first R-rated movie. “As she’s gotten older we’ve loosened up a bit,” admits Hillary, “and Bill dragged us to see Lethal Weapon 3.” (“It was funny and not too crude and violent,” he says, “so we let her see it.”) They are watchful over TV time as well (“a real instrument for stripping childhood of innocence,” says Hillary), though they do tune in to Designing Women and Evening Shade, both produced by Arkansas friends Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. (It was Hillary who suggested the name Evening Shade for the show.) And, yes, they do watch Murphy Brown. The family otherwise relaxes by playing pinochle and other card games with Chelsea or taking her to the mall.

Bill can be startled sometimes by a daughter who has inherited her mother’s forthrightness. “One day when she was 6, I picked her up, and she said, ‘Dad, do girls sometimes have babies when they are not married?’ I said, ‘It’s not the right thing to do, but it happens sometimes.’ I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, and she said, ‘No, I just wanted to know.’ ”

Adds Hillary: “When Chelsea was little, I had some advice from a friend of mine who said, ‘You should always answer every one of her questions, but don’t go on like it’s now the moment to tell her everything you want her to know for the next 30 years. They usually ask questions at the stage of life where they can accommodate only the information they want.’ That’s true, though I must confess that the first time she asked one of those questions was when she was 4 or 5, in the bathtub, and I nearly fainted.”

Friends of the Clintons say that the public labeling of Hillary as an ambitious careerist misses her warmth and her playfulness. “Her law career gets too much attention,” says Fleming. “She is certainly a tenacious, multidimensional person. But she is also a compassionate and loyal friend and a great mother. There are people who don’t want to believe a woman can play all those roles so well.”

Skip Rutherford, a Little Rock businessman who has worked with Hillary on desegregation and health care issues, recalls once asking Hillary for advice about his own daughter, who was having trouble with elementary school math. “First of all, she told me not to worry so much,” Rutherford says. “Then she said to work on ways to build her self-esteem by focusing on things she did well. Finally she suggested that we buy a calculator and work with it. She still calls back to ask how we are doing.”

Hillary has had child care help with Chelsea from students at a nearby college. “A lot of the problems I face are the same ones all working women face,” she says. “I may have, for example, more help, but I have somewhat more obligations, so I am engaged in the same kind of juggling act that most women I know are. When I worked in the law firm [she is now on leave from Little Rock’s Rose Law Firm], I felt so much more in touch with what was really going on in people’s lives. I would commiserate with another lawyer or a secretary about, gosh, What do you do if your child’s sick and you want to be at home but you have to be at work? People may not see it, but I play the same roles other women must play every eight seconds or whatever it is.”

Chelsea’s grandparents are nearby. Bill’s mother, Virginia, lives 60 minutes away in Hot Springs with Dick Kelley, her fourth husband. (She has been widowed three times, beginning with the death in a car accident of her first husband, William Blythe, when she was almost six months pregnant with Bill, who later adopted the name of his first stepfather, Roger Clinton. He died of cancer in 1968.) Hillary’s parents, Dorothy and Hugh Rodham, have moved to Little Rock from Park Ridge, a suburb of Chicago, where Hugh ran a textile-manufacturing business. “I’m fortunate because my parents live here to be with us,” Hillary says. “My father’s health is not good, but it’s right. They’re just around the corner, and we’re over at their house all the time. On Sunday nights we play cards there. We don’t have another getaway place. It’s important to Chelsea to have them there, and to us too.” (Clinton remains close to his only brother, Roger, 35, who works in L.A. as a production assistant on Designing Women. Hillary’s siblings, Hugh, 42, a public defender, and Tony, 36, a private investigator, live in Florida.)

Bill’s other outlet is music. At home he presides not only over his two saxophones (one tenor, one soprano) but over an eclectic collection of LPs ranging from albums by sax great Stan Getz to “a 30-year-old LP of Leonard Bernstein’s concert when he took the New York Philharmonic to Moscow.” What album would he save if his house caught fire? “That’s a tough choice. But if I had to take only one, it would probably be Judy Collins’s Colors of the Day. It’s got ‘My Father’ and ‘In My Life’ on it. It’s got ‘Both Sides Now’ and it’s got ‘Amazing Grace.’ ” (The Clintons have said previously that Chelsea’s name was suggested by Collins’s version of “Chelsea Morning.”)

