Gail Sheehy, Contributing editor, Vanity Fair and
author of Character: America's Search for Leadership.
FL Could you describe Hot Springs, Arkansas?
Well Hot Springs, when I was wandering around it, evoked a place where
everything was illegal, behind the scenes. There were two levels. There was
the Bible belt conservativism and then there was what was really going on, at
gambling clubs like The Vapors that Virginia Clinton used to frequent, or the
racetrack, or in politics, there was always another level, and I think Bill
Clinton was exposed to that in his personal home life as well as in the town
life. There was a sense of explosiveness just under the surface. Danger,
excitement, disruption, at any point the whole thing could blow up.
When I travel around in Hot Springs to try to evoke the cultural wellsprings
from which Bill Clinton sprang, I got from all of the people I talked to the
sense that it had been a very tingly place, notorious for mobsters and madams
and gamblers and Owny Madden who was Al Capone's hit man and who Virginia
Kelly removed a bullet from as a nurse, an anesthetist. There were gambling,
illegal gambling clubs that operated with the blessing of the town officials.
There were, there were two sets of morals. There was the bible belt
conservativism, go to Sunday school and Baptist church or Methodist, and then
there was what everybody mostly did which was go to the racetrack and go to the
gambling clubs, and hang out with pretty racy people who made the circuit from
Chicago to Miami to New York to Hot Springs in the winter.
What would a young kid like Bill Clinton see as he was growing up in Hot
Springs and what would the lessons be for a young aspiring politician, who
would look around and observe the commingling of these two different worlds,
and two different sets of values...
Well the lessons of Hot Springs perhaps on Bill Clinton would have been that
there are two faces to everything. There's the spin, and then there's what's
really going on behind the scenes and who's paying off whom and who's buying
what and, who's gambling and who's winning and, I think he probably learned
that that's how the real world works and he learned it very early as a
pre-adolescent who had to take on the role almost of surrogate husband for his
mother and protector of the family. As he told me in an interview later, he
said, I was 40 when I was 16 and I hope that I wasn't going to be 16 when I
was 40. But I think actually he was .
You talked to Virginia at length, what was she like...
I spent some time with Virginia Clinton and found her, outrageous,
over-the-top, but unstoppable. She was a force. She loved to be on stage and
to shock people. She wore tube tops and short shorts and got her shoulders
dangerously brown and took that Buick convertible and drove down Main Street
with her shoulders flashing right passed the whore houses into the racetrack
everyday. And you know, this was a little bit out of place in a bible belt
town. But she was also a professional woman, who went to work at night, came
home after the night shift and walked in the house every morning and, as Bill
Clinton told me, always said to him, nobody's told me all day how pretty I am.
And she trained him very early that the way you get along with women in the
world, is to flatter them and praise them.
Virginia threw herself at life. She'd had a lot of bad chances, I mean, she
went through four husbands, but she took chances everyday, she loved going to
the racetrack, never missed a day in season. There was alcohol around her
house, there were cigarettes, there was a lot of laughter, but she also was
meek in terms of taking it on the chin literally from an abusive step-father.
So, there was this double message in that house of a rather narcissistic mother
who was also very courageous and out front and outrageous, but there was the
sense of explosiveness in the household all the time, as if at any moment that
the dining room tablecloth could be yanked out from underneath and everything
would be in chaos. And that is the kind of explosive atmosphere in which Bill
Clinton was shaped as the prematurely aged adult, who had to try to keep peace,
who had to try to protect his mother, and his younger brother and really didn't
have much of a childhood as told me himself. He really didn't get to have his
childhood until he was much later in his 40s.
In talking about the father figure that was absent in Bill's life, could you
talk about a conversation you had with Bill Clinton...
The first time I interviewed Bill Clinton on his campaign plane, I asked him
who was the male figure in your life, in childhood or adolescence that first
endorsed you as worthwhile, and his genial face just kind of dropped into a
real sad, hangdog look, and he looked out the window, and he started to recall,
on his hand the 3 or 4 occasions that his step-father ever paid any attention
to him at all. And it wasn't until-- he told me, that he, as a kid, as an
adolescent, was fat and slow and not an athlete. And he was in the band, which
was really dorky and it wasn't until a band leader, took an interest in him and
tried to convince him that he had some talent which he himself didn't believe,
for music, that he began to feel like much of anything at all. He even told me
he didn't win his first political contest in high school because he was fat and
slow and not an athlete.
Could you talk about the very tense situation in that house, anything that
Clinton told you himself...
Well the Clinton household when Bill Clinton was growing up was a pretty
explosive place. There was a lot of alcohol around, there was a lot of
physical abuse. The step-father that Virginia Clinton brought into his life,
would just erupt without any warning and take some shots at the wall or take
some blows at Virginia Clinton or at his younger brother. And Bill Clinton was
this little kid who was trying to keep peace and keep it all together and be
the adult in a situation where the adults were acting like children. And he
told me in an interview that he thinks a lot of the mistakes in his life that
he made were rooted in that situation because his mother, nobody ever explained
what was going on. Nobody ever said who's fault it was. She was just trying
to keep peace in an explosive situation. So he took the role of the kind of
surrogate husband and finally, when he was 14 and physically big enough, a
story that's often told, is that he confronted, physically, Roger Clinton, and
told him that he could not touch his mother again. And at that point, he was
strong and powerful, but it took Virginia Clinton some months to eject this
stepfather from the house and then she later took him back. During that time
though, she used to take Bill Clinton as a 14 year old, to these illegal
gambling clubs in Hot Springs, particularly The Vapors, which was a smoky, play
slot machines, blackjack tables, whores and he, as he described it to me, found
it a very intriguing place, but also a very repellent place. He was afraid to
be around people who were so out of control because he had seen what it did,
especially mixed with alcohol in his own household.