Clinton: 'I beat the Republicans but lost to my demons'

Interviewed in his boyhood Arkansas home and the study of his upstate New York residence, by 'Time' and CBS, the former president Bill Clinton reflects on his life in and out of the White House, writes Sam Ingleby
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The Independent US

At the beginning of Bill Clinton's 957-page memoir, My Life, he writes that he believes the roots of his successes and failures are directly linked to his years growing up in Arkansas. Sitting on the front porch of his boyhood house in Hope, Arkansas, he spoke to the veteran US newsman Dan Rather about Roger Clinton, the second husband his mother, Virginia Cassidy Blythe, married.

Former President Clinton talks about his stepfather, nicknamed Dude, a violent alcoholic and a womaniser who once shot at Mr Clinton's mother in a drunken rage. "Maybe Mother liked guys that were a little bit rakish,' he said. "She probably thought she could tame 'em. They liked her"

"This sounds crazy but I never hated my stepfather, Roger. Even after he pulled the trigger in here, when he was drunk, even after he beat my mother, even after I got big enough to stop him from beating my mother," Mr Clinton told Rather, pointing inside the modest house where he grew up.

Bill Clinton's own father was killed in a car crash before he was born, leaving his mother to raise him alone. She married Roger Clinton four years after Bill was born. But he never told his friends what was going on at home. He writes in his book, from his childhood into his adult years in politics he has lived "two parallel lives". The public one everyone knew about and a dark secret one he says he never talked about.

Although his mother divorced Roger Clinton, the future president decided to change his name legally to Clinton. "I think the fact that I was born without a father and that I spent a lifetime trying to put together a picture of one also had a lot to do with how I turned out. Good and not so good. But I think on balance, more good than bad. But it had a lot to do with it."

Later, when he entered politics, and was elected attorney general and governor in Arkansas, rumours spread about his colourful personal life. When he ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1992, his relationship with the nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers threatened to sink it. She told reporters: "Yes, I was Bill Clinton's lover for 12 years."

Rather asked him, how he could repeat his mistake with Gennifer Flowers when he was in the White House with Monica Lewinsky. To which he replied: "There is no explanation which is an excuse. I want to make that clear. I don't make any excuses for myself in this book. But I think it is worth trying to figure out why. What happened at the end of 1995 I was involved in, as I try to say in the book, two great fights: a struggle with the Republicans over the future of the country, which I won. And a struggle with my old demons, which I lost."

He famously told Rather that he had his affair with Ms Lewinsky "just because I could", adding: "What I meant by that, is a lot of times you're angry, and you don't do these things because the opportunity is not there. Being a moral person [means] the one thing you don't do, is do things just because you can. But if you think about most of the mistakes we all make in our lives - all kinds of mistakes - well, there was temptation."

Nemesis

In his book and in his interviews with CBS and Time magazine, Mr. Clinton goes after his nemesis, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. He is furious that Mr Starr used an investigation into the Whitewater property deal as a pretext to delve into the most intimate details of his personal life.

Mr Clinton says he eventually settled a sexual harassment suit brought by Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, not because he was guilty, he still insists, but to make it go away. And he says Kenneth Starr came up nearly empty in what he calls an "outlaw", renegade investigation.

It cost more than $70m (£38m). "And we were exonerated in Whitewater, exonerated in the Vince Foster suicide, exonerated in the campaign finance reform. Exonerated in the White House travel office deal. Exonerated in the FBI file case. The judge ruled that the Jones case had absolutely no merit. There was nothing left but my personal failing. That's what people got for more than $70m."

Mr Clinton told CBS he questions at least the timing of the war in Iraq, at the expense of concentrating on al-Qa'ida and Osama bin laden. But the bipartisan commission looking into the 11 September attacks is expected to criticise his administration as well as the Bush one not preventing them when it reports next month.

The former president points out that when Saddam Hussein kicked UN weapons inspectors out of Iraq in 1998, he ordered a four-day bombing raid but was unable to find out how many, if any, chemical and biological weapons were destroyed in those attacks. And he says the present President Bush should have pushed harder for new inspections.

"I believe we made an error in not allowing the United Nations to complete the inspections process. Now, having said that, we are where we are. And I think the most important thing now is for all of us to support a stable, peaceful, and pluralistic Iraq."

