In Clinton, a Past That's Ever Prologue
By David Maraniss
Addington was there at the start, among the first people to join Clinton's staff when the young law professor began his political career in 1974 by running for Congress in northwest Arkansas. Rumors and concerns about Clinton's sex life troubled that first campaign from the beginning. His staff was forced to deal with problems imagined (conservative preachers denouncing Clinton as a homosexual) and real (the delicate situation of their candidate's multiple girlfriends). From this early episode came a series of discomforting questions, and in a sense those questions have never gone away, even as the consequences have magnified immeasurably. They shadowed Clinton to the governor's office in Little Rock and on to Washington, and they returned last week, with more intensity than ever, when his presidency was rocked by allegations that he had an affair with a White House intern and had asked the young woman to lie about it.
The questions are now being asked in countless ways, but they all come down to this: Why?
If Clinton did what he is alleged to have done, why would he do it? If he did it, why would he jeopardize his presidency, a lifelong dream? If he did it, why would he, an inherently cautious politician with an obvious need for public affirmation, follow such a risky and careless private path?
This article, based on hundreds of interviews conducted over the past six years and supplemented by more recent discussions with historians, psychiatrists and psychologists, is an examination of Clinton's history and personality in search of answers to those questions. It does not attempt to sort out the truth of the allegations he now faces but offers a deeper context in which the current controversy can be considered.
Although history is never totally predictive, and human nature even less so, in Clinton's case the patterns seem eerily familiar, as Ron Addington rediscovered the other day. There are repetitive cycles in Clinton's life and recurring traits in his character that go a long way toward anticipating what he will do and, afterward, explaining why he did it.
The repetitive patterns of Clinton's personality become apparent starting with his childhood in a troubled family in small-town Arkansas. The traits that first surfaced then include his tendency to block things out, to compartmentalize different aspects of his life, to deny reality at times, to keep going no matter what obstacles face him, and to feel a constant hunger for affirmation. Other traits are more familiar to historians and psychiatrists as the generic characteristics of many powerful and ambitious men. These include an enormous appetite for life, a powerful sex drive, the ready availability of sexual partners attracted to power, a lack of normal standards of self-control, an addiction to the privileges of public office and a reliance on aides to shield him from public scrutiny of private behavior.
These characteristics serve contradictory purposes, historians and psychiatrists say, at once fueling Clinton's extraordinary rise to power at the same time that they have threatened it. In his cycle of loss and recovery, the traits that account for his success are inseparable from the ones that provoke failure -- the drives and impulses seem one and the same. And because this constant cycle of last-minute recovery from seemingly inevitable disaster has so far ended successfully, with the realization of his lifelong dream not just to be president but a two-term president, Clinton has further developed another trait common among powerful and successful men -- the self-delusion of invincibility.
It was that characteristic, perhaps above all others, according to Washington psychiatrist E. James Lieberman, that might have overtaken Clinton if the allegations are true that he had a sexual relationship with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. "It reminds me of the Titanic," Lieberman said. "Lots of power. Big. Sexy. Thinks he's invulnerable, like the builders of the ship. And here is this 21-year-old iceberg."
That is not to say that the allegations about Clinton's sexual behavior will sink him -- they never have. Before this latest episode, public opinion polls showed that voters cared far less about his private life than his performance in office, which they considered effective enough to elect him to a second term.
Clinton's political career has been prematurely buried before, most notably six Januaries ago when his nascent presidential campaign was besieged with reports that he had dodged the draft and slept with Gennifer Flowers. And there is one other repetitive pattern in his career that might redound to his benefit: In times of trouble, he has been aided unwittingly by his adversaries, who have come across as less sympathetic characters than Clinton, obsessed only with getting him.
Blocking Out Trouble
In the chronology of Clinton's life, the earliest recurring trait that seems relevant to his current dilemma is a tendency toward denial. From an early age, he developed a capacity to block out unpleasant aspects of his life. His mother, Virginia, once said that she could block out problems to the point of denying their existence, and so could her oldest son, a trait they acquired in response to tumult within the family.
Her second husband and Bill's stepfather, Roger Clinton, who came into their lives when Bill was 4, was a philandering alcoholic who at times was verbally and physically abusive. In response, Bill Clinton would pretend that nothing was wrong, that the trouble did not exist. Many of his childhood friends said they were in the house every day and had no idea that Roger Clinton was a violent alcoholic, nor did Bill ever tell them.
The Clintons lived in Hot Springs then, an Arkansas resort town whose very duality reflected, and in some ways helped shape, the characteristics of the family. Virtue and sin coexisted there; the largest illegal gambling operation in the South operated side by side with dozens of Baptist churches, some of them funded with gambling money. Judy Ellsworth, the wife of a mayor during Clinton's childhood days, said the city then was a place where the men "got away with anything they wanted to. They all had mistresses. . . . The men had a way of compartmentalizing their lives. Honesty was never a trait with them. It was never-never land."
