This Boy's Life; a New Biography Shows Bill Clinton as Eager to Please as to Succeed

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, February 13, 1995 | Go to article overview

This Boy's Life; a New Biography Shows Bill Clinton as Eager to Please as to Succeed


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


IN LATE 1980, AFTER VOTERS THREW THEIR YOUNG GOVERNOR out of office, Bill Clinton delivered a guest lecture at a University of Arkansas class on politics and literature. As recounted in David Maraniss's splendidly reported biography, "First in His Class," the 34-year-old Clinton analyzed Robert Penn Warren's novel "All The King's Men" and studies of Lincoln, Hitler and Churchill. Political leaders, he said, were usually a combination of darkness and light. The darkness reflects insecurity, depression, family disorder. In great leaders, Clinton told the students, the light overcame the darkness.

Maraniss's book, which ends in October of 1991 as his subject announces his campaign for president, captures the overlapping light and darkness in Clinton's own full life. The author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, resists the impulse to conclude which prevails. After headlines last week highlighted scoops in the book about Clinton's sexual conquests and draft record, Maraniss refused to go on TV or radio to promote them. "Everybody is always trying to define him as good or bad. In fact, it's all part of the larger person," Maraniss said last week. The book details everything in Clinton's prepresidential life down to the knot speed of the ship he took to England to begin his Rhodes scholarship. But the power of the narrative lies in its spareness. Instead of trying to impose some new thesis, Maraniss largely lets Clinton's rich complexities speak for themselves, in the words of hundreds of people who knew him.

One of those people is Betsey Wright, Clinton's volatile chief of staff from Little Rock. For years, political reporters have tried in vain to crack her. Maraniss succeeds. The book reveals that in july of 1987, when Clinton's friends had assembled in Little Rock to hear him announce for president in 1988, Wright confronted him with a list of women he allegedly had slept with: "For years, she told friends, she had been covering up for him. She was convinced that some state troopers were soliciting women for him, and he for them." Wright went over the list twice with Clinton, trying to figure out if any one would talk to the press. Finally, she said that running that year would hurt Hillary and Chelsea, and recommended against it. He decided not to run. By 1992, his family was enthusiastic.

Clinton's past is like an angry razorback, always pushing him back into the mud. Last week the president felt obliged to call Wright, after which she issued a statement saying that Maraniss had misunderstood her: "I do not believe [the troopers] ever solicited women for the governor, certainly not with his knowledge." These kinds of denials are becoming increasingly implausible. Maraniss points out that last year he read Wright sections of the book pertaining to her, and she confirmed their accuracy. Lake many others, she showed Maraniss her letters from Clinton, including one in 1976 that obliquely refers to the then vice presidential candidate Bob Dole as "the biggest p---k in Congress. …

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