Author of Fulbright: A Biography and professor of political science, University of Arkansas.
FL: Could you discuss Fulbright's significance and influence on Clinton?
Clinton, like most Arkansans, are intensely loyal to their state and defensive
of their state and it was very important for him, as it was for many aspiring
Arkansans, to find other Arkansans who validate them. I think Clinton wanted to
be Fulbright. He wanted to live the life that Fulbright was living because it
was socially, psychologically, politically attractive to him. I think Clinton
saw Fulbright as the epitome of the educated person. And in that sense he
wanted to emulate Fulbright directly.
He didn't see Fulbright so much as a collection, as a bag of principles, or a
bag of ideas, but rather a sophisticated, intelligent person who could discuss
a variety of topics, from art, to politics, to history, to science. I think
that appealed to Clinton because he was a very bright young man, but it
appealed to him psychologically as well. I think he wanted to be where, go
where Fulbright had gone. And I mean that in a very literal sense. He wanted
to go to Oxford, he wanted to go to Washington, he wanted to roam the halls of
power in this country and abroad. And of course he, as a young person,
identified vicariously. He was Fulbright. He went where Fulbright went, talked
with whom Fulbright talked. Very heady stuff for him. And in a sense that,
since he has been elected President he's been able to do that for the first
time to the fullest extent. And so that's one of the reasons why they drew
closer during the election and immediately after the election. There was some
separation, but it was a rejoining of the two men, at least in Clinton's mind.
And I think in Fulbright's mind too because Fulbright was very frustrated after
being, after his dissent, he was cut off from the White House, he was in a kind
of internal exile. And Clinton's election and Clinton's becoming President was
a way in which Fulbright could roam the halls of power vicariously. It was a
wonderful irony, wonderful turn about, I think.
Not only was Fulbright a way out of the stereotypical Arkansas, the
stereotypical South, he was the ticket out. Clinton punched that ticket
hundreds of thousands of times. He invoked his name, he used his influence, he
played off of him, he introduced, he ingratiated himself with people who he
perceived to be powerful by using Fulbright's name. And Fulbright was a person
who was willing to lend himself to that kind of mild exploitation. You could
see it. I've heard hundreds of stories about Clinton telling his classmates at
Georgetown, "Do you want to have breakfast with Senator Fulbright?" Or, "Do you
want to meet Senator Fulbright?" Or, "Your father, I can introduce your father
and mother to Senator Fulbright." Or "I can arrange a certain venue for you."
And Fulbright and staff sort of benignly went along with that.
He was both a model and a means to Clinton. There may be a deeper emotional
attachment. I don't know. I was at the ceremony when Clinton gave him the Medal
of Freedom. Fulbright was not in good physical condition then, but it seemed
to be genuine. I can't speak to that. I think your experience, your
conversation with somebody about Fulbright being very frustrated with Clinton,
I think. Fulbright only had one son, and that was Seth Tillman. He didn't
have any biological sons. But his only intellectual, psychological, emotional
son, that was Seth Tillman. There was never a father son relationship. I
don't know if Clinton has had, I don't know who the father figure in Clinton's
FL: What did Clinton learn about foreign intervention watching
There's a deeper root here and it really goes to the core of the portrayal of
Clinton and Fulbright as pragmatists. At that very root of their beings, they
are alike in that they are both terrified of ideologues and fanatics. As Paul
Greenberg said, "They're terrified of people who claim to hear the voice of God
being whispered in their ear." Fulbright's opposition to Joe McCarthy, his
opposition to extreme Zionists for example. You can see that in Clinton, more
by who opposes him, by his enemies. If you look at pro-abortion people to
survivalists, to extreme anti-government elements in this country, militias,
Clinton's enemies would have been, and Fulbright's enemies are the same, almost
parallel. And I think that's at the core of the similarity between those two
people. And Clinton learned that from Fulbright, but it was also instinctive
for him. It was part of his personality. And if there was some resonation
between the two people, I think it is their fear and loathing of ideologues and
Fulbright's opposition to the war in Vietnam stemmed more from his fear of what
the war would do to American society than from a really consistent or
coherent view of how foreign affairs ought to be conducted. And Clinton picked
up on that. Fulbright argued that the war in Vietnam was undermining Democracy,
that it was polarizing American society, that it was a threat to Democracy
itself. And I think Clinton understood that and you can certainly see that
pragmatism reflected in foreign affairs problems in his own administration.
He intervened in Haiti only because he was sure that we could prevail there,
because that country is physically proximate to us and because it directly
affected our interests. As you move away from the US geographically and
politically, he's become less willing to become involved. He argued in the
midst of the Bosnia crisis that the primary responsibility ought to be assumed
by the European states who were closer to the region and who were more likely
to be destabilized. And I think that's realpolitik, that's George
Kennan, that's Hans Morgenthau. So in a sense those people were both
Fulbright's mentors and now are Bill Clinton's mentors.
Bill Clinton's foreign policy, which is beginning to take shape, is very much a
product of the lessons he learned from Fulbright. From his unwillingness to
become bogged down prematurely in Bosnian intervention to acting directly only
in areas which are physically proximate to the United States, he's, Fulbright
was, a free trader. Fulbright favored the European Common Market. Well,
Clinton's North American Free Trade Pact is in that same spirit. Clinton's
emphasis on economic diplomacy rather than force, very much in the Fulbright
FL: What lesson would he have learned watching Fulbright move through the tricky
area of race?