Both Clintons still feel singed by the reaction to Hillary’s now celebrated remark about staying home and baking cookies. “It gave a totally false impression of who she was,” Bill says. “She was defending her right to practice law and be the wife of a Governor.” He rejects the idea that she has since kept a lower profile. “She has been out campaigning all over the country, and because something like that didn’t happen again, everyone says she must have been muzzled,” he protests. “The rational conclusion is maybe that’s not who she was in the first place.”

Hillary acknowledges that “to be fair, my misunderstanding about sound bites and things like that could have given fuel to some people who were concerned about who I was to begin with. And I think there is a political agenda aimed at describing me a certain way because it’s politically advantageous for somebody else.”

If Bill Clinton wins the presidency, the torch will finally pass to the generation of Americans born after World War II—a generation with which the Clintons both identify and empathize. “So many of the baby boomers suffered so many disappointments, at least by their own estimation, in part because of the extraordinary competition for available jobs, available mates, available everything,” says Hillary. “And because of that level of disappointment, they really don’t know what to think about themselves, let alone somebody of their own generation who might run for President.”

Bill was born a baby boomer on Aug. 19, 1946—one year and four days after VJ Day—in a southwest Arkansas hamlet called Hope, on the outskirts of the alluvial plain drained by the Red River. (Arkansas’s topography looks as if someone picked it up by the northwest corner and shook all the loose soil down into the Mississippi Valley.) Just 30 miles southwest of Hope on Highway 67 is Texarkana, where at about the same time, a scrappy newsboy named Ross Perot was heading for his freshman year in junior college.

Raised by his grandparents while his mother, Virginia, worked as a nurse-anesthetist, young Bill Clinton helped out at his grandfather Eldridge Cassidy’s grocery store, located in a predominantly black neighborhood. Virginia later moved to Hot Springs, where thermal waters bubble into the Ouachita River and where Bill played hot sax for the Hot Springs Trojans. He went to music camp for six summers “and I would play for hours and hours a day. When I graduated from high school, I had more [offers of] music scholarships than academic scholarships.” After meeting JFK in Washington, D.C., as a Boy’s Nation delegate, he returned to the capital to attend Georgetown University and went on to Oxford and Yale Law School. There, Bill met Hillary. According to one version, while arguing the pros and cons of joining the Yale Law Review with a friend in the school library, Clinton stared fixedly at a woman reading at the other end of the hall. She shut her book, walked down to his end and said, “Look, if you’re going to keep staring at me, and I’m going to keep staring back, I think we should at least know each other. I’m Hillary Rodham. What’s your name?” Clinton was so surprised that he forgot his name. “I was so embarrassed,” he said, “but we’ve been together, more or less, ever since.”

Clinton’s life changed again on another watershed, Fayetteville, the university town that sits on the enormous underground aquifers in the Ozark uplands. Just back from his studies on a Rhodes scholarship at age 28 in 1974, he boldly ran for Congress. He defeated three challengers in the Democratic primary and barely lost the general election to the incumbent, John Paul Hammerschmidt, the only Republican in the state’s delegation (and a friend of a freshman legislator from Texas named George Bush).

After the election, Bill Clinton taught law in Fayetteville. He was joined on the faculty by Hillary Rodham, who had moved to be with him after working in Washington for the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate hearings. One August day, after she returned from a few weeks off to visit friends, she remembers, “Bill picked me up. But instead of driving me to my apartment he drove me up to this house, and he said, ‘I’ve bought that house you like.’ I said, ‘What house I like?’ He said, ‘You know. Remember when we were driving around the day before you left and there was a FOR SALE sign and you said, ‘Gee, that’s a nice house.’ I said, ‘Bill, that’s all I said. I’ve never been inside it.’ He said, ‘Well, I thought you liked it, so I bought it. So I guess we’ll have to get married now.’ ”

Their partnership began then in a prairie bungalow with beamed ceilings and a bay window. “We had a wonderful life there,” Hillary recalls. “The pace of life was so much slower, so much more open to long conversations with friends and dinners that went on for hours where you talked about every thing that was going on in your life and in the world. I miss that in our lives now.”

The pace picked up downstream in Little Rock. Bill, who is now in the middle of his fifth term as Governor, built a record for progressive reforms, while Hillary worked to raise teaching standards and became a successful lawyer. “Hillary helped bring the first neonatal care unit to Arkansas, and now there is an Angel One helicopter that flies around the state to take care of patients, regardless of their ability to pay,” says actress Mary Steenburgen, an old friend. “Whenever you talk to them at dinner, or at Easter, the conversation turns to education or to children and ways to make things better.”

