Bill Clinton was born on August 19, 1946, in Hope, Arkansas. In 1975, he married Hillary Rodham. The following year, he was elected attorney general of Arkansas, and in 1978 he became the youngest governor in the country. Elected U.S. president in 1992, Clinton enacted such legislation as the Family and Medical Leave Act and oversaw two terms of economic prosperity. He was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998 following the revelation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but was acquitted by the Senate in 1999. Since leaving office, Clinton has remained on the global stage by working with the Clinton Foundation and campaigning for his wife, Hillary Clinton, who ran for U.S. president in the 2008 and 2016 elections.
William Jefferson Clinton, better known as Bill Clinton, was born on August 19, 1946, in Hope, Arkansas, a small town with a population of about 8,000. His father, William Jefferson Blythe, had died in a car crash three months before Clinton was born, leaving him in the care of his mother, Virginia Cassidy Blythe.
To provide for her son, Virginia moved to New Orleans, Louisiana to study anesthesiology, while Clinton stayed with his grandparents, Eldridge and Edith Cassidy. While opposites in many ways—Eldridge was easygoing and Edith the disciplinarian—both lavished attention on the young boy, instilling in him the importance of a good education. "My grandparents had a lot to do with my early commitment to learning," Clinton later recalled. "They taught me to count and read. I was reading little books when I was 3."
Clinton's mother returned to Arkansas with her nursing degree in 1950. Later that year she married an automobile salesman named Roger Clinton, who soon moved the family back to his hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Although neither his parents nor his grandparents were religious, Clinton became a devoted Baptist from a very young age. On Sunday mornings, he woke himself up, put on his best dress clothes and walked the mile to Park Place Baptist Church to attend services alone.
Throughout his childhood, Clinton grew increasingly disturbed by his stepfather's drinking and abusive behavior toward his mother and younger half-brother. At the age of 14, already standing more than 6 feet tall, Clinton finally snapped. He told his stepfather, "If you want them, you'll have to go through me." The abuse stopped but the drinking continued, and the tension persisted at home even after Roger and Virginia's 1962 divorce and subsequent reconciliation.
Clinton attended Hot Springs High School, a segregated all-white school, where he was a stellar student and a star saxophonist for the school band. The principal of Hot Springs High, Johnnie Mae Mackey, placed a special emphasis on producing students devoted to public service, and she developed a strong bond with the smart and politically inclined Clinton.
In late spring 1963, Clinton attended Boys State, an American Legion program designed to introduce students to government service. He was elected an Arkansas representative to Boys Nation in Washington, D.C., earning him an invitation to meet President John F. Kennedy at the White House Rose Garden. A photograph of the young Bill Clinton shaking hands with President Kennedy has become an iconic image symbolizing a passing of the baton between generations of modern Democratic leadership. On the same trip, Clinton met another of his political heroes, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee J. William Fulbright.
Upon graduating from high school in 1964, Clinton enrolled at Georgetown University to study international affairs. He immediately thrust himself into university politics, serving as the president of his freshman and sophomore classes, though he lost the election for student body president as a junior. The political hopeful also began working as a clerk for the Foreign Relations Committee under Senator Fulbright, one of Congress's most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War. Clinton came to share Fulbright's view that the war was both immoral and contrary to the country's best interests.
Prior to graduating from Georgetown in 1968, Clinton won a highly prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study for two years at Oxford University. However, in the spring of 1969, Clinton received his draft notice and was forced to return to Arkansas. Clinton avoided military service by enrolling in the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas Law School, but instead of attending law school that fall, he returned to Oxford (and later claimed he had permission to do so). Feeling guilty about his decision to avoid the draft, Clinton resubmitted his name to the draft board, but he received a high enough lottery number to assure that he would not have to serve in Vietnam.
Clinton returned to the U.S. in 1970 to matriculate at Yale Law School. The following spring, he met a bright young Wellesley College graduate named Hillary Rodham, who shared his political ambitions. The pair graduated from Yale in 1973 and married two years later in 1975. They had their only child, a daughter named Chelsea, in 1980.
Early Political Career and Arkansas Governor
After graduating from Yale, the Clintons moved to Arkansas, where Bill began teaching at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville and thrust himself into politics. In 1974, he challenged Republican incumbent John Paul Hammerschmidt for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Clinton lost the race, but it was closer than expected, and the campaign marked him as a rising star of the Arkansas Democratic Party. Two years later, Clinton was elected state attorney general, and then in 1978, at the age of 32, he easily defeated Republican Lynn Lowe to become the youngest governor in the country.
