Nav Bar
Nav Bar

David Maraniss, Author of First in His Class,a biography of Clinton.
Maraniss is a Washington Post reporter and served as consultant for FRONTLINE's "The Choice '96."

Interviewed July 17, 1996


FL: You have said that the missing father is the most important psychological influence in Clinton's life. How did this and other influences affect him?

MARANISS:

Clinton had this lack of a father, but he had this overwhelming presence of mothers. It isn't just his real mother, Virginia Clinton Kelly, but his grandmother, they both shaped him in this enormous way so that the same time he had this life long desire to please and to find father figures who would accept him, he also had these other factors going on that were related to his mothers. His real mother Virginia was this sort of exotic wild, fun loving energetic full of life woman. And his grandmother was very disciplined, sort of stubborn, not happy, regimented, and you see both of those factors in Bill Clinton's life throughout his life. That sort of the two mothers of his life and the no father.

FL: The overwhelming need to please, where do you locate that and how do you see it played out?

MARANISS:

Clinton's need to please is both a factor of wanting to please his mother and his grandmother and of seeking the approval of the fathers that he never had. From the very beginning of his life, he was in desperate search of father figures, and of finding some measure of love and affirmation. It is the overwhelming drive of his life. And it goes back to that lack of a father. His real father was killed in a car accident three months before he was born. His stepfather was an abusive man who paid very little attention to him. And he was constantly searching for father figures from then on.

FL: Let's look at Bosnia and the decisions there...in what way can it be said to reflect, symbolize the Clinton presidency as you have stated before?

MARANISS:

I think Bosnia really is the perfect symbol of the Clinton presidency. It starts during the campaign when he makes big bold promises, if I'm elected we won't let this stand in Bosnia, we'll start the bombing, we'll be very tough. And then he gets into office and it suddenly changes. Where is Bosnia on Clinton's radar screen -- nowhere. He doesn't even let the major foreign policy advisors have regular meetings with him. He'd rather that it went away. He was focussing like a laser beam on the economy. The problems in Bosnia built up over a course of a few years, Clinton's floundering around, no one's quite sure where he stands on it. He's having both sides, both the hard liners and the people who want the U.S. out of there entirely. It's sort of a classic Clinton paradox at that point. And then all of a sudden, when everything seems lost, he steps in, he figures it out, he goes in there, takes the criticism that comes with deciding to go into Bosnia, and it turns out so far that it's worked out right. That's sort of a classic Clinton thing where right at the moment where you think he's useless, he figures it out.

FL: So there is a cycle there....a pattern inside, is revealed in his decision making from beginning to end in Bosnia.?

MARANISS:

The pattern starts with a bold promise, and then it falls apart, you say where was Clinton's promise, what happened to it? Everybody gets sort of desperate in search of what Clinton really believes in. He seems to be floundering around, listening to all sides and not doing anything. And then at a critical moment he will make a decision, and in this case it was right.

FL: How about the gay and the military story, what does that tell us about Clinton and the way he makes decisions?

MARANISS:

Gays and the military starts with Clinton at a very emotional level. When Clinton is talking to a group, some people might say, well he doesn't really believe what he's saying. But he does. At that moment he believes it deeply. And in 1992, he was out in Los Angeles talking to a group of gays at a fund raiser, the first fund raiser ever that a major candidate for President ever held with gays, and he said that he wished that he could stand in the place of every man in that room who was dying of AIDS. And he meant it. And at the same time, he promised that if he were President, he would get rid of the ban on gays in the military. He meant that too.

And then as soon as he took office, he realized the difficulties of that, the way the Senate was against it and it would be impossible, he thought at first, to get it through, and he backed away. He tried to come up with a compromise that again angered both sides, typical of Clinton. There's a pattern of that throughout his career, where he seeks for a middle ground and ends up antagonizing everybody. And then slowly he found a way out, but it damaged him for that whole first year of his presidency.

FL: How about health care? Is that sui generis? Is it typical? What does it tell us?

MARANISS:

Health care is not sui generis with the Clintons in any respect. I mean health starts as a story of the relationship between Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.

From the very beginning of their relationship together, Bill Clinton had implicit faith throughout his career that whatever he had Hillary Clinton do would turn out right for him.