The Clintons credit their faith with keeping their idealism intact. Bill drifted away from the church after college (“When you’re young, you think you’re going to live forever”) but in 1980 rejoined the Baptist church he still attends. “I had never stopped believing in God. I never slopped feeling better in those big churches in England. But it wasn’t anything that guided my life. Religious faith for me now is sort of humbling and provides an incredible amount of protection. But for my faith, I don’t know that I’d ever been able to forgive myself for the things I’ve done wrong in my life. I’m also not sure that I would care as much about the work I do.”

Hillary has kept to the Methodist faith of her parents—with the result that the Clintons attend separate churches. “As a young girl, I was very taken by the combination of personal faith and social witness that the Methodist church embodies,” she says. “People ask, well, Why doesn’t one or the other of you make a decision to join the other’s church? That may work well for some couples, but we are so rooted in each of our own traditions, and they mean so much individually, that this works for us.” As for Chelsea? Given a choice of congregations by her parents, she attends Hillary’s church, where she was both baptized and confirmed last year.

The Clintons’ friends in Little Rock gather regularly to slice political shoptalk along with the steaks and tamales and industrial-grade chili at Doe’s Eat Place, a political hangout near the capitol. At Doe’s, the nomination of Bill Clinton at the Democratic Convention this week is judged a vindication of Arkansas’s tradition of pioneer progressivism, which stretches from Rockefeller and Fulbright to Bumpers and Pryor, and a repudiation of the racist legacy of Orval Faubus and generations of rogues, rascals and courthouse bosses.

Patty Criner, a Little Rock real estate agent, attended grade school with Bill in Hot Springs, worked on his first campaign and drove Hillary to be with Bill’s mother after his second stepfather, Jim Dwire, died from complications due to diabetes. “He and Hilary work harder and care more about people than anybody I’ve ever known,” she says.

If there is a trade-off the Clintons have made for their hard work, they say, it is lack of access to their oldest friends. Hillary’s friend Diane Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, compensates by making campaign stops with her. “It’s great having someone who just says, ‘Knock it off. It’s time for you to go to bed,’ ” Hillary says with a laugh. Blair and Steenburgen were among those who were there for Bill and Hillary during the troubled stretches in their marriage. “Bill and I talk about everything, but occasionally you just need somebody else,” says Hillary quietly. “We’ve been really lucky on one or two occasions to have had somebody.” With things that arc really rough, she adds, “I urge people to seek out somebody they can talk to. I think that’s real important. And some-times professionals are the best. Sometimes ministers or priests or friends or relatives. Somebody.”

Chelsea’s parents long ago explained to her that she would hear “people say some bad things about Daddy” in Arkansas’s bumptious campaigns, which has left her unfazed by the Flowers and brickbats thrown during the painful early months of campaign ’92. After her parents taped an interview with 60 Minutes responding to Gennifer Flowers’s accusations, Chelsea insisted on watching the program. “They all watched it together,” recounts Bloodworth-Thomason. “At the end of it, Bill asked, ‘What did you think?’ And Chelsea said, ‘I think I’m glad that you’re my parents.’ ”

Chelsea, who calls the checkout-counter tabloids “silly,” is embarrassed by her dad only at ball games when he yells too loud for her team and jumps up and down. At dance recitals, she cringes when he waves to her from the audience. “Bill glows when he’s around Chelsea,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. “You find yourself wanting to skip when you’re around her.” Chelsea appears polite and shy, says an acquaintance, “until she picks up a deck of cards against her parents. She plays a hard game-and likes to kick ass.” Adds Bloodworth-Thomason: “They would have liked to have had more kids, but it just didn’t happen. Bill always says, ‘We’re a little family, but we’re a powerful one.’ ”

A few days before July 4, Bill Clinton finds himself romping on the green lawn of the Georgian colonial Governor’s mansion (its facade is shown on the credit roll of Designing Women). With him are a group of 40 parents and their kids from HIPPY (Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters), a nonprofit program that he and Hillary brought to Arkansas to help undereducated mothers prepare their kids for school. Inside, his staff is waiting, but Clinton, already running behind schedule, shows no intention of catching up. “He doesn’t have any snobbery or sense that some people are more important than others,” says actress Steenburgen. “When he says that we don’t have a person to waste in this country, he means it from the bottom of his heart.”

“When you work, work hard. When you play, play hard, and don’t confuse the two,” Hillary says, summing up their partnership with one of her father’s favorite adages. “It’s that sense of believing in something and committing yourself to something. That was one of the great bases of our relationship when we first met. We recognized it in each other. It’s a compelling sense of what we have, about what we’re meant to do and what life is meant to be.”