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Michael Kelly, Editor of The New Republic and former Washington Editor of The New Yorker

FL: How did Virginia Kelly influence Bill?


Virginia was an extraordinary woman in a number of ways, some of them good, some of them, I think, less admirable. The best testimony to her character, and to her nature, is in her own words in a book of memoirs she wrote -- and it was published posthumously -- I think called Leading With My Heart . And in that she described her view of the world, and, Bill Clinton's mother's view of the world, in her own description, was a singular one. It consisted of two very important ideas. One was that there was no tommorrow, and no yesterday; that you lived in the present. She never worried about what was going to happen, she wrote, in tommorrow, and she never dwelt upon the past: what had happened, had happened. And in her description of her life, and the way she regarded other people who were close to her and so on, she makes it clear that this was a profoundly felt philosophy with her. She attaches no great judgement or weight, for instance, to something that most people would consider bad -- that one of her husbands has done in the past -- that happened in the past. And she doesn't seem to have any great concern about what is going to happen in the future -- she lives very much in the moment to moment. This runs through the pattern of her life.

Her marriage to William Blythe is a case in point. She describes their meeting, when she was a young nurse and he was a travelling salesman. He came to the hospital where she was working, bringing in his fiancee, who had become ill and needed emergency treatment. And ... he flirted with Virginia over the table as it were. I mean, over the bed, not the operating table. And she made a date with him. She was immediately attracted to him and made a date with him and they never looked back. I mean he never looked back at his fiancee, she never looked back at the moment- they just sailed on.

The other thing that she describes in her world view, her view of herself and her friends and her family, is that the people that she loves, the people in her family that she's closest to can do no wrong. They are a hermetically sealed universe, self-supporting, self-contained, and self, self-judging only. Their judgements of other people are not of concern to them, and she's quite explicit about this. She writes "as far as I'm concerned, the people that I loved could do no wrong, and I wasn't going to listen to what others said."

Now, you can argue, and it has been argued that this way of looking at the world, gave Virginia Kelly an extraordinary resiliancy and strength that allowed her to survive a brutal marriage to an alcoholic, and allowed her to fashion a career for herself as a nurse anaesthesiologist at a time when independent careers in that part of the country for a woman were not that easy to come by and to raise her children by herself pretty much. And that's all true I think, but it's also, I think, true that this world view gave a message to her sons, Roger and Bill, that can some degree explain the way Bill Clinton is, the way he is today.

The idea that you live only in the moment, that what matters is what is happening in the existential now. And the idea that the people you love, which includes of course yourself, can do no wrong. Or that if they do any wrong it's instantly forgiven: for one thing it happened in the past as soon as it's done, and we've moved beyond that. And for the other of course that -- the premise is that the people we love can do no wrong -- that this philosophy does explain a good deal of not only what is strong in Bill Clinton, but what is weak. That what is strong is his astonishing resiliancy. This is a man who ran for president and was hit with two charges- either one of which would have proven fatal to most politicians: one that he had evaded the draft and lied about it -- most controversial war since the Civil War in this country, and the other that he was a womanizer of spectacular proportions and had had a tawdry affair and so on.

And in both cases Bill Clinton simply didn't blink. He got up out of bed and went on and campaigned at a time when the average politician could be excused for lying whimpering in the closet, I mean he simply does not stop in his tracks, he just goes on. And that I think he probably owes to his mother and to this view. But the part of it that is less admirable, perhaps may also be traced to this way of looking at the world; and that is the president who seems increasingly, as his term has worn on, to live in the moment with a sort of disconnection between what has happened in the past and what is going to happen in the future. And it is this trait that allows him to do the things that he is most widely criticized for: to promise something which a reasonable man must be able to say as, as he utters the promise that he is not going to be able to deliver. And to not worry about not delivering on the promise, just to keep moving on. To believe utterly in everything he says at the moment that he says it, but to not seem to have any coherence between what he has said in the past, and what the consequences of what he is saying now are going to be in the future.


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