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Roger Morris, Author Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America. He also wrote a biography of Nixon and worked on Nixon's National Security Council, but resigned over the Cambodia policy.

Interviewed June 13, 1996


MORRIS:

Hope. That's where the family origins are, that's where the mother is raised and, Hope is an enormous influence because he's very much the creature of his grandmother, his maternal grandmother, who really raises him in his first years. But at the age of 4, he's transplanted to Hot Springs, and I think that's the formative influence, the force really and the shaping of his character and really of his adolescence and the rest of his life. He is very much a creature of Hot Springs. And this is not just any hometown of an American president. This an extraordinary place by any measure. Hot Springs was the Geneva of organized crime in the 1920s and '30s. It's where the barons, the gangster bosses came to meet. It was an open city, you weren't allowed to, to gun anybody down in the streets, or to take any advantage, you vacationed there and met other bosses and divided the spoils, and sometimes gambled in a polite way...It was very much a summit site and yet was under the control itself of one of the families, the Marcellos in New Orleans. [W]onderful names associated with the old Hot Springs. Frank Costello, the New York crime boss, sent his emissary, Dandy Phil Castel to the American south in 1936 to divide up Louisiana and Arkansas and Kentucky and other states in the mid-south. And they assigned Hot Springs to a wonderful character named Ownie Madden who was an English gangster who had owned the Cotton Club in Harlem. Very colorful character, he settled down right away and married the daughter of the postmaster in Hot Springs and became not just the organized crime boss of the city but very much the economic and, and political force for everything that went on. He dictated the content of the city government, he gave his bribes to the state government in Little Rock where the governor was always accommodating, the legislature, of course, looked the other way. Gambling in Hot Springs is entirely illegal now, in the 1920s and '30s, and yet, for many, many years, into the '40s and '50s, even the mid-1960s-- Ownie Madden dies in 1965--Hot Springs, Arkansas is the principle of illegal gambling in North America. It's take, we now know, from the committee investigations, exceeds that of Las Vegas, Nevada, where the gambling is legendary and quite legal.

And it's a place where the politics are utterly and relentlessly corrupt, as a result. The local government is, is owned by these people. There's an effort to clean it up later in the mid 1960s after Owney Madden dies, but in many respects it only goes underground. So for most of the time that Bill Clinton is a little boy, growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, this is an organized crime capital, in America. Really unlike any other in, in quality, in content. And, the striking thing about all of this is that he is not divorced from it. That his own family is quite intimately involved in it. His mother as we know from her own memoirs, frequented the track at Oaklawn, which was one of the centers of activity for the mob and was an almost nightly visitor to the clubs of Hot Springs. The Vapors being her favorite. And all of these clubs were fronts, you passed through a wonderful curtain discreetly put up, between the restaurant or whatever was out front, and into a gambling parlor that was befitting Hot Springs at its height and looked like Las Vegas or Reno or, the casinos of Europe, with roulette, with blackjack, with slot machines and all the rest. She frequented all of those with her husband, then Bill Clinton's stepfather, and Roger Clinton. He's very much a product of all of that.

FL: What are the lessons, for let's say, a young kid like Bill Clinton, aspiring politician. What is it that he sees growing up and how does that shape him specifically.

MORRIS:

