Clinton, a man in a hurry, ends long climb to top


November 04, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The man who was born William Blythe in Hope, Ark., 46 years ago and is now president-elect of the United States has been the classic young man in a hurry, and he gives every indication of continuing that role in the White House.

All through his successful campaign, Bill Clinton was compared with John F. Kennedy, who assumed the presidency in 1961 at the age of 43. But if he is true to his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Clinton will strive to emulate the 51-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1933 set out boldly and quickly to lift the country from economic peril.

Like Roosevelt, Mr. Clinton has promised a "first 100 days" designed to set the country on a new course for economic recovery. Leisurely contemplation has never been his trademark.

By the time he took his stepfather's name and became William Jefferson Clinton at the age of 15 -- his biological father died in a car crash three months before he was born -- the tall and self-confident student was already set on a serious course, studying Latin for four years and taking classes on world affairs at Hot Springs High School.

With an eye on a career in the foreign service, he attended Georgetown University, engaging in heavy discussions about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which he deeply opposed.

He went on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, continuing anti-war protests there in incidents that were to resurface in a way that caused trouble for him 23 years later.

Young Clinton's early, long-term political aspirations were remarkably revealed in the now-famous letter he wrote from England at that time to the ROTC commander at the University of Arkansas law school, which he intended to attend but never did. In it, he candidly acknowledged that he had finally submitted to the draft (but drew a high number) during the Vietnam War "to maintain my political viability within the system."

In the same letter, he wrote: "For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress." That description still fits, albeit tempered in its suggestion of a liberal agenda by his successful effort to cast himself in a more moderate mode.

Three years later, back home at the Yale Law School, where he met his future wife Hillary Rodham, he went to Texas as state campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern and made many more friends in the protest against the Vietnam War that was at the heart of the McGovern candidacy.

It marked him as a young liberal to watch in Arkansas, a state of basic conservatism that nevertheless had produced some leading Democratic liberals, including Gov. Dale Bumpers, now a senator, and Sen. J. William Fulbright, for whom Mr. Clinton was once a low-level aide in Washington.

After a failed bid for a congressional seat in 1974, Mr. Clinton was elected Arkansas attorney general at the age of 30. Two years later, in 1978, he became the nation's youngest governor at 32.

He proved to be a confrontational chief executive, and, in his penchant for getting things done his way in a hurry, he stepped on many toes in the Legislature and in the Arkansas business community. After two years, he was defeated for re-election and joined an Arkansas law firm.

Mr. Clinton has acknowledged that, contemplating the disastrous detour of his political ambitions, he recognized that to make a comeback he had to strike a more cooperative and conciliatory posture with other powers in Arkansas politics, and he did. In 1982, he was elected again for the first of four more consecutive terms as governor.

Always with his eye on national political prominence, he became one of the most active Democratic governors and for a time in 1984 toyed with the notion of seeking the national chairmanship of the Democratic Party. Since such ambitions did not sit well in Arkansas, he abandoned the idea.

He did, however, help organize and eventually become chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a large group of conservative-to-moderate elected officeholders dissatisfied with the leadership the party was getting from the Democratic National Committee and predominantly liberal leadership in Congress.

The leadership council, with Mr. Clinton's aggressive involvement, sought to chart a more middle-of-the-road course and image for the Democratic Party that would demonstrate a clear break from New Deal policies of high taxation and high social-welfare spending. Such policies, council leaders argued, had led to defeat in the presidential elections of 1984 and 1988.

In 1990, when President Bush was riding high and his re-election in 1992 appeared to many Democrats to be a sure thing, Mr. Clinton was one of several leading lights in the party who declined to challenge him. Instead, he ran for re-election on a pledge to finish out the new four-year term he sought.

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