The characteristics that Clinton carried with him into his adult life from his family experiences in Hot Springs had both positive and negative effects on him over the years. His capacity to block out and compartmentalize his life -- and to develop a personality in which he could simultaneously accommodate contradictory thoughts and modes of behavior -- helps explain his optimism in the face of difficulties and his remarkable ability to recover from setbacks.
But it also gave him the propensity to drift into his own version of never-never land: trying to avoid and deny unpleasant facts, ignoring necessary but unwanted personal advice from friends and advisers, and at times acting as though they and the problem they wanted to discuss with him did not exist. Many people close to Clinton describe a similar trivial scene to illustrate that larger tendency: Clinton is seated, eating something voraciously, and will neither look at them nor acknowledge what they are saying. Betsey Wright, his longtime aide in Arkansas, said she once became so frustrated by this peculiar little habit of denial -- he was loudly chomping on ice cubes while ignoring her -- that she slapped a chunk of ice out of his hand.
One of the most striking examples of Clinton's tendency toward denial, with far more important consequences, concerned his sex life and presidential aspirations. In the summer of 1987, after Gary Hart, the former Colorado senator, dropped out of the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination in reaction to allegations of marital infidelity, Clinton summoned his top advisers to Little Rock and prepared to enter the race himself.
Rumors of the governor's own extramarital proclivities were again making the rounds, raising the possibility that he would face the same fate as Hart. Wright believed that her boss was in self-denial and refusing to confront his own problem, she said later. She presented him with a list of women with whom he might have had affairs, went over the list twice with him to determine which ones might be troublesome if he entered the presidential race and finally, after the vetting process, urged him not to run. Only then, when confronted so directly, unable to block out the problem, did Clinton back away from the presidential starting line. He explained to his supporters and the press that he did not think he and his family were quite ready for a presidential campaign.
Until being dissuaded at the last moment, Clinton believed that he could get away with something that Hart could not. His overactive sex life had been an issue bubbling near the surface in every campaign he had ever run, since that race for Congress in 1974 when, according to several aides, Clinton would be ushering one of his Arkansas girlfriends out the side door of campaign headquarters while his East Coast wife-to-be, Hillary Rodham, was walking in the front. But he had never really had to face the consequences.
Political scientist Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar, said that Clinton came to think of himself as beyond penalty for his sexual behavior, and from this came hubris. "It seems that he ran along the edge of what most of us would judge to be proper for many years there and never really had to suffer politically for it," Jones said.
Historian Robert Dallek, whose second volume of a biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson is to be published in February, said that in that regard, Clinton reminded him of LBJ. "I think what operates with both these men is that they've gotten so far without being brought down by whatever their transgressions are that there is a built-in assumption that they will keep going and go on forever," Dallek said. "Sure there are allegations, but these guys go on and on, so why change?"
While not relating his thoughts directly to Clinton or the issue of sex, historian Michael Beschloss, who has written books about several presidents, including Johnson and John F. Kennedy, noted that political leaders, "unlike most mortals, are surrounded by people who affirm them all day long, and I think this can cause a leader to feel invulnerable in ways that other human beings don't."
Sex and Power
It is undeniable that Clinton has had an active extramarital sex life since he married his wife in 1975 -- Clinton himself has admitted as much, and friends have privately confirmed it. Could it be that he has a sexual addiction or obsession that overwhelms rational consideration of the public consequences of his private actions?
The American Psychiatric Association has declined to categorize sexual addiction as a medical diagnosis, citing a lack of sufficient evidence. Even defining the problem is difficult. Robert Wise, a Washington area psychiatrist who has studied sexual disorders but dismisses the term sex addict as a phony and misleading diagnosis, pointed out that a supposedly celibate priest who is overtaken by the sexual urge once every three months might seek treatment for obsession, while a man having sex three times a day might consider himself normal.
In any case, there are many people who suffer from their inability to control their sexual drive. Brian Doyle, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School, said that he sees patients "in whom lust overcomes their better judgment -- some people for whom that happens regularly, no matter what is at stake. Sometimes the results are comical and sometimes they are tragic."
Doyle said some experts now think of repetitive compulsive sexual behavior as an impulse control problem in the same spectrum of disorders as obsessive-compulsive behavior. People suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorders can compartmentalize their lives in the extreme; they might spend hours washing their hands in the bathroom while the kitchen sink remains a mess for weeks. That might serve as a metaphor to explain why Clinton seems so cautious in some aspects of his life and so sloppy in others.
During at least one period of his life, there is some evidence that Clinton actively examined his own behavior. He was the governor of Arkansas then, in the mid-1980s, and his brother, Roger, had been convicted and imprisoned on drug charges and was being treated for cocaine addiction. As part of his brother's therapy, Clinton took part in counseling with Roger and their mother, and occasionally went to a therapist alone. After those sessions, he discussed the subject of addiction with several friends.
