Friends See Mother's Style in Clinton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 1998; Page A01
CHICAGO, Aug. 10Virginia Cassidy's son hit the road today, acting like a man with no more than the usual cares, sprinting through a political itinerary that over the next two days will put him before friendly crowds for seven speeches in three time zones.
Virginia Cassidy was the young woman who became Virginia Clinton, and later still became Virginia Kelley. This ultimate survivor lived long enough to see her son become president, but not long enough to watch him face the most excruciating political and personal controversy of his career.
The president's response since the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy erupted six months ago, say numerous longtime friends and advisers, has shown anew how emphatically Bill Clinton is his mother's son.
"He learned it from her: You don't give up, you keep going," said David Leopoulos, a childhood friend. "He saw her fight through adversity all through his youth. She forged on."
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton recently cited her mother-in-law's example at a White House event to highlight the fight against breast cancer, the disease that felled Kelley in 1994. Even in the disease's crippling last stage, "She'd get up at the crack of dawn, put on her false eyelashes and go out and celebrate life."
Kelley, Hillary Clinton recalled, kept in her home a little sign: "Lord help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that I can't handle."
No matter what setbacks life handed her, the woman with the heavy jewelry and flamboyant white streak in her black-dyed hair always managed to paste on a sunny face for the world -- whether she was headed to church or the racetrack. That instinct carried her through such ordeals as the deaths of three husbands (including Clinton's father, William Blythe), and a divorce and remarriage to a man who drank too much and sometimes hit her.
And that instinct -- whether optimism or denial -- is apparently hereditary. Clinton this morning -- one week before he is to give testimony to the Lewinsky grand jury -- followed the pattern he has during every other crisis in a 24-year political career. He pasted on his own sunny face and plunged into the crowd. There was a morning hop on Air Force One for a health care rally in Louisville, a bounce this afternoon over to a fund-raiser in Chicago, and a planned evening haul to California, where he will spend all day Tuesday before taking a red-eye flight back home.
Just today, he raised $1 million for Democrats, held a rally for his "patients' rights" bill, and issued a veto threat to a Republican alternative. ("This is about the future, man, I'm telling ya," he said.) He bantered good-naturedly with a mayor who handed him a poster. ("He's the Vanna White of Louisville.") And when he finished his Louisville rally he stayed, shaking hands, until the civic center was nearly empty.
"When I heard his schedule, I said, 'I'm not surprised,' " said high school friend Carolyn Staley, who stays in touch with the president. "He's getting strength from the people who elected him as they say, 'Mr. President, keep your head up. We believe in you.' Hearing that and feeling it and shaking hands is going to be an affirmation for him."
One of the hands he shook belonged to 52-year-old Brenda Matthews, a computer assistant who said that what she likes about Clinton is his "love for people." She said there was something valiant about his plunge into the crowds while there is so much controversy swirling. "I think he's focused on what he's about, rather than what's happening about him."
Neal Thompson, a 75-year-old founder of a business, said it is in a crowd that Clinton "shows his strength. . . . He's got a special talent for bringing people together."
The way to handle problems, for Clinton and his mother, was to carry on as if they did not exist. Leopoulos recalled spending hours as a boy in the Clinton home, playing cards and Monopoly. It was only some 30 years later, reading a magazine profile during Clinton's first presidential run, that he ever knew that his friend's stepfather had had a drinking problem that sometimes led to violent rages. "He never once mentioned the problems he had," he said. "He's always kept internally the problems he had."
Leopoulos said he was reminded anew of his friend's resilience last month when Clinton spent the weekend in Little Rock. The president, he said, allowed as how being the target of the investigation was "rough stuff." But then he stayed up playing hearts and laughing over old stories with Leopoulos and several other childhood chums.
"I think he has down days like everyone else," said David Matthews, a Clinton friend since the time he served as a driver in the president's first campaign, a losing bid for Congress in 1974. "But he always has this confidence that things are going to work out for the best. That sustains him through ups and downs."
Friends say this buoyancy is ample proof that Clinton possesses the traits his adversaries often say he lacks: discipline and virtue. "Could a person with no character," asked Leopoulos, "function as a president under the attacks he's faced?"
But what is character to some looks to others like compulsiveness. Jerome D. Levin, a psychotherapist at the New School for Social Research, recently wrote a book theorizing that the constant swirl of sexual allegations about Clinton suggests he may suffer from sexual addiction. The craving Clinton shows for crowds, Levin said, looks also like an expression of a chronically needy personality.
"I think when he's under attack his denial strengthens," said Levin, who believes that Clinton survived growing up under an alcoholic stepfather by "developing a style of externalization" in which he became addicted to seduction and approval. "He was looking for popularity and reassurance and he had the stuff -- the charm and verbal facility -- to get it."
Levin acknowledged that this is armchair analysis, speculation based on no first-hand knowledge of the subject. But what is striking is the degree that his assessment echoes that of a person who for some 20 years was Clinton's closest political adviser, consultant Dick Morris.
Clinton's hunger for crowd approval, Morris said, is "a manifestation of a split personality," in which the "Saturday night" side of Clinton regularly flirts with personal indiscretion while the "Sunday morning" side is forever trying to win redemption. Morris, who acknowledged his own battle with compulsive behavior after revelations that he was hiring a prostitute during the 1996 presidential campaign, said that under the current circumstances Clinton's frenetic burst of politicking seems "escapist and part of denial."
Others who do not know Clinton likewise discern an element of showmanship in the restless schedule he has kept in recent days. "Don't you think he's a better actor than Reagan?" said New Yorker Robin Liftman, 37, who was visiting Long Island's Hamptons earlier this month on the same weekend Clinton arrived for 48 hours of fund-raising and socializing with celebrities. "He's out there, he's partying."
There are hints, though shadowy, that Clinton's cheerful public face is masking considerably darker private thoughts. Early in the Lewinsky crisis, people who had spent time with him reported that he occasionally vented deep rage at independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation. More recently, people who have spoken with him say he has made more controlled, but no less angry, comments that political differences have become criminalized in modern times.
And there have been curious changes of routine that suggest a difficult time for the entire Clinton family. Last February, the Clintons canceled at the last moment a plan to attend parents' weekend at Stanford University, and instead the three spent the weekend cloistered at a Utah ski resort. While Clinton in his first term rarely went to Camp David, this year he and the first lady have regularly availed themselves of the Catoctin Mountains retreat.
While he may be given to occasional brooding, several advisers said they have not seen signs that Clinton is suffering from self-recrimination. Clinton views these personal controversies, said one senior administration official, like a spell of "bad weather" -- just something that occasionally happens.
If there are any bouts of self-pity, friends and aides say, they are nearly always transient. Soon enough, the extrovert instincts he learned at home return. "Virginia would never believe that you can ever shrink from your problems," said Clinton's old friend, Staley. "She believed you hold your head up high and do the best you can."
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