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Martha Sexton, friend of Bill Clinton. She drove with him from the east coast back to Arkansas on one of Clinton's trips home from Oxford University.

Interviewed June 11, 1996


SEXTON:

I was in Washington with Bill. This was actually the beginning of a trip we subsequently took down to Hot Springs on a kind of a tour of the South. And at this party there were several ex-Rhodes Scholars and friends of Bill's, and one of them had just been to see Nixon who was President at that time. And the friend was going on about the majesty of the office and how august it made Nixon even though, one might not have liked, or indeed approved much of anything about Nixon. And I had never seen a President, didn't have to worry about it. Of course the opposite point of view, that you would never, under any circumstances, Nixon was not a person who could inspire awe and feelings of an august presence here, and I was in very contrary and difficult and obstreperous about this issue. And Bill was sort of egging me on. He loved the fact that somebody was taking the challenge, that somebody was taking the counter point of view. On the other hand, he didn't want to take that view himself. This was really something that he wanted somebody else to do for him. And he wanted in a way to preside over this kind of debate. And be amused on the one hand and empathize on the other hand. But not really decide for himself. Or at least not let us in on what he himself would have done or would have felt under the circumstances. I was really reminded of that at his presence at Nixon's funeral and so on, and in some of the ways he extended himself to Nixon in the last years of his life.

We then took a car trip down, we drove down from Washington, ultimately ending up in Hot Springs. Because it was Derby Day and there was a tremendous horse race extravaganza the weekend that we got there. But on the way we stopped over and over there were lots of Kentucky Fried Chickens, but there were also many many friends along the way, including this Marine at Paris Island. Lots and lots of highschool friends of Bills who were thrilled to see him, who obviously hadn't been out of touch very long. This is something he managed to keep going and it was almost a triumphal procession all the way back home. And on the way, as we got toward home, he said, you know when we get there you can be kind of on your own. I mean I know you don't know your way around, but my mother will be nice to you and I'm really not going to be able to look after you, I have all of these people to see.

And he did from morning to night, you know he was visiting people, knocking on doors, stopping in for peach pie. The most packed experience of reconnecting with all of these people from his past, black people, white people, you know, kids he'd gone to high school with, kids he'd been to elementary school with. Old people. It was just an extraordinary kind of a kind of I'd say homecoming except he didn't do it that infrequently.

I think that many of his treks home were rather like this. He said at one point that I was lucky to be independent enough not to need this kind of constant connection, he saw it really as a kind of dependency problem, that he needed something from all of these people and they gave him back something which he couldn't do without. On the other hand, he also provided for them. Something that was magical and important to them. So, yes it was a dependency, but it was also a genuine connecting.

His Mother

The person that I got to know best when I was there was his mother. And it did seem to me that she was an immensely powerful figure in his life. She was extremely outgoing, extremely warm, but there was a way that she both pushed and sheltered Bill. She obviously needed him from a period in his life when he was quite young, and most boys aren't needed to defend their mothers against you know the kinds of problems that we know he had you know with his step-father growing up. But she also provided him with a sort of a constant forgiveness and a buoyancy that he has almost never lost. I mean it flickers out from time to time, but by and large I think it was she who gave him that sense that A he could do better, and B, he would always be forgiven. And I think that also to the extent to which she needed other people, needed their approval, needed, desired them to be close to her, was a model that was incredibly powerful for him and one that he certainly adopted.

FL: You describe Bill as someone who is capable of great empathy.....

SEXTON:

Well, you know, Bill has this extraordinary capacity for empathy. And empathy makes you almost instant--he can become instant friends with people, he can become sort of instantly on their wavelength. And, on the other hand, it's not a place he necessarily wants to stay very long. This is a man who has places to go and people to meet. It's like a skill that some people have and then develop and enrich and sort of concentrate on a few people, and sort of have immensely rich, rather small, personal lives. And Bill was not interested in that. I mean I think that he does get the large picture about you, very rapidly as I said in almost an uncanny way. But he doesn't necessarily want to stay there very long. I think that it has a certain kind of on-going and responsibility that isn't part of his plan for where he's going in his life. Or where he has gone now with his life.

Bill doesn't, I don't believe, use people. I don't think that's it. But he does need them and he needs masses of them. And that in itself is going to preclude those kind of rich ongoing slow-moving intimacies that people may want from him, but don't, usually can't get.

