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
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.
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.....
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.
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
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.