Well, we don't know what he really sees because it's the want of American politicians never to talk candidly about themselves, not even in their memoirs, for which they always get a great deal of money. But I think we have a lot of parallel testimony. Shirley Abbott, the writer, grew up in Hot Springs, just a little older than Bill Clinton, and she wrote a wonderful memoir, called The Bookmaker's Daughter. Which tells us a lot about being a child in Hot Springs. Her father, of course, was employed by the powers that be and was a bookie in the town for years and years. And her era is the same. The '40s, '50s and '60s. And she has a rather poignant sentence at the end of her memoirs, saying that Hot Springs, Arkansas deconstructs and demolishes the American dream. That it mocks all of the pretense of American democracy, of how the world seems to work, how Americans think their society works and how it really works. All the secret and covert arrangements by which, not just a political system but an economy and a society as well. Hot Springs of course was a very, very strong center of Baptist faith and practice. It was supposed to be a very religious city, full of churches and little Billy Clinton went down Park Avenue to the Baptist church every Sunday morning, with a Bible, with his initials engraved in the cover. And, lived that life on Sunday morning while his parents were attending the clubs and the race tracks and gambling, almost every night, of the week, and coming home with raging fights and a lot of abuse of the mother and of Bill and his brother by the stepfather. So there is, at once, an enormous gap, a kind of disparity between two realities, in the life of any child. Between the reality as one pretends it to be, as you pretend to the outside world, and the real working reality. The most influential male figure, very early in his life, and indeed later in his political start, is his stepfather's brother. A man named Raymond Clinton, who was the dominant figure in the Clinton family. Roger Clinton, Bill's stepfather, was sort of the weak, younger brother who was never, never quite going to make it. He'd been set up in a Buick dealership in Hope, which is where he met Virginia, Bill's mother, and married her, and that failed because he flitted away the company profits in gambling and dissipation and drinking and so on.

The stronger, older brother was Raymond Clinton who had a Buick franchise in Hot Springs and was quite a political force. A member of the Ku Klux Klan and had extensive organized crime ties. He ran his own slot machines, out of the back, not only of the Buick dealership but other businesses and properties around town. Bookmaking and bootlegging operations and all the rest. And it's important to understand that one didn't do that on a freelance basis. You didn't just come into a town owned by organized crime and set up your own vice. You did that only at the sufferance and with the cooperation, indeed collaboration of organized crime, and you gave kickbacks accordingly. So Raymond Clinton, who was a very important figure in the family often rescues Bill from abuse by his stepfather, and is a very dominant financial figure in their, fortunes, was closely linked to those elements.

FL: Somebody said he felt that was the real father figure at that point. The most commanding male presence in his life. So talk a little about what drew Bill to this man...

MORRIS:

Well, Raymond Clinton is a very, powerful figure, he's a tall, good-looking, very assertive, aggressive man who is a striking contrast to his younger brother who is weak, and an alcoholic and seemingly always in trouble. He can't really hold a job, ends up going bust in the Buick dealership which Raymond had arranged for him in Hope, coming back to Hot Springs and going to work for Raymond as a parts manager in the Buick franchise. Raymond is always there to take care of this little boy when he is mistreated or abandoned by the stepfather and often by the mother, who's out night clubbing as well and who works odd hours as a nurse at the local hospital. He's very protective, I think it's clear that Raymond Clinton adopted Bill Clinton in many respects, saw in him, very early on the political figure, the charmer, the publicly acceptable face that he became. And he grooms him. He really raises and nurtures this little boy I think to be, to be the kind of politician that he ultimately became.

And then later, Raymond plays a very, very crucial role in Bill Clinton's life. He is very instrumental, he's the man to whom Bill Clinton turns in the Vietnam draft crisis, when he's confronted with this, with the very real prospect of going to Vietnam. He goes first to Uncle Raymond, who, as my book describes, goes to great pains to fix this up with the local board and, staves off the draft. Turns out decisively. It does enable Bill Clinton to escape the draft, in a very precise way. And he does this with political influence. He's very close to Senator Fulbright, and to Senator McClellan. He knows both Republicans and Democrats in the state and he travels around on behalf of his nephew here, his step-nephew really, trying to save him from the Vietnam draft. And then later when Bill Clinton returns, from Yale Law School, to begin almost immediately, a campaign for Congress, launching a bid for Congress in 1974, it's Raymond who is very important financially to him. It's Raymond's house that becomes the campaign headquarters, in a house that he owns in Fayetteville. It's Raymond's money and influence that secures the first of so many bank loans that are so important in Bill Clinton's career. This is the president that the banks of Arkansas made, and Raymond Clinton goes into a bank in Hot Springs, and Bill Clinton comes out with a ten thousand dollar loan which is really quite decisive for that campaign. And he's there also, supporting the 1976 run for Attorney General, and the 1978 campaign for Governor.

