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Interview with Gail Sheehy

FL: Could you describe the whole landscape from which he came -- which is not only Hot Springs, it's also the situation at home. What were the defining qualities?


Well, I almost think of Bill Clinton as like the character in East of Eden, who's standing on the edge of something that was fascinating, compelling, but dangerous and repellent. And I think he had a kind of two step reaction to all of that. On the one hand, he saw how things were never what they seem, that there are always back room deals, that there's always another side that isn't as pretty, and what you have to do is put a spin on your whole life, and he has been putting a spin on his whole life with the help of Hillary to make a heroic story out of what was really a rather sad and depressing story in terms of his own family background. But also, I think there was a big impact by being raised by a mother who was both extremely forceful and flamboyant, but very demanding in a narcissistic way of constant attention from him and, a child who is constantly being demanded of by a narcissistic parent, has very little opportunity to show his own distress, his own anxiety, his own temper. He had to keep the lid on in an explosive situation because the parents were acting like kids. And as he told me later, his mother was trying to keep peace, and never explain. Nobody ever explained, what's the cause of all of these eruptions, of this violence, of this bizarre behavior. And I think he then never developed really any very good outlets for his own anxieties and tempestuous feelings, emotions, very emotional man. So they came out later on, both in explosions of temper, which his aides have recounted, and in behaving like the eternal boy. Philandering, you know, betraying people who loved him and trusted him, cheating on them, and acting like the bad boy in a way that he'd seen so many people in Hot Springs act like bad boys and girls.

When Bill Clinton's campaign was really in a downspin, after New Hampshire, I had another long talk with him and I asked him about what kind of defense has he developed to deal with this explosive situation at home, because kids can go one of two ways. Either they can copy the immature habits of the adults they've seen in a narcissistic household or they can become premature adults, and that seems to have been his pattern. And he told me, some of the mistakes I made later in life were rooted in all those things that were never explained when I was growing up. My mother, he said, was trying to keep peace in an explosive situation and nobody ever said what was really going on. And the aftermath of that, he said, really had a big impact on how he lived his life. And I think, part of that, is a parent who needs constant narcissistic gratification from a child because she can't get enough elsewhere, doesn't give, leave him any outlets to express his own distress, his own anger. And so Bill Clinton acted like the good husband for many years, kind of keeping the, control, keeping some peace in a family, protecting his brother, protecting his mother, acting as his mother's surrogate husband when she kicked his abusive stepfather out of the house. Didn't have time to be 16 when he was 16. And as he told me, you know, I guess I was 40 when I was 16 and I always hoped I wouldn't have to be 16 when I was 40. But as it turned out, he actually did act pretty much like 16 when he was 40, that was the period after which he had lost, he, pulled back from entering the election in, in '88 because it was thought that his, the stories of his philandering would, would sink the campaign. And at the last moment, on the steps of the state house, when he and Hillary were about to announce, he pulled back because he realized he just, he hadn't grown up enough, and he didn't know how to sell the story.

FL: He was self-described to you as a fat kid...but look what the political life gives someone like that, with that image of himself. How important was that in the future Bill Clinton...


One of the constants with presidential characters I find is that they're so often, really overcompensating for some things that happened in the past and, I think, for Bill Clinton part of it was that he did, as he told me, think of himself as a fat, slow kid, not an athlete, no particular social station or money in his background, and here's the life of politics where people express love for you all the time, and constantly wanting to be with you, rub shoulders with you, women are throwing themselves at you and you know, from his early campaigns that was one of the revelations, that women just couldn't, you know, get enough of a handsome political candidate. And I think what Bill Clinton identified as the great attribute that he had was charm. He was from an early age able to seduce both men and women with his charm. And a large element of that charm was not just his looks and his humor but his capacity for empathy, which was real. And, as he told me, I could always connect with people, I could always draw them out, I could always find some common ground. And we've seen him develop that and parlay that all throughout his career, to the point where, perhaps the Oklahoma bombing was some kind of a turning point in his presidency when he began to take on the role of older brother for the country, because there was this complicated love-hate relationship that most voters had with Clinton when he was first president. On the one hand, we liked the eternal boy, everybody wants to be Peter Pan in this country it seems like. But we also expect our Presidents to act like father. And Clinton wasn't father. He was initially, seemed rather like the younger brother. Nice, you love him but, he's always getting into mischief. And at the time of the Oklahoma bombing, when he was able to comfort people and speak for the whole country eloquently, with his capacity for empathy, I think he graduated to the status of older brother.

