The Bill Clinton we knew at Oxford: Apart from smoking dope (and not inhaling), what else did he learn over here? College friends share their memories with Matthew Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman
Sunday 11 October 1992 00:02 BST

In a recent campaign speech, President George Bush told his audience: 'You know, Governor Clinton is already talking about pulling together the best and the brightest, all the lobbyists, economists, lawyers, all those guys, liberal guys that were hanging out with him in Oxford when some of you were over there fighting, and have them solve all of America's problems.'

That characteristically tortuous sentence, on a theme to which Mr Bush returns with increasing frequency, was intended to stir many of the deepest suspicions of the ordinary American voter: suspicions of liberals, of big government, of sophisticates, and most of all of foreigners. One word, in particular, is employed to represent these dangers - 'Oxford'.

Mr Bush says he does not want to take on Bill Clinton in face-to- face debate because, unlike his rival, he is not an 'Oxford man'. He says Clinton learned about 'social engineering' at Oxford, and that such ideas are at odds with those of Americans, who favour entrepreneurial capitalism rather than the 'inefficient industrial monstrosities' of Europe.

Improbably, Oxford has become a leitmotif of the Bush campaign, with Mr Bush portraying his challenger as someone tainted by foreign ideas and experiences. Mr Clinton has admitted to at least one embarrassing experience at Oxford - he smoked marijuana (although he says he did not inhale). What else did he learn there?

He arrived in October 1968 as one of 32 American Rhodes scholars who had been awarded post- graduate places and grants for two or more years. He was 22 and had just completed a degree at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

The Vietnam war was on the minds of all that year's Rhodes scholars. Graduates were no longer immune from the draft, and all these young men were aware that they would soon be eligible to be called up to fight. Doug Eakeley, another of the 1968 Rhodes scholars and now a lawyer in New Jersey, remembers the relief they all felt at 'getting out of the US and out of the extraordinary pressure cooker that the US represented in the 1960s'.

Bill Clinton, before coming to Oxford, had worked for a time in the office of the Arkansas senator William Fulbright, the leading congressional critic of the war. He has recalled how his views about the war were shaped. 'I just knew enough from talking to him (Fulbright) and listening to him, and seeing what I saw, to know that our policy was doomed to fail and a lot of people were dying for reasons I did not think were warranted. I felt very strongly about it.'

British students could not fail to notice the serious impression such experiences made on the Americans. Katherine Gieve, now a solicitor in London, dated Clinton in 1969. She recalls: 'Politics, as taught in Oxford then, was about ideas. It was very distant from actual experience. But Bill was thinking about people. He made a relationship between abstract ideas and the meaning of people's experiences. That was true for all of the Americans at Oxford then. Because of the Vietnam war, demands were being made by the state that were crucial to the way they lived their own ideas.'

Clinton chose a B Phil course in politics. A contemporary who is now a senior civil servant in Whitehall says that a central question being addressed then was 'What is democracy?' He recalls: 'There was a vogue for getting beyond seeing democracy as just casting a vote at elections. The important thing was to get properly involved: 'participation' was the watchword. The catch phrases were 'participatory democracy', as opposed to 'representative democracy'. I think Bill might well have bought all that guff, as did we all.'

The novelist Sara Maitland, another undergraduate friend of Clinton's at Oxford, remembers how theory and practice came together for the Americans. 'I remember Bill and Frank Aller taking me to a pub in Walton Street in the summer term of 1969 and talking to me about the Vietnam war. I knew nothing about it, and when Frank began to describe the napalming of civilians I began to cry. Bill said that feeling bad wasn't good enough. That was the first time I encountered the idea that liberal sensitivities weren't enough and you had to do something about such things.'

Aller, also a Rhodes scholar, committed suicide in 1971, possibly for draft-related reasons. Clinton described him in a letter, in December 1969, as 'a draft resister who is possibly under indictment and may never be able to go home again. He is one of the bravest, best men I know.'

In his second year at Oxford, Clinton shared a house at 46 Leckford Road with Aller, Strobe Talbot, now an editor at Time, and David Satter, now a judge in Massachusetts. They did what they could to oppose the war. Clinton has spoken of helping arrange a 'teach-in' in London. He also, according to another contemporary, Richard McSorley, helped to organise a demonstration outside the US embassy.

Another classmate of Clinton's, Cliff Jackson, now a lawyer in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a political opponent of the Governor, remembers a different Bill Clinton. Jackson says that Clinton at Oxford deceived him into thinking he was not strongly opposed to the war. He says he knew nothing about Clinton's anti-war activities in England until he read about them in excerpts from a book by McSorley, who is a pacifist priest. 'That really surprised me,' Jackson told the Washington Times. 'That was not the Bill Clinton I knew.'

