The President's Mother

January 11, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

The death of Virginia Kelley, President Bill Clinton's mother, is especially stunning because she was such a survivor. It is a shame to observe that this lively woman did not live to see her son complete his first year in office.

She married five times, twice to the same man (Mr. Clinton's stepfather). Three of her husbands died, one in a car accident, one of alcoholism, one of diabetes. One son went to jail for drug possession. These are heavy blows for anyone to bear.

It is common to hear that she bore up because she's a strong woman. That is undoubtedly true in some sense. But she also bounced back because she was able to shrug things off. When I went to see her about the deposition her son signed in his teens supporting her petition for divorce from an abusive husband, she said she did not remember the process of having that deposition taken. I read her the name of the lawyer (from the official record), and she could not remember that.

Even more astonishing, she could not remember for sure whether the divorce had ever been completed. She thought it was, and that she quickly remarried the same man; but she could not summon up a particular memory of the place or the officiator of that remarriage. Only when I checked the county records was she reminded of the date and circumstances.

She told me that forgetting dark and disagreeable things was a trait she shared with her son Bill. And, sure enough. He had a hard time remembering details of that unfortunate time. This is a measure of just how tough the experience was. No wonder there was such a close bond between mother and son. They had been through the wars together.

Gail Sheehy, who has a snap-judgment reading of every president's psyche, thinks that Mr. Clinton shows a certain weakness in his dependence on strong women like Ms. Kelley and Hillary Rodham Clinton. But it was the young Mr. Clinton who stood up to his abusive stepfather, telling him not to hit his mother again, and who gave the divorce deposition to a lawyer. Ms. Kelley told me that she had tried to prevent a showdown between the two.

When I asked Ms. Kelley if Bill got his ideas from her, she said he was the first to question many of the attitudes she grew up with in a small Southern town. He raised her consciousness in that respect. She especially singled out the treatment of blacks to give him credit for enlightening her.

When I asked Mr. Clinton if he took his religious faith from his mother, he said no, that he was the most churchgoing member of his family when he was young. Ms. Kelley grew more religious in older life.

Actually, despite Ms. Sheehy, there were many strong father figures in Mr. Clinton's young years -- his church minister, his music teacher, his scoutmaster and several of those civic officials who gave him awards when he was a boy.

What Mr. Clinton took from his mother was her warmth. She was a toucher, a hugger, a giver. Gracious and outgoing, she made anyone who entered her home feel instantly at ease, almost part of the family.

That is a characteristic of Bill Clinton, too. It is partly a matter of the mother's and the son's shared Southernness. People from other regions often find this instant intimacy forced. It seems to thrust personal ties on one too fast. But it is not insincere.

Ms. Kelley worked all her life, even when she did not need to, because she liked the company of others, liked going out and meeting new people every day. It is an impoverishment of all those unmet people still out there that, hard as she worked at it, energetically as she circulated, she will never get to know any more of them.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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