But he's not alone, among these people. There's a family friend named Gabe Crawford who ran a string of drug stores in Arkansas, who also had his own links to organized crime, bookie operations, and slot machines and so on. So these are the people who are, in a sense, launching Bill Clinton, and who had been his male role models. He has a very abusive, torturous stepfather, whom the mother, tries to evade and manipulate, and who is hardly the dominant male figure in his life. The really important, successful and helpful, nurturing male figures in his life are Raymond Clinton and to some extent, Gabe Crawford. These other elements, and they are, vintage Hot Springs.

FL: Virginia What was she like, paint a picture for us, and what kind of influence did she have on Bill....

MORRIS:

I think psychologists would say that it was probably emotionally incestuous. She was a very, very important and potent figure in his life. She is the present parent. She's the dominant influence. If he can talk to anyone, if he can really rationalize to anyone, if he has anyone to look at as an adult example, it is the mother. The stepfather is absent, of course, a great deal and when he is present, he's usually drunk and very abusive, entirely unpredictable. There are a few moments, that friends can recall and that Virginia herself recalls in her memoirs, moments of tenderness between the stepfather and the very little boy, scenes when Bill is 4 or 5 years old, and Roger Clinton is sitting on the floor playing with him, or with a mechanical train or something. But those moments are extraordinarily rare and even when Bill Clinton was asked in 1992 about such moments, he remembered one train ride, one trip to St. Louis, that was it. That was all he could summon.

So Virginia is the parent. She's the dominant adult force and she's a very mixed bag indeed. She's something of a tart around Hot Springs. As I said earlier, she's always there at the nightclubs, she's frequenting the race track, she's rather addictive, a race track gambler, not a high roller but always there at the two dollar window. She wears very heavy makeup, she's a nurse working at the hospital, in anesthesiology and, I think had a good professional reputation although she acquires a lot of professional controversy later. There are lawsuits and all the rest, sort of mixed professional record. But most of all she's a Hot Springs character. She's attractive, she obviously has a number of male figures in her life besides Roger Clinton. He is, savagely jealous of her. Many of the scenes between them, public and private beatings are over the attentions of other men. And she admits in her own memoirs that she had moments of revenge against the abuse of her husband by courting the attentions of other men. So, she's a flamboyant, character whose moral and ethical behavior is, I would guess less than Baptist Hot Springs might have hoped for.

She again is part of this divided world, that Bill Clinton grows up with. She's one thing on the surface, quite respectable, nurse and mother. On the other hand, he witnesses her as a party girl, and a party girl well into his adolescence and well into her 30s and even 40s. She's part of, I guess, a lower-middle class stratum in the American south which is sometimes difficult for the rest of the country to appreciate or to grasp. She's cocky, in a kind of kitschy way. She's matronly but in a very different matronly way. She's very protective, worshipful really of her, of her little boy, and yet strangely absentee in his life. She admits at one point in her memoirs that she's not quite sure where Bill Clinton and her brother Roger Clinton, little Roger got their moral or ethical grounding because she can't remember that either she or Roger Clinton ever particularly talked to them about sex or about moral or ethical issues, but they seem to have done all right. They got fetched up on their own. Bill Clinton is fetched up on his own, in old southern terms. I think he spends a lot of time away from home and a lot of time in a very mixed feeling about his mother. On one hand, he's very proud of her, and she's attractive and his friends find her fascinating and congenial to be around. On the other hand, I think there's evidence that he was ashamed of her. He doesn't go with her to the nightclubs. At one point, when Roger Clinton and Virginia are separated and she's seeking a divorce, they are divorced eventually and there are periods in which Roger Clinton is gone, is away from the home and out of the picture, and she tries to get Bill, as a young man, to accompany her to The Vapors or elsewhere and he's very impatient about that, doesn't really quite want to do it, wanna be seen with her. And then later, of course, there's a terrific influence I think in what he finally preferred in women himself. The choices that he made in his life.

