Clinton opens painful childhood to voters in confessional film biography DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

July 17, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- When Bill Clinton talks about his childhood, keep a tissue handy.

The Democratic presidential candidate is sharing with America the most painful chapter in his life story: the violence and trauma caused by his late stepfather, who was an alcoholic and abused Mr. Clinton's mother.

"Don't you ever, ever lay your hand on my mother again," he once told his stepfather, his mother relates in a biographical film shown at the Democratic National Convention last night.

Mr. Clinton has been talking about this period of his life increasingly in recent interviews, all part of a campaign effort to present a personal portrait to voters.

Voters are not used to such intimacy from their presidential candidates. Normally, politicians burnish their pasts, sticking to what is positive and skipping over what is not.

Mr. Clinton is pushing the limits of campaign biography because he wants to overcome the effects of the character beating he took in the primary campaign. But there are risks involved, if Americans feel he is going too far in revealing himself.

"He has to humanize himself and stop somewhere before he becomes too human," says political consultant Raymond Strother, who worked on three of Mr. Clinton's gubernatorial campaigns in Arkansas.

Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald says, however, "I don't think truth is damaging."

Mr. Clinton never knew his father, who died months before he was born. His mother, Virginia Kelley, eventually married car dealer Roger Clinton. When Bill was 15, he changed his last name from Blythe to Clinton to please his stepfather.

"Roger Clinton was an alcoholic," Mrs. Kelley says of him in the film. "A good man, and if he ever loved anything in this world it was Bill."

The scene shifts to Bill Clinton, who in a soft voice tinged with emotion says that when he was in the ninth grade, his drunken stepfather "got violent with my mother one night." He said he warned him "he wasn't going to do that anymore."

"I never stopped loving my stepfather or thinking he was really good," Mr. Clinton says. "And later on I wished I had known more about human psychology as a child than I did, because I came to realize that he was a good person and that the problem wasn't that he did not love my mother; the problem was that he didn't think enough of himself."

In interviews, Mr. Clinton speculates that having to be a peacemaker in his family made him a lifelong conciliator, sometimes too much so. It's a trait that critics say undermines his political character and makes him appear at times too slick or even deceitful.

In a PBS/NBC interview Wednesday he was asked about a Time magazine profile that showed "you have a dangerous talent, a puppy-like eagerness to please" rooted in "your difficult circumstances" as a child.

"I think that that's true," Mr. Clinton responded. "I think that that is something that I have to be very sensitive about. I wouldn't say so much an eagerness to please as an eagerness to work out problems.

"People who grow up in alcoholic homes sometimes overdevelop their skills of reconciliation and peacemaking and accommodation," he added. "But in my life, I've also been in some very tough fights and I've had to stake out some high ground that was hard to reach."

Mr. Clinton's frankness isn't just an image ploy, Mr. Strother says. It partly reflects the fact that his generation is more comfortable than President Bush's generation with such psychological discussions.

"Part of it comes out from the Southern Baptist tradition of confession," Mr. Strother observes.

Though he is "taking some chances" by being so confessional, Mr. Strother says, "he's probably right." And has little to lose. His image was so damaged in the primaries, "he can't wreck it more than it's been wrecked."

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