Working closely with his wife, Hillary, Clinton set out on an ambitious agenda to reform the state's education and health care systems. However, hampered by his youth and political inexperience, he made several blunders as governor. Clinton mishandled the riots by Cuban refugees interned at Fort Chaffee and instituted a highly unpopular fee hike on auto licenses. At the time, Arkansas governors served only two-year terms, and at the conclusion of Clinton's term in 1980 a little-known Republican challenger named Frank White shockingly knocked him out of office.
Although the loss devastated Clinton, he refused to let it put an end to his promising political career. After spending some time working at the Arkansas law firm of Wright, Lindsey & Jennings in Little Rock, Clinton once again sought out the governorship in 1982. Freely admitting his past mistakes and beseeching voters to give him a second chance, Clinton swept back into office. This time he would hold onto the job for four consecutive terms.
As governor, Clinton took a centrist approach, championing a mix of traditionally liberal and conservative causes. Appointing Hillary to head a committee on education reform, he instituted more rigorous educational standards and established competence tests for teachers. Clinton also championed affirmative action, appointing record numbers of African Americans to key government positions. At the same time, Clinton favored the death penalty and put in place welfare reforms designed to put recipients back to work. Also noteworthy was Clinton's tactic of running the government like a political campaign, constantly consulting public opinion polls and pitching policies through carefully orchestrated advertising campaigns.
Seeking to increase his national profile, Clinton served as chairman of the National Governors Association from 1986-87, and at the end of the decade he became chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate Democrats seeking to move the party in a centrist direction. However, at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Clinton squandered an opportunity to announce himself as an obvious future presidential candidate when he delivered an excruciatingly long and boring nomination speech for Michael Dukakis. In a skillful bit of political damage control, Clinton quickly made fun of his disastrous speech on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
In 1992, Clinton easily defeated his competitors in the Democratic primaries to become the party's nominee for the presidency, choosing Tennessee Senator Al Gore as his vice presidential running mate. The Republican incumbent, President George H.W. Bush, was vulnerable in the election of 1992 because he had broken his celebrated campaign promise not to raise taxes and, especially, because the national economy was mired in recession.
Although Clinton's campaign was troubled by accusations of draft dodging and rumors of marital infidelity, he managed to turn the narrative by portraying himself as a hard-working, family man. Additionally, he successfully hammered home his economic message, underscored by chief strategist James Carville's pithy slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." Clinton was also aided by the surprisingly successful third-party campaign of billionaire Ross Perot, who siphoned off a significant portion of the Republican vote from President Bush. On November 3, 1992, Bill Clinton was elected the 42nd president of the United States.
Despite several notable accomplishments, including the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, the implementation of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy for LGBT military personnel and the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Clinton's first years in office left him politically vulnerable. Through a task force headed by First Lady Hillary Clinton, he endorsed a massive health care reform act that was designed to provide universal coverage. The bill failed to move through Congress, however, and became a massive political disaster, leading to Republicans regaining control of both houses of Congress in 1994.
However, in an impressive political comeback, President Clinton again embraced centrist policies and rhetoric to restore his popularity in advance of the 1996 election. In 1994, he signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a law that added 100,000 policemen and instituted harsher punishments for a variety of crimes, and in 1996 he signed a law increasing the national minimum wage. Additionally, he emerged favorably from a budget dispute with House Republicans that resulted in a pair of government shutdowns in 1995, the second of which lasted three weeks. Although a one-term presidency had seemed a foregone conclusion two years earlier, in 1996 Clinton handily defeated Republican challenger Bob Dole to secure a second term in office.
Clinton's greatest accomplishment as president was leading the nation to a period of strong economic prosperity. While Clinton was in office, the nation enjoyed the lowest unemployment rates in decades, as well as a surge in median income and a rise in home-ownership rates.
Clinton's foreign policy achievements included presiding over the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, during which the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat occurred, stabilizing war-torn Bosnia through the Dayton Peace Accords and helping to end Serbia's ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. However, the failure of the American military mission in Somalia and subsequent inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda, both from Clinton's first term, stand out as major blemishes on his foreign policy record.