FL: You write about his mid-life crisis.....


Well, Bill Clinton did speak about his mid-life crisis, he takes it seriously. This is the first all-therapy presidency where both President and Vice-President have discussed openly, talking to therapists. That was a period when everything kind of broke loose. Roger Clinton was busted on drugs, Governor Clinton had to take the fall for him in a way. Virginia Clinton was brought into therapy with Hillary and a lot of those secrets and a lot of that explosiveness of his childhood was out on the table. He also lost an election at that time and was devastated. And, began acting out the adolescence that he really never had. Hillary, during that period, and this is the 4 years before he declared for the presidency, never gave him the option of divorce. They worked it through. Painfully, torturously, but, I think, with Hillary pretty much, you know, leading the team, and being the strong one.

FL: Hillary. And Virginia . The way in which you think they're alike...and every conversation you had with Virginia and Hillary about that relationship...


I think the greatest similarity between Hillary Clinton and Virginia Kelly, who would otherwise seem to be polar opposites, is that they both adore Bill Clinton. That they were both completely captivated by his southern charm, and we read in both fiction and non-fiction accounts of the explosive relationship between Bill and Hillary that he can have just done the naughtiest thing of all, he can just have you know, been with another woman, and all he has to do is kinda, wink and pinch and tickle and all of a sudden Hillary kind of falls back into loving this adorable, southern man.

Well, Virginia Kelly was also completely captivated by Bill Clinton and made him the center of her life. I mean, he had to represent almost all the things that her four husbands couldn't. He was the golden boy. She, as we know, decorated whole rooms with his trophies, and dedicated herself entirely to building his confidence and moving him ahead, and so has Hillary. Giving up what might have been a stellar career in politics or business or law of her own to advance Bill Clinton.

You know it's interesting, the first time I interviewed Hillary, I met her on a tarmac to get into a small plane and I told her I just spent a day with her own mother, and she said, well you've got to meet Virginia Kelly, she's really something. She never lets anything stop her. And I could see that that was where the respect, the mutual respect actually met between these two otherwise very disparate women. Because Hillary never lets anything stop her. The difference is that Virginia Kelly used alcohol, gambling, outrageous behavior, depression, a lot of poor defenses, I mean, life hammered at her as it did so often. Hillary just holds it all in. Hillary has to be right. Hillary has to be right.

FL: You spent a lot of time with Hillary...describe what you learned about her.


I had the rare experience of sitting in a little 6-seater charter plane with Hillary Clinton in the week that she brought her husband back from the political dead. She had just been on 60 Minutes with him the night before we began to travel together, and, it looked like things were smoothing out. All of a sudden, we dropped into a motel room in Pierre, South Dakota, she walked in, turned on the television and there was Jennifer Flowers, this lounge act, describing her husband's conversations with her in the most devastating detail. And I was standing right next to Hillary. There wasn't a flicker of personal reaction. That's how defended she was from the most devastating kind of revelation before the whole world. She immediately began to go into attack mode. She disappeared for a while, changed clothes, went to a pork rib feeds, a dinner. Her aide was put in her ear, altering that with Jennifer. I saw this shrug of defeat go down her face. She made a b-line for the pay phone, she got on the phone, I couldn't hear what she was saying but she was chewing somebody out, and it turned out it was Bill Clinton.