But he does not condemn the decision to topple Saddam. "I think the Iraqis are better off with Saddam gone, if they can have a stable government. There have been more terrorists move into Iraq in the aftermath of the conflict. I still believe, as I always have, that the biggest terrorist threat by far is al-Qa'ida and [its] network. And that the biggest long-term destructive threat is the significant volume of chemical and biological agents all over the world that are not yet secure.

Mr Clinton also says in his book he is haunted by the deaths of 18 Americans in Somalia, and calls the 1993 raid there "a mistake". He also blames the collapse of his final effort to broker a new Middle East peace agreement on Yasser Arafat.

In his interview with Time, in the study of his newly renovated barn, next to his home in Chappaqua, New York. Mr Clinton points to the room where he wrote, in longhand, most of his memoir. It is a state-of-the-art den, with plasma TV, sofas and rocking chairs, walls lined with Native American paintings and pottery.

Conspiracy

In a blue suit, white shirt and pink tie, the former president spoke easily and often candidly about his successes and failures. In his memoirs and the Time interview, he launched a blistering attack against the members of Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy", notably Mr Starr.

My Life is, in fact, two books, Arkansas and the presidency. Mr Clinton originally wanted to write two books but was dissuaded by his publisher. In My Life he has written the first one as a memoir and compiled the second as a haphazard account of the presidential years. This he told Time was intentional. "It's much more like a diary of what it's like to be President."

There are an awful lot of passages of the type: "In mid-month, Hillary and I flew to St Louis, where I signed the Mississippi River flood relief legislation ... Then we flew on to Denver, where we welcomed Pope John Paul II to the United States."

But the opening chapters that provide the best insight into Mr Clinton at his schmaltzy best. "I've always been given to remembrance and remembering, more when I was younger even than when I was President," he says. "When I was a young man, I thought about my childhood all the time. It's a Southern thing; we're all obsessed with the past. I was very blessed that both my mother and I saved virtually everything from my childhood. I was always a pack rat."

He says he had to walk away from the book at certain stages as the memories came flooding back. "I have that pretty gripping scene in the early part of the book where my stepfather was drunk and he had the gun in his hand and he shot it off, and my mother and I were standing in the hall and the bullet goes in the wall between us. I felt it all over again. It was frightening."

Secrets

A central theme of his interviews, and indeed the book, is his propensity for keeping secrets, learned in the violent home of his stepfather Roger. "The problem with having one part of your life walled off from the other is trying to decide what belongs behind the wall. It gets bizarre. How bizarre was it when I was a kid that I didn't want my daddy to know that I was giving part of my allowance to Billy Graham? How weird is that?" He speaks about the family counselling that got him through the darkest periods with Hillary and their daughter Chelsea.

"First thing you learn is that any relationship that was once good, that is grounded in love but is in trouble, then one big reason is because you let it get on automatic. People begin to take each other for granted their relationship begins to fall into routines. And if you're like us, you're workaholics, and if you know each other as well as we know each other, you get to where you don't even have to talk anymore half the time. You've been married a certain amount of time, your partner doesn't even have to open her mouth. So you have to fix that."

It is the part of the book that is perhaps most private, but ever voluble, Mr Clinton wants to talk at length. "The other thing that I learned about was the impact of my whole life on my marriage. You bring the person you are to the altar, not just the person you want to be. Hillary made me a heck of a lot better fellow than I would have been otherwise. But I was still the person I was as a child. We dealt with all that, and I talked to my daughter about all that. It was really a good thing.

Compassion

"I believe in this. I believe that even marriages that end in divorce, maybe even especially marriages that end in divorce, should have the benefit of this because then both parties will know in good conscience that they gave it their best shot." Mr Clinton's advice on succeeding in politics is homespun. "I think the great trick to a successful run in politics is to have both what you've called the wussy-mommy qualities and the macho-tough qualities. If you're only one or the other, you're going to get into trouble. A party without compassion and without intellect and without appreciation for ambiguity is going to get in trouble in an environment where there are many moving parts, not all of which are under your control. [But] if all you have is empathy and ambiguity and you don't know when to stand and fight and when to say no, then all the sand will run out of the hourglass before you can prevail.

"The Republicans are better at understanding how to get and keep power. They've shown that since 1968. The Democrats tend to be more responsible in the exercise of power but sometimes don't understand how to get it or how to keep it. We have to understand, we Democrats, that not all politics is rational and you have to deal with people's fear, their need for security. We have to understand that when the Republicans come at us and paint cartoon-like images of us and they will keep on doing it until it doesn't work, because they're in business to beat us. We've got to beat them."

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