And they both together thought that health care would be the big issue for them in their presidency. That starts sort of their readings of the Roosevelts and both of their desires one to be Franklin Roosevelt and the other to be Eleanor. And they were looking for that big issue. Clinton knew that when he found the big issue he would give it to Hillary, he had done the same thing in Arkansas, there was a pattern there of that. And in this case, they just thought that they could transfer things that had worked in the past in Arkansas, a small provincial setting, where they dominated the scene, on to the national level and it just blew up on them.

FL: Tell a little bit more about their relationship in regard to health care, I mean if it is expressive of his faith in her, then what happened?

MARANISS:

Health care comes as the third stage of the relationship between Bill and Hillary. When they met in 1970 they shared the same ambitions and dreams and interest in policy and books. But they really thought that, and then realized that they could get somewhere together that they couldn't get to apart. But for the first ten years of their relationship, Bill Clinton was the golden boy and Hillary Clinton was pursuing her own life as a lawyer. They didn't really need each other as much.

Then in 1980 when Clinton was defeated and rendered the youngest ex-governor in American history, he started developing an implicit need for Hillary Clinton and a faith that whatever she did for him would turn out right. In every case, both as a personal advisor, as his main policy aide, and as sort of his personal lawyer, she would get him out of trouble every time. It worked throughout Arkansas for ten years. She's the one who lead the task force on education reform in Arkansas that made him the education governor, that gave him the national image that would boost him onto the national scene and help him become President. And so when they went into the presidency together, Clinton had an implicit faith that whatever Hillary did for him would turn out right.

When health care blew up on them, it really changed their relationship and it's now in this third uncertain stage, this year, where the President doesn't need his wife as much in terms of as a policy advisor or as a political aide. She is less important to him, she's scrounging around trying to figure out what she is now and how she can help him, and because their relationship had been built on this profound political partnership and bargain in a sense, when health care fell apart, the bargain became vulnerable.

FL: As the biographer you've obviously looked into it, know about the strains on the marriage, its many lives, its incarnations... what do you feel about this marriage, how would you characterize it? What were those strains and where do you think it is today?

MARANISS:

Every marriage is a mystery to some extent or another. The Clintons' marriage is more mysterious than any I've ever studied, but I've also studied it more than any other. And it really does have some profound things holding it together that are still there. They do share this love of policy and of the public life. They share the same ambitions, that is still there and it has held them together for all these twenty-five years. But, it also has more cracks in it, more faults in that marriage than any that I've seen ever before. And it's almost a testament to their ability, they both have this incredible ability to keep going no matter what. And it sort of is both a personal and a political coming together in them.

It's hard to explain. But Clinton's flaws, he overcomes them every time, so it almost becomes a strength, politically, on the public scene. And it's almost the same way with their marriage. They've been through so much together that I would be hesitant to say that it's purely a sham and that it will fall apart after he's done being President. As a matter of fact in the early days of their marriage Clinton would tell his friends that Hillary was the one woman he could see growing old with. And maybe it will turn out that way.

FL: What about the strains in the marriage...what kinds were they?

MARANISS:

Well the main strain on their marriage from the beginning, was Bill Clinton's enormous appetite for life and for other women. I think that Hillary knew about that from the very beginning. In 1974 when she came out to Arkansas, before they got married, when he was campaigning for Congress. She knew then that he had other girlfriends out there, that he was fooling around when he was running for Congress. It was nothing that took her by surprise.

I think over the years at various times she blocked it out, or she didn't want to deal with it, or she thought other parts of her life were more important. But she knew it was there from the beginning. And it has always been a strain. It's part of Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton knows him better than anybody in the world. She knows that he has these enormous flaws and also enormous talents. And she's lived with that, up and down, for all this time.

FL: What do you feel in terms of that particular flaw? Do you feel there is a connection to the private man and the public man there....

MARANISS:

Well, I think that you have to deal with every politician, every person individually, you can't make generalizations about it. In the case of Bill Clinton, yes there is a connection. That doesn't mean that sex is the overriding concern of people when they consider him. But there is a connection in terms of his need to get affirmation, his hunger for people, including women. His hunger for love, and to find it everywhere. And almost promiscuous need for that. And his hunger for ideas, his appetite for life, his appetite for campaigning, all of that, it all comes together in the same package.