Clinton's reputation also suffered from scandal in his personal life. His second term in the White House was dominated by the Monica Lewinsky scandal; the president at first denied, and then later admitted, that he had sexual relations with the White House intern. A panel-appointed prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, initially charged with investigating Clinton's Whitewater investments as Arkansas governor, had expanded his investigation to expose the affair. In 1998 he produced an explicit report with salacious details, known as the Starr Report, which outlined a case for impeachment.
That December, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted to impeach the president for perjury and obstruction of justice for his actions in the Lewinsky affair. However, in February 1999, following a five-week trial, the Senate voted to acquit Clinton on both articles of impeachment.
In the years since his presidency concluded in 2001, Bill Clinton has remained active on the global stage. Through the William J. Clinton Foundation (founded in 1997 and later renamed the Clinton Foundation), he created the Clinton Climate Initiative, dedicated to supporting research to combat climate change; the Clinton Global Initiative, which connects entrepreneurs and world leaders to foster new ideas and action; and the Haiti Fund, dedicated to rebuilding Haiti in the aftermath of its devastating 2010 earthquake. According to Clinton, the foundation's mission is "to alleviate poverty, improve global health, strengthen economies and protect the environment, by fostering partnerships among governments, businesses, nongovernmental organizations and private citizens."
Having published his first book, Between Hope and History, prior to the 1996 election, the former president in 2004 followed with a best-selling autobiography, My Life. Clinton has since published two more books, Giving (2007) and Back to Work (2011). He also played an active role in Hillary Clinton's failed 2008 presidential bid and, afterward, in Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign.
Despite facing an enormous backlash from the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton rejuvenated his image and remained popular among Democratic supporters. Assessments of his successes and failures reflect the political divides of the moment, and history has yet to reveal the full consequences of many of his policies. Nevertheless, Clinton himself offered his own preliminary evaluation of his presidency in his memoirs: "I judge my presidency primarily in terms of its impact on people's lives. That is how I kept score: all the millions of people with new jobs, new homes and college aid; the kids with health insurance and after-school programs; the people who left welfare for work; the families helped by the family leave law; the people living in safer neighborhoods—all those people have stories, and they're better ones now."
In Recent Years
Clinton showed his support for the Democratic 2012 election candidates, incumbents President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In his speech at the convention, Clinton said that he wanted Obama to be the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, calling him a president who's "cool on the outside, but who burns for America on the inside." The speech garnered wide success for Clinton in the form of positive news reports and social-network posts by fans.
In November 2013, Clinton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor awarded to civilians. Recipients of the medal are chosen for their “meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” according to the White House website.
On September 26, 2014, Clinton became a grandfather when daughter Chelsea gave birth to Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky. His second grandchild, Aidan Clinton Mezvinsky, was born on June 18, 2016.
Campaigning for Hillary
Clinton has continued to be a force behind his foundation, which has overseen the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars from corporations, governments and individuals to global-minded charitable works. The organization has dealt with issues ranging from providing increased access to HIV/AIDS medications to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The former president has also remained in the media spotlight with special appearances that have included administering the oath of office in 2014 to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and eulogizing boxing legend Muhammad Ali in 2016.
Having previously served as secretary of state under the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton eventually launched a new campaign to be elected commander-in-chief. In July 2016, she became the official Democratic nominee for the American presidency, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to win a major political party's presidential nomination. During the Democratic National Convention, Bill, who had previously campaigned on behalf of his wife, spoke at length about the history of their dating and marriage, her Civil Rights work, her work on behalf of children, her commitment to diversity and the disenfranchised, her professional dedication as a public servant and her overall tenacity. "For this time, Hillary is uniquely qualified to seize the opportunities and reduce the risks we face, and she is still the best darn change maker I have ever known," he said in his speech.
After one of the most contentious presidential races in U.S. history, during which the Clinton Foundation came under attack as a "pay-for-play" service for the rich and powerful, Republican Donald Trump earned the majority of electoral votes and defeated Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016. Trump's stunning victory defied pre-election polls and was considered a resounding rejection of establishment politics by blue-collar and working-class Americans.
The day following the election, Bill Clinton, daughter Chelsea and her husband, along with vice presidential running mate Tim Kaine and his wife, stood behind Hillary Clinton as she delivered an emotional concession speech. "Our campaign was never about one person, or even one election," Hillary Clinton told her supporters. "It was about the country we love and building an America that is hopeful, inclusive, and big-hearted. We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power."
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