President Bill Clinton’s My Life is the strikingly candid portrait of a global leader who decided early in life to devote his intellectual and political gifts, and his extraordinary capacity for hard work, to serving the public.
It shows us the progress of a remarkable American, who, through his own enormous energies and efforts, made the unlikely journey from Hope, Arkansas, to the White House—a journey fueled by an impassioned interest in the political process which manifested itself at every stage of his life: in college, working as an intern for Senator William Fulbright; at Oxford, becoming part of the Vietnam War protest movement; at Yale Law School, campaigning on the grassroots level for Democratic candidates; back in Arkansas, running for Congress, attorney general, and governor.
We see his career shaped by his resolute determination to improve the life of his fellow citizens, an unfaltering commitment to civil rights, and an exceptional understanding of the practicalities of political life.
We come to understand the emotional pressures of his youth—born after his father’s death; caught in the dysfunctional relationship between his feisty, nurturing mother and his abusive stepfather, whom he never ceased to love and whose name he took; drawn to the brilliant, compelling Hillary Rodham, whom he was determined to marry; passionately devoted, from her infancy, to their daughter, Chelsea, and to the entire experience of fatherhood; slowly and painfully beginning to comprehend how his early denial of pain led him at times into damaging patterns of behavior.
President Clinton’s book is also the fullest, most concretely detailed, most nuanced account of a presidency ever written—encompassing not only the high points and crises but the way the presidency actually works: the day-to-day bombardment of problems, personalities, conflicts, setbacks, achievements.
It is a testament to the positive impact on America and on the world of his work and his ideals.
It is the gripping account of a president under concerted and unrelenting assault orchestrated by his enemies on the Far Right, and how he survived and prevailed.
It is a treasury of moments caught alive, among them:
• The ten-year-old boy watching the national political conventions on his family’s new (and first) television set.
• The young candidate looking for votes in the Arkansas hills and the local seer who tells him, “Anybody who would campaign at a beer joint in Joiner at midnight on Saturday night deserves to carry one box. . . . You’ll win here. But it’ll be the only damn place you win in this county.” (He was right on both counts.)
• The roller-coaster ride of the 1992 campaign.
• The extraordinarily frank exchanges with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.
• The delicate manipulation needed to convince Rabin and Arafat to shake hands for the camera while keeping Arafat from kissing Rabin.
• The cost, both public and private, of the scandal that threatened the presidency.
Here is the life of a great national and international figure, revealed with all his talents and contradictions, told openly, directly, in his own completely recognizable voice. A unique book by a unique American.
From the Hardcover edition.
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When I was a young man just out of law school and eager to get on with my life, on a whim I briefly put aside my reading preference for fiction and history and 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 short-, medium-, and long-term 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, then listing under each goal specific activities designed to achieve them. I still have that paperback book, now almost thirty years old. And I’m sure I have that old list somewhere buried in my papers, though I can’t find it. However, I do 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 know that I am not as good as my strongest supporters believe or as I hope to become, nor as bad as my harshest critics assert. I have been graced beyond measure by my family life with Hillary and Chelsea. Like all families’ lives, ours is not perfect, but it has been wonderful. Its flaws, as all the world knows, are mostly mine, and its continuing promise is grounded in their love. No person I know ever had more or better friends. Indeed, a strong case can be made that I rose to the presidency on the shoulders of my personal friends, the now legendary FOBs.
My life in politics was a joy. I loved campaigns and I loved governing. I always tried to keep things moving in the right direction, to give more people a chance to live their dreams, to lift people’s spirits, and to bring them together. That’s the way I kept score.
As for the great book, who knows? It sure is a good story.
On Sunday, January 17, 1993 Al and Tipper Gore, Hillary, and I began inaugural week with a tour of Monticello, followed by a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s importance to America with young people.
After the event, we boarded our bus for the 120-mile trip to Washington. The bus symbolized our commitment to giving the federal government back to the people. Besides, we cherished the fond memories it held, and we wanted one last ride. We stopped for a brief church service in the pretty Shenandoah Valley town of Culpeper, then made our way to Washington. Just as in the campaign, there were well-wishers, and a few critics, along the way.
By the time we got to the capital, the public events of our inaugural, entitled “An American Reunion: New Beginnings, Renewed Hope,” were already under way. My good friend Harry Thomason, advisor Rahm Emanuel, and Mel French, a friend from Arkansas who would become chief of protocol in my second term, had organized an extraordinary series of events, with as many as possible free of charge or within the price range of the working people who had elected me. On Sunday and Monday, the Mall between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument was filled by an outdoor festival featuring food, music, and crafts. That night we had a “Call for Reunion” concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with a star-studded lineup including Diana Ross and Bob Dylan, who thrilled the crowd of 200,000 that filled the space from the stage all the way back to the Washington Monument. Standing beneath Lincoln’s statue, I gave a short speech appealing for national unity, saying that Lincoln “gave new life to Jefferson’s dream that we are all created free and equal.”
After the concert, the Gores and my family led a procession of thousands of people carrying flashlights across the Potomac River on Memorial Bridge to the Lady Bird Johnson Circle just outside Arlington National Cemetery. At
6 p.m., we rang a replica of the Liberty Bell, to start “Bells of Hope” ringing all across America and even aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. Then there was a fireworks display followed by several receptions. By the time we got back to Blair House, the official guest residence just across the street from the White House, we were tired but exhilarated, and before falling asleep I took some time to review the latest draft of my inaugural address.
I still wasn’t satisfied with it. Compared with my campaign speeches, it seemed stilted. I knew it had to be more dignified, but I didn’t want it to drag. I did like one passage, built around the idea that our new beginning had “forced the spring” to come to America on this cold winter day. It was the brainchild of my friend Father Tim Healy, former president of Georgetown University. Tim had died suddenly of a heart attack while walking through Newark airport a few weeks after the election. When friends went to his apartment, they found in his typewriter the beginning of a letter to me that included suggested language for the inaugural speech. His phrase “force the spring” struck all of us, and I wanted to use it in his memory.
Monday, January 18, was the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In the morning I held a reception for the diplomatic representatives of other nations in the inner quadrangle at Georgetown, addressing them from the steps of Old North Building. It was the same spot on which George Washington stood in 1797 and the great French general and Revolutionary War hero Lafayette spoke in 1824. I told the ambassadors that my foreign policy would be built on three pillars—economic security at home, restructuring the armed forces to meet the new challenges of the post–Cold War world, and support for democratic values across the globe. The day before, President Bush had ordered an air strike on a suspected weapons-production site in Iraq, and on this day, U.S. planes hit Saddam Hussein’s air-defense positions. I supported the effort to bring Saddam into full compliance with UN resolutions and asked the diplomats to emphasize that to their governments. After the diplomatic event, I spoke to Georgetown students and alumni, including many of my old classmates, urging them to support my national service initiative.
From Georgetown, we drove to Howard University for a ceremony honoring Dr. King, then to a luncheon at the beautiful Folger Library for more than fifty people Al, Tipper, Hillary, and I met during the campaign who had made a strong impression on us. We called them “Faces of Hope,” because of their courage in the face of adversity or their innovative ways of dealing with contemporary challenges. We wanted to thank these people for inspiring us, and to remind everyone, amidst the glamour of the inaugural week, that a lot of Americans were still having a hard time.
The Faces of Hope included two former members of rival gangs in Los Angeles who joined forces after the riots to give kids a better future; two of the Vietnam veterans who had sent me their medals; a school principal who had created a violence-free magnet school in Chicago’s highest-crime neighborhood, with students who regularly scored above state and national learning levels; a Texas judge who had created an innovative program for troubled kids; a young Arizona boy who had made me more aware of the family pressures caused by the extra hours his father had
to work; a Native American doctor from Montana who worked to improve mental-health services to her people; men who had lost their jobs to low-wage foreign competition; people struggling with costly health problems the government didn’t help with; a young entrepreneur scrapping for venture capital; people who ran community centers for broken families; a policeman’s widow whose husband was killed by a mental patient who bought a handgun without a background check; an eighteen-year-old financial wizard who was already working on Wall Street; a woman who had started a large recycling program at her plant; and many others. Michael Morrison, the young man who drove his wheelchair down an icy New Hampshire highway to work for me, was there. So was Dimitrios Theofanis, the Greek immigrant from New York who had asked me to make his boy free.
All of the Faces of Hope had taught me something about the pain and promise of America in 1992, but none more than Louise and Clifford Ray, whose three sons were hemophiliacs who had contracted the HIV virus through transfusions of tainted blood. They also had a daughter who was not infected. Frightened people in their small Florida community pushed to have the Ray boys removed from school, fearing that their children could be infected if one of them started bleeding and the blood got on them. The Rays filed a lawsuit to keep the kids in class and settled it out of court, then decided to move to Sarasota, a larger city where the school officials welcomed them. The oldest son, Ricky, was obviously very ill and fighting to hang on to his life. After the election, I called Ricky in the hospital to encourage him and invite him to the inauguration. He was looking forward to coming, but he didn’t make it; at fifteen, he lost his fight, just five weeks before I became President. I was so glad that the Rays came to the luncheon anyway. When I took office, they championed the cause of hemophiliacs with AIDS, and successfully lobbied Congress for the passage of the Ricky Ray Hemophilia Relief Fund. But it took eight long years, and their grief still wasn’t over. In October 2000, three months before the end of my presidency, the Rays’ second son, Robert, died of AIDS at twenty-two. If only anti-retroviral therapy had been available a few years earlier. Now that it is, I spend a lot of time trying to get the medicine to many of the Ricky Rays across the world. I want them to be Faces of Hope, too.
On Tuesday morning, Hillary and I started the day with a visit to the graves of John and Robert Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. Accompanied by John Kennedy Jr., Ethel Kennedy, several of her children, and Senator Ted Kennedy, I knelt at the eternal flame and said a short prayer, thanking God for their lives and service and asking for wisdom and strength in the great adventures just ahead. At noon, I hosted a lunch for my fellow governors at the Library of Congress, thanking them for all I had learned from them in the past twelve years. After an afternoon event at the Kennedy Center highlighting America’s children, we drove out to the Capitol Centre in Landover, Maryland, for the Gala Concert, where Barbra Streisand, Wynton Marsalis, k.d. lang, rock legends Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Jack Nicholson, Bill Cosby, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and other artists kept us entertained for hours. Fleetwood Mac brought the crowd to its feet with our campaign theme song, “Don’t Stop Thinkin’ About Tomorrow.”
After the concert, there was a late-night prayer service at the First Baptist Church, and it was after midnight when I got back to Blair House. Though it was getting better, I still wasn’t satisfied with the inaugural address. My speechwriters, Michael Waldman and David Kusnet, must have been tearing their hair out, because as we practiced between one and four in the morning on inauguration day, I was still changing it. Bruce Lindsey, Paul Begala, Bruce Reed, George Stephanopoulos, Michael Sheehan, and my wordsmith friends Tommy Caplan and Taylor Branch stayed up with me. So did Al Gore. The terrific staff at Blair House was used to taking care of foreign heads of state who kept all kinds of hours, so they were ready with gallons of coffee to keep us awake and snacks to keep us in a reasonably good humor. By the time I went to bed for a couple of hours’ sleep, I was feeling better about the speech.
Wednesday morning dawned cold and clear. I began the day with an early-morning security briefing, then I received instructions on how my military aide would handle the launching of our nuclear weapons. The President has five military aides, one outstanding young officer from each service branch; one of them is near him at all times.
Though a nuclear exchange seemed unthinkable with the Cold War over, assuming the control of our arsenal was a sober reminder of the responsibilities just a few hours away. There’s a difference between knowing about the presidency and actually being President. It’s hard to describe in words, but I left Blair House with my eagerness tempered by humility.
The last activity before the inauguration was a prayer service at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was important to me. With input from Hillary and Al Gore, I had picked the participating clergy, the singers, and the music. Hillary’s family and mine were there. Mother was beaming. Roger was grinning, and enjoying the music. Both our pastors from home participated in the service, as did Al and Tipper’s ministers, and George Stephanopoulos’s father, the Greek Orthodox dean of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in New York. Father Otto Hentz, who, almost thirty years earlier, had asked me to consider becoming a Jesuit, said a prayer. Rabbi Gene Levy from Little Rock and Imam Wallace D. Mohammad spoke. Several black clergymen who were friends of mine participated, with Dr. Gardner Taylor, one of America’s greatest preachers of any race or denomination, giving the principal address. My Pentecostal friends from Arkansas and Louisiana sang, along with Phil Driscoll, a fabulous singer and trumpeter Al knew from Tennessee, and Carolyn Staley sang “Be Not Afraid,” one of my favorite hymns and a good lesson for the day. Tears welled up in my eyes several times during the service, and I left it uplifted and ready for the hours ahead.
We went back to Blair House to look at the speech for the last time. It had gotten a lot better since 4 a.m. At ten, Hillary, Chelsea, and I walked across the street to the White House, where we were met on the front steps by President and Mrs. Bush, who took us inside for coffee with the Gores and the Quayles. Ron and Alma Brown were also there. I wanted Ron to share a moment he had done so much to make possible. I was struck by how well President and Mrs. Bush dealt with a painful situation and a sad parting—it was obvious that they had become close to several members of the staff and would miss and be missed by them. At about 10:45, we all got into limousines. Following tradition, President Bush and I rode together, with Speaker Foley and Wendell Ford, the gravelly-voiced senator from Kentucky who was co-chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies and who had worked hard for the narrow victory that Al and I had won in his state.
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