So why it's important -- is merely to understand Bill Clinton, this is what you are going to get. It doesn't mean that sex itself is that important or that that will determine what he does as President. But understanding sex as part of his character and helping to explain that character with that enormous appetite, that's important for any politician. And that's how you should study character. As not just separated into things that society deems bad like, like extra-marital sex, but examining the character in all of its totality and as that as a part of it.

FL: Do you feel that there is any connection between that promiscuity for life and for women and a rhetorical promiscuity and a policy promiscuity which Joe Klein has written about?

MARANISS

In Clinton's case there probably is a connection between personal promiscuity and rhetorical promiscuity. There probably is. But I'm not sure where I want to go with that one. I'm reluctant -- I mean it's not that one leads to the other, it's that they are both there with Clinton. And that's because that's part of his character. He likes to please people, he likes to present a lot of different options, and he doesn't let people know which one . I mean people think he's on both sides of a lot of issues. It's sort of part of his political nature to do that. It's part of this nature to seek out audiences and try to please each audience. I think he really believes that, just as he might fall in love a hundred times. He's falling in love with each of these audiences.

FL: Is there a way to sort of look at the first two years of the Clinton administration, and the dramatic turning around in this last two years, not turning around so much as centering, pre-empting of Republicans or whatever -- Is there a pattern that rolls through these four years that's comparable to the early years?

MARANISS:

There is a haunting parallel between the first two years of Clinton's presidency and his first term as governor. In every way you can see the past replaying itself in Clinton's presidency. He came into the presidency with sort of a diffuse agenda, people not sure whether he was the New Democrat or the traditional Liberal Democrat. The same thing happened when he was in his first term as Governor.

He came into the presidency with sort of a chaotic, diffuse personal staff, a weak chief of staff, no one was certain, who was in control each day -- Clinton constantly being late for meetings, and just sort of a general chaos in the staff. The same thing played out when he was first Governor of Arkansas. And you know that my favorite story, there is one day this this fellow came into the State House and said he was there to kill the Governor. And they held him downstairs as a state trooper sent a message up to the governor's office saying we're holding a man downstairs who's here to kill the Governor. And the secretary passed it along to one of his top aides, a note there's a man downstairs who says he's here to kill the Governor. And the aide sent it to the appointment secretary. See if you can fit this guy in. Because Clinton was driving his staff crazy by sort of always, just his haphazard ways, and then blaming it on the staff. The staff loved him, but was frustrated by him at the same time.

And you saw that again in his presidency. And you saw in his first term as Governor, he tried to start this major roads initiative. And he ended up both angering the trucking lobby and the chicken lobby at the same time and he was and he tried to please both sides. At one point he said I don't care which way you do it, just figure it out and they both got mad at him. And you'd see that played out in his presidency, whether it's on gays in the military or several other issues.

When he was first Governor, there was sort of this angry white male rising in Arkansas, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise there and truckers were striking, and in Northwest Arkansas there were people driving around in pickup trucks angry that there were Cubans being held at Fort [Chaffee]. And Clinton's first term, first two years as presidency, you sort of see this angry white male rising again. The past just kept coming back to haunt him in so many ways. It was played out in the same way....

Clinton is defeated in 1994 in his own mind, and what does he do? He does precisely what he did the last time that this traumatic event happened in his life. When he was defeated in 1980, the first thing he did, or actually Hillary Clinton made the call, was to bring in Dick Morris, a consultant from the upper West Side of New York who had flitted around in the Clinton campaign in 1978. And when Clinton became Governor, he got rid of Morris, he thought he was too dirty for him. But then he lost and he brought him back.

So this time in 1990 -- and Morris helped sort of build Clinton throughout the 1980s, he was the one who formed the permanent campaign -- Clinton was told that you couldn't separate between ends and means, that he had to coopt the Republicans on various issues, their strong issues, and move to the center in every way you can. So 1994 comes along and Clinton brings back Dick Morris. No one had heard of him really. He was never in the press in Arkansas and in 1992 when, when Clinton ran for office, you heard about James [Carville] and George [Stephanopolous] and all these other figures of modern American politics.

