PORTRAIT OF A PRESIDENT
AUGUST 28, 1996
Despite being one of the most famous men in the world, it is hard to get a clear idea about who Bill Clinton is. David Gergen talks with Clinton biographer David Maraniss, who has spent the last few years trying to find the man behind the Presidential image.
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DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: David, over the past four years, more has been said and written about Bill Clinton than probably any other human being on the face of the earth, and yet, for a lot of Americans, he remains elusive.
DAVID MARANISS, Author, First in His Class: He sure does.
DAVID GERGEN: And I gather when you set out to write your biography of him he was at first elusive for you.
DAVID MARANISS: Oh, very much so, and the reason was that there are so many contradictions in this man. And as I came to understand those contradictions, they really explained him. There are certain tensions which are the central themes of his life and career, the tension between idealism and ambition, the tension between urgency and delay, the tension between chaos and discipline. All those are playing out constantly. And understand why he got in trouble in 1993 and ‘94, it was the lack of discipline and the delay and wise comeback. He's now in that ambitious and, and disciplined mode. And he's usually there when he's in a down cycle, and that's how he comes back.
DAVID GERGEN: And this duality of character that he has, you've just described, that also applies to the way he thinks about political philosophy?
DAVID MARANISS: I don't think with Bill Clinton you can separate the personal duality in him and the political duality in him. They really are one and the same. And so when people say, well, he's really a progressive or a leftist but for reasons of trying to advance, he'll move to the center, they really don't understand him. It's both the personal thing that moves him left or right at all times, as well as political.
DAVID GERGEN: All right. Do you think he's come to understand himself in those terms?
DAVID MARANISS: I don't know whether Bill Clinton really does understand himself, but I think he has taught himself how to become President. He is a man with this fascinating almost a nearly photographic memory, and yet he's sort of constantly learning things and forgetting them and learning them again. And in the last two years, he's really taught himself a lot of those lessons again on how to be President.
DAVID GERGEN: I'm curious about that, because I wondered how much he has changed since he was first nominated by the Democrats four years ago and he comes here tonight to be nominated. The biggest thing--biggest change is he's taught himself to be President, but you haven't seen much change in the character or the personality.
DAVID MARANISS: No. I think that the--they're these repetitive cycles in Bill Clinton's life and career that keep constantly playing out, and, and the personality that you see today from 1995 and ‘96 is the same one when I was writing my book I saw in 1981 and 1982 of Bill Clinton learning how to develop a permanent campaign, how to move to the center, how to coopt the Republicans on various issues. It's all playing out once again right now.
DAVID GERGEN: My sense as part of his comeback journey since the 1994 elections is that his relationship with Mrs. Clinton may have changed some. Do you think that?
DAVID MARANISS: Yeah, I do. I think there are probably about three phases in their relationship. They met in 1970 at Yale School, and they saw then they shared a love of policy and politics and books and ideas, and power, and they saw that together they could get somewhere that they couldn't get to apart. And then probably through 1980 they were together but she--he was the golden boy of Arkansas. He didn't really need her. He was defeated in 1980, rendered the youngest ex-governor in American history. He fit the ironic description of a Rhodes scholar, this bright young man with a great future behind him.
And then Hillary became essential to him in every way. She became his top policy adviser, his top political adviser. He developed an implicit faith that everything she did for him would turn out well. She had the education task force in Arkansas. They carried that with them into the White House. And for a lot of different reasons she was deemed to be part of the reason that health care failed in 1994. And since then, umm, they've gone through this third phase where she probably is less important to him politically than ever before. And yet I think that somehow their personal relationship is probably strengthened from that.
DAVID GERGEN: So he's on his own more politically today. He's out there by himself more. He's less of a partnership politically but their personal relationship is stronger.
DAVID MARANISS: I think it is. I think it's probably eased some of whatever burden he's felt over the years, maybe some guilt, but now he can help her out more. And I see that their, actually their personal partnership is strengthening now.
DAVID GERGEN: Now tell us about what you would expect in a Bill Clinton presidency in a second term if he's reelected.
DAVID MARANISS: Well, he wants to be remembered as a great President, but I don't think you'll see an ambitious programmatic single program that will help him become a great President. And I don't think--I think that people who assume that, that because for the first time since he was 16 years old he'll be making decisions without the calculation of how it'll affect him becoming President or being President that he'll be his real self and that real self is some liberal leftist. I don't think that's true at all. I think--so in that sense you'll probably see him playing out pretty much what he's done in the last year or two through the next four years.
DAVID GERGEN: And he's--
DAVID MARANISS: It won't be that much of a change.
DAVID GERGEN: And he's persuaded that he can perhaps achieve a higher rank in history than he may have now?
DAVID MARANISS: Well, I know he's probably talked about that sum over the last month or two, and even rank the President somewhat, and I think he thinks he can reach maybe the second rank of President if he keeps going the way it is now.
DAVID GERGEN: I see. So at the moment, though, he's not convinced he's there?
DAVID MARANISS: Not at all, no.
DAVID GERGEN: He would not put himself in the second round.
DAVID MARANISS: No, I don't think he would, and especially if it's just a one-term presidency.
DAVID GERGEN: I see. Success to him very much is defined by winning a second term--
DAVID MARANISS: Absolutely.
DAVID GERGEN: --by winning the election--reelection.
DAVID MARANISS: Oh, of course.
DAVID GERGEN: And then moving on.
DAVID MARANISS: Yeah. And elections define Bill Clinton's life.
DAVID GERGEN: I understand that. David, thank you very much. I enjoyed your book, and I know you're working on a biography on Vince Lombardi, so we'll look forward to that as well.
DAVID MARANISS: Great. Thank you, David.