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