Virginia Clinton is an abused child, herself. We're talking about a whole string of abused children here. Virginia, a Roger Clinton and then, of course, Bill Clinton, then the future President of the United States, is a very savagely abused child, but Virginia Clinton grows up in Hope with a screaming mother who really is savagely of her father who was an ice man and, who she continually accused of having sexual affairs on his ice route and so on. She's the woman who later becomes a morphine addict and is an extraordinarily powerful force, of course, in Bill Clinton's life, but it's the mother of Virginia, and we know from her memoirs, from Virginia's memoirs, beats her, and abuses her in a number of ways.

So Virginia has a rather tortured childhood, and she learns very early on, at the age of 10 or 11 or 12, that she recounts in her own memoirs, to build a kind of black box inside her head, where all of the pain and the tragic experiences go, where she learns to secret the really unbearable things that have happened to her. And to present to the outside world this shining, smiling, fun-loving, vivacious face that she presented most of her life. She goes from that tortured and abused childhood in hope of course, to fall in love with Bill Blythe, Bill Clinton's real father in a stormy and quick romance. He goes off to World War Two, comes back and then, before they really have a chance to get settled in post-war America, he dies tragically in an automobile accident, heading back to pick up a pregnant Virginia in Hope and bring her back to Chicago. I've always thought it was a very, very fateful moment. My book begins with a scene on that range-like highway, where Bill Blythe dies and determines then that a future President will not grow up in Chicago and will not grow up with his natural father, but with a very different father, in a very different culture and different atmosphere in Hot Springs of Arkansas. But Virginia goes from that tragic experience, has her baby and then very soon gets hooked up with this ne're do well alcoholic who's a very tragic figure himself-- an abused child, lived on the streets a lot in Hot Springs, as a little boy-- and goes from one abusive relationship to another. And if anything, her relationship with Roger Clinton, of course, is even worse than her childhood had been, and Bill Clinton is the witness to that, every day and every night.

FL: But the ability to passively put things away in a black box, to be able to not be undone, as she says, or think about things---do you see that played out--that capacity for denial in any shape or form?

MORRIS:

I think there's a very strong genetic influence, visible in Bill Clinton from the mother and from his natural father, Bill Blythe, who has his own wonderful story of being the classic traveling salesman with lots of women on the road, and in fact, was a bigamist, was not divorced from another woman when he actually married Virginia. So the President of the United States is, technically speaking, according to the court documents, not quite legitimate but, yes, I think there is a real sense and almost instinct for evasion and for denial, which is passed on by the mother to the son. In fact, I think denial is the essence of life in that family. It was absolutely essential to present one face to the outside world, to conceal the deeper and darker secrets of how awful it was inside his home. Not only because it was socially embarrassing, but because it just brought so much pain. This is not an uncommon reaction after all, to children of severe and abusive alcoholic parents. And, this Hot Springs in the 1950s, when it was something of a scandal to have had this kind of father.

And, Virginia perpetuates that in her children. She instructs them, she admits in her memoirs, that they must not talk about this, they must not confront it. There's a striking contrast for example, between Ronald Reagan's mother, who tells her little boys----I mean, some really, incredible prescience, I mean she's a woman of the early 20th century and she has this very modern, Mrs. Reagan has this modern attitude----tells her little boys that the father is an alcoholic but they must feel sorry for him and treat him with love and compassion because he's ill. And, in some way, the Reagan kids deal with this father in a much more healthy, modern, progressive sense than the Clinton boys ever did with Roger. But, Virginia's intent upon concealing, and hiding this. And I interviewed people who lived next door to them, who were the closest of neighbors, who never knew that the police were there so often in the middle of the night. To whom Billy, little Billy, or adolescent Bill never spoke about what was going on inside the family, which was really quite raucous and brutal and, these nightly scenes of Virginia and Bill being manhandled and hit and often kicked by a drunken father. These were really seedy and tragic episodes.

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