This raises one of the questions that President Bush asks about the Democratic candidate. He accuses Clinton of having 'an incredible desire to say anything on all sides of every issue, depending on who you are trying to please'. Close friends of Clinton's from Oxford say it is unbelievable that anyone who knew him well then could not have known about his anti-Vietnam views, but the complaint that he encourages people of opposing views to believe he agrees with all of them has surfaced throughout Clinton's career. It is a trait that can be employed for conciliation or for deceit. The difference might lie in the eye of the beholder.

Besides the war, the other great issue of the day for Americans was civil rights. The Washington lawyer Tom Williamson, a black Rhodes scholar in Clinton's year, says they often talked about race. 'Bill being from Arkansas, I was quite aware that this guy is from the land of Orval Faubus (a notorious segregationist Governor). But he would say how stupid and irrational racism was, in addition to being immoral.'

The two used to hitch-hike together on their holidays to see something of the country. They found many British people had stereotyped ideas about black and white Americans, and on the road they took to playing a game. When a car stopped, Williamson would say: 'Boy, get in the back of the car]' Clinton would obediently hasten into the back seat, replying, 'Yassuh, yassuh'.

Williamson remembers them talking about whether Clinton could go into politics in Arkansas. 'I would challenge his view that it was possible to be a successful politician in the South and remain a progressive on race issues. But Bill believed that there were a lot of fair-minded people in Arkansas, and that a politician could use the issues that Faubus had used to divide poor people, and make them poorer, to unite them and make them richer.

'I was very sceptical. I'd say I'd been there and seen how things were; but he used to say that that was now, but in 15 years things would be different. I am delighted to say I was dead wrong.'

Clinton never completed his degree. In part this was due to his worry about the draft. According to one contemporary, he thought his first year would be his last and so there was little point in doing the work for a two-year degree; in his second year it was too late to start. This was not seen to matter. Many American Rhodes scholars treated their time at Oxford as a version of the Grand Tour. They had their degree and planned to go to law school when they returned to the US; Oxford was an interesting interlude.

But Clinton certainly read - by his own account '300 and something books' in his first year. Sara Maitland says he also liked to learn by talking to people. He came back one day from the fish and chip shop to say that the woman serving there was typical of the 'political competence of ordinary people in England. He had had a conversation with her that he could not have had in a bar with working-class people in the United States.'

He also made an impression on Oxford. Mandy Merck, now lecturing on feminist writing in New York, arrived at Oxford as an American graduate student in 1969. She met Clinton in her second term and recalls going with him and Sara Maitland, in January 1970, to hear Germaine Greer deliver a lecture on women in literature.

According to Sara Maitland, Greer shocked her pre-feminist audience by talking about copulation and how much better it was with working-class men than bourgeois ones. At question period, she was met with a still silence, until Bill Clinton rose, resplendent in a pink poplin suit and ginger beard. 'In case you ever decide to give bourgeois men another chance,' he said, 'can I give you my phone number?' Greer said she would consider it.

But jokes aside, Clinton was not, in the opinion of the women who knew him well at Oxford, a womaniser. Mandy Merck recalls: 'Bill was plumpish, and ill-kempt, not a ladies' man, although he was flirtatious in an amiable way. In any case, English women at Oxford were indifferent to Rhodes scholars. Mick Jagger-type men with tight hips and flared trousers were in, not wide-bottomed Americans.'

Looking back, Katherine Gieve says: 'My abiding impression of Bill is that he was a softie; he wasn't afraid of expressing his feelings.' Sara Maitland remembers that he took her up to London to the Albert Hall to hear a Mahalia Jackson concert. At the end, Jackson sang, unaccompanied, a version of the Lord's Prayer. 'Bill was just in floods of tears. He said that the music reminded him of home, and it was strange to hear it in the Albert Hall, and it made him just homesick.'

Merck remembers: 'Bill was the first boy I ever 'came out' to. In fact, he was just about the first person outside my circle I ever felt that I could tell I was a lesbian.' While some of the other Rhodes scholars disapproved, Clinton simply treated it as an interesting fact.

When you look under the lid of Bill Clinton's Oxford, it is hard to find the lethal stew of George Bush's rhetorical imaginings. Clinton's concerns and experiences at Oxford were those of a group of young Americans who took part in the most turbulent period of US post-war history. Oxford changed them very little. It gave them some polish and widened their experience of the world, but they remained focused on American issues. For Bush to run against the ethos they embody adds up to running, not against Bill Clinton the Oxford sophisticate, but simply against a younger generation of American.

Sara Maitland

'Bill said that feeling bad about Vietnam wasn't good enough'

Katherine Gieve

'He was a softie. He wasn't afraid of expressing his feelings'

Mandy Merck

'Bill was the first boy that I felt I could tell I was a lesbian'

Germaine Greer

She shocked a student audience by talking about copulation, saying how much better it was with working-class men than the bourgeois. Clinton asked: 'In case you ever decide to give bourgeois men another chance, can I give you my phone number?'

(Photograph omitted)

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