Bill Clinton's Hidden Life

There is much more to the Democratic nominee than meets the eye.

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This story originally appeared in the July 20, 1992, issue of U.S.News & World Report.

Americans think they know all about Bill Clinton. He's the presidential candidate who befriended Gennifer Flowers, avoided the draft and didn't inhale. "Maybe I underestimated the importance of biography in this campaign," Clinton told U.S. News last week, acknowledging that he lost control during the Democratic primaries over how the public viewed him. "I was shocked. Most people thought I came from a wealthy family and occupied a position in a state in the middle of the country until I could run for president. It was crazy."

U.S. News editors Donald Baer, Matthew Cooper and David Gergen engaged Clinton in a series of interviews about his life, his hopes and his struggles. A similar interview with Ross Perot has already appeared in U.S. News, and the same invitation for an in-depth conversation has been issued to George Bush. What follows is an edited text of Clinton's own words.

Youth. There are positive and negative things coming out of my childhood. If you had clothes on your back and a place to sleep and food to eat and you had people to love you and to discipline you, you were by definition not poor; you were rich, because you had the elements of a successful life. There was no sense of entitlement to anything more. In an alcoholic family [Clinton's stepfather was an alcoholic], I grew up with a much greater empathy for other people's problems than the average person has. It made me a lot more self-reliant and tougher than I might have been. And I learned some good skills about how to keep people together and try to work things out. On the negative side, if you grow up in an environment that causes you to want to avoid trouble, you tend to try to keep the peace at all costs. A leader can't do that. All my life, I've had to work to draw the line in the dirt, to make conflict my friend, not my enemy.

My natural father was killed in a car wreck about three months before I was born. I once went out to find the place where he died on Highway 61 in Missouri, where he just slipped off the wet road. He fell into a ditch full of water face down and drowned. It was just a fluke. I guess in ways I never permitted myself to admit, I missed my father terribly. I think because my father had died and my mother was probably a little too protective, I always had a desire to avoid conflict, which has led my political enemies to underestimate me.

My commitment to civil rights was basically inbred through my grandparents, who ran a grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood. They knew a lot of black people and thought they'd gotten a raw deal. I remember where I was when Martin Luther King gave that "I had a dream" speech in 1963. I was home in Hot Springs, Ark., in a white reclining chair all by myself. I just wept like a baby all the way through it.

When I was 16, I decided if I had a chance I would go into politics. I had been interested in being a musician, a physician or a politician. While I was very good at music, I would never be great. In politics, I thought I had unique abilities—I was genuinely interested in people and in solving problems. It was something I could be good at, something I could love.

Religious faith. I was very influenced as a child by the biblical stories of the Pharisees and the modern-day Pharisees I saw saying one thing and doing another. I came to see my church as a place not for saints but for sinners, for people who know they're weak, not who pretend to be strong. When I was a kid, I walked alone a mile or so to my church every Sunday. It wasn't something my parents did, but I somehow felt the need. I joined the Baptist church when I was 9. After I went off to college, I became an erratic churchgoer, even when I came back to Arkansas [after Georgetown University, a Rhodes Scholarship in England and Yale Law School]. But in 1978, when I got elected governor, it was important to me to have a dedicatory service. I selected a church whose minister, W.O. Vaught, I respected a lot, even though a lot of people thought I was this young firebrand and he was an old conservative minister. But I loved him a lot. After the service, my wife persuaded me to start going there and to join the choir—she said I obviously felt the need. Now, I pray virtually every day, usually at night, and I read the Bible every week.