Maraniss' Clinton biography: a private man

March 12, 1995|By Lars-Erik Nelson | Lars-Erik Nelson,Special to The Sun

"First in his Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton," by David Maraniss. Illustrated. 512 pages. New York: Simon & Schuster. $25

In the bumpersticker ads at the back of conservative magazines and in the rhetoric of political opponents like Newt Gingrich, the young Bill Clinton is generally portrayed as a pot-smoking, hippie, anti-American, Sixties radical - a "counterculture McGovernik," in Gingrich's phrase. That caricature should not survive this exhaustive and exhausting biography. The mundane truth is that Clinton, to use an old-fashioned word, was and is utterly bourgeois.

Young Bill Clinton was an obedient child, respectful of his elders. He was, at least at first, a conscientious scholar, well-liked by his teachers and clergymen. He was a saxophonist in the high school marching band, the perennially successful candidate for student government, and, in the anti-war movement at Oxford, a moderating influence. When angry college students of his generation occupied libraries, Clinton drove around Georgetown in a convertible. If he ever had trouble meeting a tuition bill, it doesn't show here. He dutifully wrote letters home to his grandmother. He charmed total strangers into welcoming him into their homes. And, according to Maraniss, he really did not inhale.

As for Hillary, the supposed radical feminist, she was a volunteer for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and a committed church-goer who repeatedly turns to her Methodist youth group leader for advice. In college, she worked for children's causes and was active in Democratic politics. But the notion of America's first couple as part of the "counterculture" turns out to be ludicrous.

Maraniss' Clinton is a big, easy-going, nice-looking guy from Middle America with a late-blooming attractiveness to women and a kooky sense of humor. When feminist writer Germaine Greer told an audience of Oxford students that intellectuals were lousy lovers, a bearded young American giant rose and asked for her telephone number in case she ever changed her mind. This is your president.

His obsession with politics defies belief. When he barely escaped death in a charter-plane flight in his first campaign in 1974, he raged: "I could have been killed up there. My political career would have been over before it began!"

The real and imagined scandals that have plagued Clinton's presidency do not receive much illumination here. His anti-war activities were tame. His anguished tango with the Hot Springs draft board, which Maraniss covers in excruciating detail, is stuff for yawns now that his major political foes are contemporaries - like Gingrich, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, Pat Buchanan - who also escaped the draft, apparently with much less soul-searching. Maraniss reports that there was widespread gossip in Arkansas about Clinton's extramarital sex-life, but offers no evidence or names. Gennifer Flowers, who claims to have had an affair with Clinton, is not even mentioned until six pages before the end of the book. The Whitewater "scandal" is barely mentioned and there is no evidence of wrongdoing.

What has Maraniss told us about Clinton's character that we did not already suspect? Not a lot, except for abundant and at times maddening details about his early life. His mother was a flirt. His real father was a skirt chaser and his stepfather was a drunk. He argues with his wife. Lord save all of you from so diligent a biographer. On the other hand, Maraniss proves that most of what Clinton's enemies say about him is untrue. Whitewater is not much of a scandal, his 1970 trip to Moscow was innocent and the gossip about his sex life remains just gossip.

Clinton did not cooperate with Maraniss, and it shows. For all Maraniss' digging - and this book is about a third too long - the president remains an elusive figure. He is intelligent, charming, fanatical about politics, loyal to friends and inspiring uncommon loyalty in them, and at the end, still a private human being.

Lars-Erik Nelson, Washington columnist for Newsday, has covered the capital since 1981, until 1993 as bureau chief for the New York Daily News. Before that, he was diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, in Moscow, Prague and London.

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