By the time Bill Clinton went to work for Fulbright in the mid 1960's,
Fulbright's views on race had changed. He was much more sympathetic to the
civil rights movement. But he did not manifest that support publicly, didn't do
so until 1970, because he was afraid of losing the support of his conservative
constituency in Arkansas. Clinton saw that and he understood that one cannot
always act on principle, perhaps only one or two times during their public
career. Fulbright was explicit about that. So it was an important lesson in
pragmatism and political expediency I think for him.
FL: Temperamentally were these two men quite different?
Temperamentally Clinton and Fulbright are about as different as two people can
be I think. Fulbright was one of the most personally secure people I've ever
encountered. He came from a well-to-do family, led a sheltered childhood, his
academic credential were superb, he was a member of the Eastern Establishment.
Clinton, lower middle class, from a broken family, has and still has a sharp
edge of insecurity about it. Fulbright really didn't like electoral politics,
backslapping, glad handing, there was nothing in him that was satisfied by
that. Rather he frequently was repelled by it. Whereas I think Bill Clinton
thrives on it, has a thirst for it. It's one of the reasons why he's a better
campaigner than he is an administrator.
FL: Thread through the lessons of pragmatism.
I think that Clinton learned from what he perceived to be Fulbright's mistakes.
Fulbright was a practical man, but particularly in his opposition to the war in
Vietnam, in his stance on the Middle East, he was unbending, unyielding. It
cost him. It prevented him from becoming Secretary of State. It prevented him
from having a close relationship with the last two presidents during his stay
in the Senate. Clinton saw his, saw what the cost of that rigidity was, and I
think decided that that was not for him. It may be that this need that Clinton
supposedly has to reinvent himself every Monday, to use John Blunth's term, is
a reaction to the terrible political and psychological price that Fulbright
paid for his rather rigid dissent.
Bill Clinton came to Washington in the mid-sixties when at least in his world,
the two dominant figures were Lyndon Johnson and J. William Fulbright. Clinton
certainly admired and identified with Fulbright. But as a politician he's much
more like Lyndon Johnson. Fulbright was trying to destroy the consensus of
supporting war in Vietnam. He was at war with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was
trying to hold American society together, to maintain a consensus behind
domestic and foreign policy. What Clinton experienced in the 1960's was
Fulbright's success in destroying the Vietnam consensus. And he saw what that
did to the country. He saw what Vietnam and the anti-war movement meant in
terms of domestic polarization. And he did not want to ever experience that
again. He did not as a politician ever want to live through that or experience
that again. Nor did he want to duplicate Fulbright's experience, who after he
began his dissent, was isolated. He not only was at war with Johnson and
Richard Nixon, he was in a kind of internal exile. It must have been very
traumatic for Clinton. And in thinking about his own future and in thinking
about his own Presidency if that were to happen. I think that he wanted to
avoid being in Fulbright's position of being a shunned dissenter. But he also
wanted to avoid being in Lyndon Johnson's position. He did not want to pursue
policies that were going to divide the country and create the kind of trauma
that America experienced in the 1960's. And so far he's been able to avoid
FL: Can you discuss for a minute Clinton fury about losing that Governor's
election and how that played out?
As I recall, when I moved to this community, which was when Clinton's political
career was starting, that he was very much the idealist. That liberals in
Arkansas and in Fayetteville were enamored of him because he was person who had
very clearly defined principles and was something of a crusader particularly on
social issues. That changed dramatically when he lost to Frank White. He'd
lost before but this election he interpreted, I believe, to be a repudiation of
his idealism. A repudiation of his idealism. And I think it triggered
memories of what had happened to Fulbright who has been described certainly as
an idealist. And it burned Clinton psychologically and his ultra-pragmatism
began with that very traumatic defeat.
FL: Are Clinton and Fulbright each expressive of the two generations?
That's the key to understanding the difference between them in civil rights.
Generation and place. Fulbright grew up in Northwest Arkansas, the Upland
South, very few blacks, fairly prosperous. He was shielded from the kind of
grinding poverty and disease that characterized life for Delta blacks. Clinton
grew up in Southern Arkansas in the midst of that, if not poverty, then
disadvantage. He grew up among and has an empathy and sympathy for African
Americans because it was part of his culture. Blacks and whites are
Southerners before they're blacks and whites and you can see that in Clinton.
But it's also a generational thing.
Many people like Fulbright who were political progressives, moderates, liberals
if you will, were segregationists. And it wasn't until the 1960's, it wasn't
until the civil rights movement sensitized them, that they began to turn around
on civil rights. Clinton grew up in the midst of the second reconstruction and
not only was sensitized by it, he was part of it. And in fact I suspect
Clinton played some small role in sensitizing Fulbright about civil rights.
FL: How about Dole and Clinton?
Yes, it's interesting. Bob Dole is a member of the World War II generation and
his war was the last good war. And he was part of that generation in which
America was, however reluctantly, arbiter of world affairs. It had fought the
evil Hitlerism and now it was going to fight the evil of Stalinism. And it was
sure and confident of its ability to do so. And I think that confidence that
the World War II generation had was just damaged by Vietnam. Clinton grew up
in the midst of a war that was not only our last worst war, it was the greatest
foreign policy disaster we've ever suffered through. And it created in that
generation a hesitancy, an unwillingness to commit, a circumspection that is
totally at odds with World War II generation. I think we'll see the contrast
develop as the election develops. You'll see in Bob Dole a kind of certitude
and simplicity, if not simple mindedness. Whereas with Clinton I think you'll
see his positions on foreign policy being much more conditional, much more
tentative. And that's going to be to Bob Dole's advantage, and that will be
very hard for Clinton. Unless Clinton has the same conversation we're having
with the American people. I don't think he'll do that, but I don't know.