[With regard to empathy] I feel that in many ways it's not always helpful to him, that he is there for the person who is there with him in a very profound way -- in a way that sort of takes over. That may not be where he wants to be, you know forty minutes later, politically or you know sort of intellectually. And I think to sort of control that in some way that Gore and Hillary are very important to him in trying to sort of keep him from being swayed by this tremendous capacity to sort of feel what other people are feeling. I mean people make fun about him saying that he can feel their pain and stuff, but it's absolutely what he does. And it's not a particularly, it doesn't give you a very stable way to then conduct policy.

Other Observations

His letters are concerned with his draft status, some of his letters are concerned with travels that he's making. He was an observant traveler too, he liked it very much, but you do feel even from these letters that he's just waiting to get home. This is not a person who was, you know, going to spend a lot of time soaking in European culture. He learned a lot and I think that he would expose himself to as much as he could. But again, it simply wasn't front and center in his agenda, it wasn't what he was really, really interested in. He read a tremendous amount in those years, he was kind of all over the place. I remember one of his favorite books was North Toward Home by William Morris. He read [Bertram Russell's] autobiography, he read all kinds of things. But I felt that his reading was really, in a way to cull things for himself, which is a perfectly valid way of reading. It was to learn more about himself through the lives of other people. And in that sense, you know, critics have, or writers have said that he still seems to be a person who's reinventing himself all the time. I don't see it that way quite so much, but I do think that he, as in the phrase "I can do better," I think he has always felt that his job is to grow. And with growth comes change. And it may not always be predictable what that change is going to be, but he's always looking for historical examples, biographical examples of people that have meant something to him.

He is a man who is constantly looking and thinking and changing and maybe it's unsettling to have a President who's actually admitting that, but it doesn't seem to me that it's really, except that he talks about it more in some ways, I don't think it's all that rare for anyone.

The Sixties/His Generation

I think Bill was in many ways kind of uncomfortable as a member of the generation that he grew up in and I grew up in too. He was very aware in the '60s particularly when things were at their most vociferous and people were the angriest and he really, he hated violent civil disobedience, he just thought it was completely untenable and that it was stupid. He openly identified himself with some aspects of what he would ironically would refer to as the establishment. He was aware that this was problematic, but he was not a revolutionary in a larger sense. He believed in America in many ways as it was with some tapering, you know I think questions of racial justice were very deep, were things that he felt very deeply about and really needed more than tinkering, but in terms of the economic system, he wasn't you know way on the left, he wasn't out there with the you know the weather people and so on, he didn't want to bring down the house and reconstruct it. And I think he knew very well that among intellectual young people in his time, that put him in a rather conservative spot that he had to defend, and the farther he got away from Arkansas, the more he had to defend it. I mean this was something that was, perfectly, I mean he was probably quite normal or pretty far to the left in Arkansas and Hot Springs, but when he got to Oxford and then Yale the general sort of critical thinking of people his generation was really pushing farther and farther to the left of that people and that was not where he wanted to be.

So you know people on the left are still dissatisfied with him, maybe even more than people on the right who expected him to be some sort of a liberal, and you know. But I don't think that he was ever anything other than a liberal in a moment when that wasn't really where his generation really was. There was also this really profound inability of his to cut off from anybody. He simply didn't write people out. And that was so inherent to politics in the '60s on the left, that it simply distinguished him as one really very apart from that.

But, I think it's much more identifiable the ways in which he is sort of part of his generation in his confessional mode and all of the various therapies that he's talked about on television. And you know, what his family's been through and how frank he's been about all of that. I still don't actually find him a particularly representative character. In fact the thing that always struck me about him from the time I met him was how odd he always seemed to me, and how completely atypical. Almost in his typicality, I mean there was something so, and I say this with great admiration in a way, he's a very corn-fed kind of kind of young man. He really loved America in a very profound way. He used to talk about he used to write about the simple virtues and he knew exactly what they were. Industriousness, you know all of those things. And I think the thing that was truly unusual about him was this focus that he had, and I mean the Sixties, of all the generations, was the most self-indulgent in terms of figuring out for 30 years what they were going to do when they grew up. You know, many of us chose in our forties what we were going to be, you know. This was not--you know--'Bill's going to have a whole nother life ahead of him.' He was so focused and so clear, and I found that very very, atypical. So in many ways, I actually, I mean his hair was a little longer, you know that's true. He never really, he never drank much, he hated to be out of control, all of those, not inhaling, I suspect. I always reacted to that as if of course, he didn't. He coughs, he's got allergies, he never smoked a cigarette. I mean, he probably didn't.

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