"I think we're all addicted to something," he said once. "Some people are addicted to drugs. Some to power. Some to food. Some to sex. We're all addicted to something."
There was a history of addiction in Clinton's family: His stepfather was addicted to alcohol, his brother was addicted to cocaine, and his grandmother, Edith Cassidy, in the final years of her life, was addicted to morphine.
Whether sex can be an addiction or not, there is ample evidence of powerful men whose political ambitions seemed matched only by their sexual appetites. One need look no further than Kennedy and Johnson to find examples among Clinton's predecessors in the White House. Viewed in the company of those two, Clinton can argue that he faces an unfair burden. The culture of the times allowed Kennedy and Johnson to avoid even a minute's worth of public controversy over their sexual behavior. JFK's extramarital affairs have been documented and recounted so often that they are treated as just another part of American lore, as familiar as his inaugural address and assassination.
Johnson, according to his historians, was determined not to be outdone by Kennedy. When LBJ was majority leader of the Senate, he maintained what was called a "nooky room" in the Capitol for his illicit liaisons, Dallek says in his forthcoming book, "Flawed Ambition: Lyndon Johnson and His Times." And when people told him tales of Kennedy's womanizing, Johnson would bang the table and say, "God damn it, I had more women by accident than he ever had by design!"
For political leaders with strong sexual appetites, the availability of willing partners always seems to be there, by accident or design. From the moment Clinton became governor in 1979, he was constantly surrounded by eager women. Rudy Moore, his first chief of staff, said the governor's office was visited regularly by an array of provocative women, "hangers-on who could get you in trouble."
Randy White, Clinton's travel aide at the time, said the governor enjoyed nothing more than to go out on the road, where he could frequent clubs late at night, his table encircled by pretty women drawn to the powerful young leader of Arkansas. "He loved the road," White said.
From those early days to now, Clinton's aides and advisers, including his wife, have found themselves working at what might seem to be contradictory purposes. Within his private orbit, they have worked strenuously to shield him from his own most reckless instincts, removing sexual temptations whenever possible.
This was evident during his days as governor when Hillary Clinton and Wright attempted to circumscribe his daily actions. His wife categorized his friends as either good or bad and tried to keep the bad ones away; Wright was constantly checking on his whereabouts. Clinton chafed at her attempts to play the role of protective sister. When she insisted that he not go out on jogs alone, where he might disappear totally from sight for a few hours, Clinton shouted, "I won't have it! I won't have it!"
The effort to protect Clinton from Clinton has continued in his White House years. White House sources say that the reason Lewinsky was transfered out of the White House and over to the Pentagon was that Evelyn Lieberman, a Clinton aide who served the first lady's interests on the staff, became concerned about the young woman's flirtatious nature and the president's noticeable reaction to her.
Yet whenever sexual allegations about Clinton reached a crisis point, Hillary Clinton and Wright served as his chief defenders, dismissing the stories, attacking the accusers, drafting responses, rallying the troops to his cause. Wright spent all of 1992 as a one-woman damage control operation, ferreting out potential problems on the Clinton sex front, looking for what she called, with typical sarcasm, "bimbo eruptions."
Hillary Clinton's role that year, as always, was even more pivotal. Political scientists say it is doubtful that Clinton would be president today if she had not dismissed Gennifer Flowers's claim of having a 12-year affair with Clinton as something comparable to an Elvis sighting and then agreed to sit by his side on CBS's "60 Minutes" as he acknowledged earlier "problems" in the marriage.
There have been many times during their 23 years as a married couple that Hillary Clinton has expressed intense private anger with her husband's behavior, according to friends. But her commitment to his politics, to their shared love of policy, always proved stronger than any urge to turn away from him. When the latest allegations broke last week, there was immediate speculation that this time she would have to leave. The repetitive patterns of their life together suggested otherwise, that she would do what she began doing Friday morning -- calling all their friends with one more rallying cry.
Presidential scholar Jones calls all of this "the protective patina" -- a phenomenon that surrounds all political leaders to varying degrees and that he found particularly apparent in Clinton's history. His wife and other loyalists have worked tirelessly to get him and themselves to where they are today, running the country, and to get there they have come to Clinton's defense again and again, one of the repetitive patterns of his career. "Their futures are hooked to this person," Jones said, and as such their defensive responses become predictable.
There is in all politicians, unavoidably, a need to be loved. Clinton's need has always been powerful. He hates to be alone, even if it means calling a friend to come over and watch him play solitaire. With his capacity to compartmentalize his life, he is always opening new compartments. The repetitive pattern of his life is that if he does not have a mission to consume his energy -- a major initiative or election challenge -- he becomes prone to depression and private disarray. He is driven by the words that his aides back in Arkansas used to hear every day from him: What else. What else.
David Maraniss is the author of "First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton."
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