Citizens of the United States of America go to the polls to elect their new president. It is a challenge to the last vote between Republican candidate George Walker Bush and Democrat Al Gore. At the end of the counting, the outcome of the votes in Florida is decisive: amid uncertainties and twists and turns, the vote count goes on until December 12, when Bush’s very narrow victory is announced. The new president will be sworn in on January 20, 2001, when he will receive orders from the outgoing president, Bill Clinton.
A troubled childhood
It was only finally understood, after eight years of controversy and passion, what the secret truth of William Jefferson Clinton’s presidency was: between him and the nation that elected and re-elected him there was no political history, but a love story that, like all true stories of passion, has never been easy. Those who knew him well, those who had accompanied him on his journey from the poorest countryside of deep America in Arkansas to the highest throne of power in Washington, had tried to explain what was the spring that moved this man. For example, Betsy Wright, one of her assistants, friends and advisors since the first election campaigns, had said with great female sensitivity: “Bill is an eternal teenager who desperately loves people, behind his pout,
It is a widespread and now almost inevitable temptation for contemporary historians and biographers to seek in psychology, or even in psychoanalysis, the subjective key to interpret the behaviors and decisions of the major personalities. And if, like all cultural fads, even this one of psycho-history can be pushed too far and pretend to explain Nazism through Adolf Hitler’s relations with his mother or Stalinism with the traumas of the young Josif Dzugasvili in the orthodox seminary of Tbilisi, Clinton’s presidency takes us back with arrogance, page after page, success after success and disaster after disaster, to his training as a man, to the terrible years of his childhood, to the all-consuming need to be successful, to escape his fate, and to please everyone,
Bill Clinton was born an orphan. In fact, not even Clinton was born, but William Jefferson Blythe III, the son of an auto parts salesman who crashed into a pole in his car when his wife Virginia was six months pregnant. In the poor rural village of Hope, Arkansas, where Clinton was born on August 19, 1946, under the sign of the Lion and the ‘great watermelon’ that that village, as its glory, boasts of having produced, there was even a rumor that not even the traveling salesman who died in the car was the natural father. It was rumored that Virginia’s son had been conceived while on leave at the home of a soldier who was later killed in the war and was therefore, in the inhuman and brutal language of that time and that province, a ‘bastard’.
Gossip, slander, rumors swirled around the mother like tornadoes that so often break out in these parts of the United States. Virginia was an unscrupulous young woman, for those times and those climates, an avid gambler, a frequenter of saloonsalways with a cigarette between her lips, a woman who worked – she was a nurse – and therefore, in the semantics of the time, ‘chat’. In villages like Hope, chatter counts, it cuts cruel, indifferent to the truth, living a life of its own in the repetition from word to mouth, among the taverns and benches of the Southern Baptist churches. For this reason, to find a minimum of petty bourgeois respectability for oneself herself and for that fatherless child,
Virginia hastened to remarry, not looking too much for the subtle. The new husband was Roger Clinton, who was a Buick auto dealer and a violent alcoholic.
The childhood of the future president of the United States would, today, be a matter for complaints to the judiciary. Roger Clinton moved his wife and Bill to another Arkansas town, a spa called Hot Springs which was a small provincial Sodom and Gomorrah in the 1940s and 1950s. With the sulphurous waters of the thermal baths, a thriving industry of vice, gambling, prostitution, drugs, corruption, which the politicians of the time protected and exploited, had gushed out in Hot Springs. The hand of the federal government, the FBI and Washington was very far away and the South, in those years, lived quietly in its racial and moral apartheid.
In this city, Bill Clinton grew up, clinging to his mother. Like so many of his peers, he could easily have accommodated himself in the languid flow of Southern life, he too aspired, like his father and stepfather, to a job as a salesman, as a traveling salesman, with no other ambition than a new car every two years, a little house with porch, the wooden porch in front, and a can of cold beer in hand in the sweltering evenings. But the house, and therefore the image of his future life, in which Bill, ‘Bubba’ as his friends called him, returned, was the best antidote to temptation. Often, very often, in the teenage years, Bubba was forced to run home, desperately called by his stepbrother Roger, to snatch his mother Virginia from the hands of her husband who beat her in a savage way. “If you touch my mother again I’ll kill you,” he shouted, while his stepbrother, who as an adult would have had to fight and overcome a heavy addiction to cocaine, sobbed. “I was already forty when I turned sixteen” Bill himself would later say.
In the darkness of this Faulknerian “fury” adolescence, a light suddenly came on. Hot Springs High School organized a trip to Washington in 1963 to visit the sacred monuments of American history. Bill Clinton had joined a kids’ organization created by politicians from the same party as the incumbent president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Democratic Party, and, as American political leaders often do to ingratiate themselves with local ‘bosses’, the White House invited those provincial boys to meet the president. Virginia Clinton’s son, ‘chatting’ and ‘abusing’ her, found himself, on a memorable morning, standing in front of Kennedy, his hand in the hand of a president who had no idea who he was, among the hundreds of hands he had to hold. But that meeting changed the story of his life and the history of America. The boy Bubba decided – and only in America can such a sentence be said and written without sounding crazy – that one day he would take the place of the man who shook his hand in the garden of the White House.