We got on the plane, we're sitting knee-to-knee, and she began to think about how to get out of this situation, and her first fury that exploded was against Jennifer Flowers. If I had her on the stand, she said, I would crucify her. She was paid. And she went through the whole litigating circumstances she would use. Next she went to how she was going to persuade Bill Clinton to take this seriously. Because he had never really taken seriously the political blow that she knew was always going to come. So she began rehearsing how she could talk to him. How the Republicans had started an attack machine in 1988, and now in 1992 it was turning into character assassination, and yeah, this is Willie Horton II, she said. And Bill Clinton just won't understand that this can break him, I've got to tell him he's got to fight back! And you could see that she was the real fighter. She was the real, offensive player in this duel.

And the next thing you know, we land at a tarmac in God-knows-where in South Dakota, she's off the plane, across that tarmac, in there ordering everybody around, get me a conference call, I want Little Rock and Washington on the phone. She's on the phone and she dictated this strategy of the campaign at that point, which was, pound the press and go up against the Republican attack machine. And that became literally the strategy for the rest of the campaign, and in many ways, a strategy that continued throughout the presidency where, that really comes essentially from Hillary's need to project on everybody else the pain and the personal humiliation that she must have felt, in having these revelations about her marriage made public before the whole world.

I think by training and by temperament, Hillary is a prosecutor, a litigator. She argues, she defends, she admits no wrongdoing. She doesn't give, at all. And so her response to this event and to the fact that it would torpedo the entire career, and her chance to be part of a presidency, was to immediately go into attack mode, but psychologically we would also call that projection. There's no fault here. She can't look at what her husband did to her, and to their family, so she looks at what the press is doing by revealing what he did, or what the Republicans are doing by making hay on what he did. And she's perfectly right, an attack machine had developed, and it has now become very well-oiled, and, essentially Bob Dole, through the surrogate of Al D'Amato and his Whitewater committee has been doing exactly what Bob Dole did successfully when he first attacked Lyndon Johnson and brought attention to himself as a young congressman.

FL: In conclusion about Hillary and Bill, how would you describe that relationship...the ways in which they complement each other, the ways in which they relate to each other, and, the way in which she reveals him...


I think Hillary Clinton is Bill Clinton in a tighter container. She's the more controlled, more disciplined, more intellectually tart of the two. They're both brilliant. He's the more emotional, the more able to relate to other people, the more empathetic, and the more intellectually curious, and emotionally unguarded. So I think, Hillary over the years has been the Jimminy Cricket sitting on his shoulder, the conscience, which he didn't really have growing up, in a situation in Hot Springs and in a family where the rules were always double.

Hillary I think has operated as the conscience, the superego, kind of keeping him, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. And he often has been in her debt and dependent on her, after all, she saved his neck after the New Hampshire primary in the campaign.

But there was one moment during the campaign when the roles switched, it was very interesting. In my interviewing with Hillary, she had made a blunder in her own thinking, she revealed to me conversation that she had had with Ann Chambers, the publisher of the Atlanta newspapers about the other Jennifer, that is the Jennifer that was in George Bush's life. And, when I revealed this in the Vanity Fair piece, there was a headline on the Daily News saying Babs Bites Back, about Barbara Bush snapping back at Hillary Clinton for talking about a mistress that George Bush supposedly had. All of a sudden you saw on television, Bill Clinton, stepping in front of Hillary and apologizing for his wife, for having said, stepped out of line. And it, he was at almost a smile of slight satisfaction because for once he was the good boy. He was the moral arbiter of the two.

FL: What does it reveal about Clinton, that Hillary is his wife?


I think it says a lot of good things about Bill Clinton that he chose Hillary Clinton. I mean, she is a formidable person. She, can make a speech without saying ah. She got better marks than he did. And, you know, she's, can be beautiful. She is a policy wonk, that is his equal. And he has never been threatened by her which is quite extraordinary. He did have a very strong bond with his mother, he has often been, you know, slaved by strong women, so it's not unusual for him to be attracted to a strong woman but this is a strong woman among strong women. And I think that they became, early in their courtship, symbiotic. I mean, they did the moot court together. They did the governorship together. And when I talked to Bill Clinton about what their partnership would be like in the White House, he was very open, this was before there was any Hillary hating and said, it will be an unprecedented partnership. It will be more than Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. We will do everything together just as we always have.

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