LITTLE ROCK, ARK — LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- He was born without a father or a family fortune, in a town where modest expectations were good enough for most boys.
But growing up in Hope and later in Hot Springs, Bill Clinton never recognized the limits that circumscribed the lives of others. From an early age, he was fired by ambition and a larger sense of himself.
Biographers seeking to identify the time he started on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination tonight might settle on 1962. That's when he met President Kennedy, as a 16-year-old delegate to the Boys Nation leadership program.
"When he came back from Washington and showed me the picture of his shaking the hand of John Kennedy and I saw the expression on his face, I knew that politics, government, would be his career," says his mother and first fan, Virginia Kelley.
It has been an impressive career: elected state attorney general in 1976, governor in 1978. He has lost only two races, and at the age of 45 he has been governor for 11 years.
And yet, even as he prepares for a triumphal entry into Madison Square Garden tomorrow, Mr. Clinton's prospects for the White House are clouded by questions about his character. Allegations of marital infidelity and draft dodging and general evasiveness have made him suspect in the eyes of many s voters.
Critics who have labeled him "Slick Willie" and "pander bear" see in him an inclination to shade the truth and an excessive desire to please everybody.
But Mr. Clinton says he should be judged by the fuller picture people have of him in Arkansas. Scores of journalists have tried ++ to do that, exhaustively investigating his background and political record.
So far, they have turned up nothing more damaging than the accusations he has already encountered during the campaign, and much that commends him. Which doesn't surprise his mother, who is always ready to set voters straight about her son.
Mrs. Kelley often greets interviewers while wearing "Bill Clinton for President" earrings. Her house on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, which she shares with her fourth husband (she was widowed three times), is decorated with photographs chronicling Clinton's childhood and career. Outside, there's a doghouse painted with the words, "Bill Clinton for Governor."
"I'm going to tell you this right now, so you won't forget it," she says after getting a visitor a glass of water. "You're going to find there's not a more honest, compassionate man alive than Bill Clinton."
Mrs. Kelley's defensiveness about her son owes something to his defense of her as a youth. Her husband and his father, William Jefferson Blythe 3rd, a traveling salesman, died in a car accident four months before Mr. Clinton was born on Aug. 19, 1946, in Hope, Ark. The baby was named William Jefferson Blythe 4th.
Four years later, she married Roger Clinton, a car dealer who moved the family to Hot Springs. He abused alcohol and his wife, forcing young Bill to play peacemaker and protector. Though they divorced, the couple later remarried. Bill, who took his stepfather's last name, also reconciled with him, visiting him regularly when his stepfather was dying of cancer.
Forgive and forget the bad is a family trait, Mrs. Kelley suggests. For his part, Mr. Clinton believes that the experience with his stepfather helped shape his political personality.
"I learned to be a peacemaker in my home, both forcibly and in non-forcible ways," he told an interviewer on MTV. "The good news is that I'm always trying to make things better. But the bad news is sometimes I try too hard to make peace when you just have to cut it and recognize that conflict is inevitable."
Mr. Clinton says his experiences with an alcoholic stepfather made him older than his years. That's how he struck Virgil Spurlin, who was his band director at Hot Springs High School. "To me he acted like an adult."
He stood out academically and in music. He mastered the tenor saxophone, became a leader in school clubs. Judging by the numerous inscriptions in his 1964 high school yearbook, which his mother proudly shows to visitors, he had many admiring friends.
There was hardly anything Mr. Clinton didn't excel at in school, except sports -- though tall, he was inclined to pudginess, his mother says. No one who has watched his weight shoot up on the campaign trail is surprised by that.
His drama teacher termed him "a natural" and in his senior year cast him in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
Preparing for Politics
With graduation approaching at Hot Springs High, Mr. Clinton decided that his growing interest in public service would best be served at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He was accepted and quickly made a mark there.
According to one oft-told story, he read 300 books one year. He won a Rhodes Scholarship and went to Oxford University in England to study. Later he received a law degree from Yale University.