But it was Dick Morris that Clinton needed and he brought him back and Morris did the precise things that he'd done to save Clinton one more time. He reinvented Clinton. He moved him to the center, he coopted the Republicans on their major issues, the first thing that Clinton did was to cut a commercial in the Oval Office being tough on crime harkening back to when Dick Morris turned him into a tough death penalty supporter. Clinton all of a sudden became talking about welfare again, focussing on welfare not health care. And that was something that Morris had taught him back in the early 1980s. In every way, Morris was moving him to the center. And it was replaying itself, and within one year, you saw Clinton coming back. Just as he'd come back a decade earlier.

FL: So boiling the analogy down some more -- between the patterns over the decades...in the governship and in the presidency...

MARANISS:

He came in as the boy governor with this incredible pent up idealistic agenda, and he tried to do everything at once. He wanted to build all new roads in Arkansas into every rural hamlet. He wanted to get the new schools fixed in every part of Arkansas. He wanted to bring in industry from the North and build up the economic development in every part of Arkansas. He wanted to do healthcare in all the rural parts of the State. He tried to do everything at once and he ended up doing very little. And in a sense that same thing played out in his presidency, at first.

FL: And in the second term...

MARANISS:

What's known as Clinton II, when he came back as governor of Arkansas, was remarkably different. It was very focussed. He had two points and that two points only. One was education and the other was economic development. And he stuck on those themes for eight years, just pounded them again and again, and it worked much better.

And Clinton's pattern is that he's been running every two years of his life. He was defeated as Governor of Arkansas after two years; in 1994 when the Republicans took over the Congress, for Clinton it was a defeat again. And in, he's so inculcated in these patterns that once again he did the exact same thing he did in Arkansas. He turned to Dick Morris, a consultant, to reinvent himself. To move him back to the center. To have him coopt the Republicans on their strongest issues, on crime and welfare in particular. And even coming out for a balanced budget of his own, that was Dick Morris' idea. And so after one year of that, much like Morris had helped him come back in Arkansas, he was back as President, on top in the polls.

FL: Friendship. This is a man famous for hundreds of F.O.B.'s. Could you talk a little bit about the nature of friendship and what it means for Clinton, what's unusual about it and what the experience of it is? You as the biographer have talked to any number of his friends.

MARANISS:

You know from my biography I interviewed more than 400 people, and hundreds and hundreds of Bill Clinton's friends. And I could have spent the rest of my life, everyday interviewing somebody who said they were Bill Clinton's friend and who believed it. He has an extraordinary capacity to make friends, but he's never really had any closest friends. They all know one part of Bill Clinton. But he can focus in on any one person that he meets at any point in his life, and seem to really care about them. And he does. He finds out about, something about their mother or their sister, some part of their family, and he might not see them again for 10 or 20 or 25 years, run into them and remember everything and recite it back. And that has an enormous capacity to make people feel that this person really cares about them. And Bill Clinton did that over the course of his entire life and his career. He wasn't manipulating or using anyone per se, but it fit right in to his own political ambitions. And so that when he ran for President, he had this, this cadre of 10,000 people around the country who said yes, I know this man, I'll vouch for him. This is Bill Clinton, I'm his friend, I'm a friend of Bill. But none of them really knew him.

FL: Lani Guanier... Is that a simple story of just the tough choices that have to be made in politics with your friends when, you know things get tough? Or is there something else that's being suggested by this story ?

MARANISS:

Bill Clinton met Lani Guanier at Yale Law School. He was sort of the one white guy at the law school would sit down at the black table. Which was an extraordinary thing. All of this other white friends were afraid to do that, it was during a period when the blacks were expressing black power and separating themselves. And Lani was at that table and she was struck by this Southern white guy who would do this. And they became friends. Not best friends, but she was part of that enormous group of friends of Bill Clinton. And over the course of the years, he and Hillary went to her wedding on Martha's Vineyard, they kept up somewhat of a friendship.

He knew about her active role as a lawyer on voting rights issues, and when they were putting together their administration, it was natural that he turn to hundreds of his talented friends, Lani Guanier being one of them. And then shortly after nominating her for that position in civil rights, he canned her. I don't know about that. I think that Bill Clinton's whole life is a fight between idealism and ambition, and the idealistic side of him said yah, [Lani] is a friend of mine, and she's a symbol of civil rights and of blacks moving up in America.

And his ambitious side said I can't afford to do this. That there are too many, this will define me as a liberal, and I want to be seen as a New Democrat. There are too many other issues right now early in my administration that are defining me as a liberal, I can't afford [Lani]. So I think it was a hard practical political choice.

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS