The Woman Who Shaped the President
By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 1994; Page A01
Bill Clinton is in every sense his mother's son. It is not an exaggeration to say that the best way to understand the precocious boy from provincial Arkansas who grew up to be president of the United States is to appreciate Virginia Dell Kelley, who died in her sleep early yesterday at her ranch-style house on the outskirts of Hot Springs.
The public came to know President Clinton's mother, who was 70 years old when she died of complications relating to breast cancer, by her outward flamboyance: the white streak in her black-dyed hair, the painted eyebrows high on her forehead, the silver necklaces and golden shoes, the outings to Las Vegas and Churchill Downs.
She also gained attention for her novelistic marital history. Before finding security with retired stockbroker Richard Kelley, she had lost three husbands, including Bill Clinton's father, a traveling salesman with a secret life of previous marriages and children, and his adopted father, a car dealer who drank too much and tormented the family with verbal and physical abuse.
But behind Virginia Kelley's exotic public persona was a strong woman who more than anyone, even more than Hillary Rodham Clinton, shaped Bill Clinton and directed him toward what she long ago took to be his destiny at the White House -- the building that he left yesterday afternoon to fly back to Hot Springs to prepare for her funeral.
Most of Clinton's defining characteristics came from his mother. A clear line can be drawn back from his perseverance in the political world to her resilience in the face of personal tragedy and trauma. If he lost an election or an important legislative battle or she lost a husband or suffered from breast cancer, they kept going in similarly relentless, seemingly indefatigable fashion.
"I got that stamina from my mother," Clinton once said. Carolyn Yeldell Staley, one of his high school friends, said Virginia's themes were, "You can do anything, this will not get us down, no struggle is insurmountable." Mother and son were eternal optimists, according to Hillary Clinton, who once said, "Bill and his mother always see the glass as half full." Along with that optimism came a tendency to repress unpleasant thoughts or memories. Clinton has a nearly photographic memory -- he recently stunned a friend visiting the White House by saying, "Let's call your parents!" and then reciting a number he hadn't dialed in more than a decade ("It's four-seven-two, ten-eleven, right?"). Yet for decades he nonetheless blocked out more important though painful memories involving his occasionally abusive stepfather, Roger Clinton. His mother had blocked out those same memories as well.
Clinton's gregariousness, his fun-loving nature, his glad-handing, his hugging, his propensity to empathize with whomever he happens to be talking to at the moment -- all those were traits he picked up from his mother. "If I see you once, you're my friend; if I see you twice, I'll more than likely hug you," she once said.
She hated as much as her son does to be alone, and encouraged him to surround himself with friends in their house. "She was very gracious towards me and all of Bill's friends," said Phil Jamison, one of Clinton's high school classmates. "I know Bill showed more affection toward his mom than any of us showed toward our moms. You could tell they were close and drew on each other and they both loved to be around people."
To some degree Virginia Kelley reflected the contradictions of her adopted home town, Hot Springs, a city that cherished and protected its children, holding them up as symbols of righteousness, while at the same time enjoying a very different culture centered on nightclubs and racetracks and gambling. There is a seeming duality in Clinton's nature that can be traced back to those competing influences as well: the righteous side that takes him to Baptist Church on Sunday and shapes his political philosophy on individual rights and responsibilities, and the more risque side reflecting the free-wheeling impulses of the son of an unbashful mother in a gambling town.
Clinton's mother invested most of her hopes and ambitions in her son from the day he was born in Hope, Ark., on Aug. 19, 1946, three months after William Jefferson Blythe, Bill's father and her first husband, died in a car accident. When the boy called Billy was 2, Virginia left him with her parents in Hope for nearly two years while she studied anesthesiology in New Orleans so that she would have a profession that might provide her son a better life. She married car dealer Roger Clinton when Billy was 4. Billy called his stepfather "Daddy," but they essentially reversed roles during Bill's adolescence, when Roger's alcoholism forced the son to become the man of the house. Clinton not only sheltered his mother from her husband's abuse, he also served as a father figure to his half-brother, Roger Clinton Jr., who was 10 years younger. "Bill protected me and took responsibility at such an early age," Virginia once said of her son. "There is no way I can describe to you what he has meant to me."
Virginia said she and her son had only one strong disagreement during Clinton's teenage years. After she divorced Roger Clinton in 1962, citing several instances of physical abuse, Bill pleaded with her not to remarry him. " 'You're making a big mistake, mother,' " she recalled her son telling her when she took Roger back three months after the divorce. She said she remarried Roger not because she loved him but because she felt pity for him.
By the time Clinton had established himself as a Hot Springs golden boy in high school, his mother had transformed the living room of their brick rambler on Scully Street into a veritable Bill Clinton shrine. He was the heroic son in a dysfunctional family. The dominant artwork in the room was a studio portrait of him surrounded by Boys Nation mementos and band contest medals framed with velvet backdrops. Virginia was already telling friends that her boy would be president someday. For posterity, she filmed his every move with a home movie camera. When he delivered the benediction at the graduation of the Hot Springs High class of 1964, she typed out copies of his speech and sent it to friends and relatives.
"His voice was magnificent as it sounded over the microphone in the football stadium," she wrote to her mother. "Of course, I was so proud of him I nearly died. He was truly in all his glory that night."
There was a symbiotic relationship between mother and son during Clinton's long rise to fame. He was motivated to please her and she would let nothing get in his way. On the day he had his final interview for a prestigious Rhodes scholarship, she refused to take calls from doctors seeking her services as a nurse anesthesiologist. "I had to be near the phone when Bill called," she said later.
In the moments after he had been selected, Clinton told an interviewer that he was proud to win such an honor for his mother. When Clinton traveled through Europe during his two years as a Rhodes scholar, Virginia, from her home back in Hot Springs, sent notes to his hosts in various foreign cities, thanking them, as she wrote in one note, for "your hospitality to one that is so dear to me."
In many ways Clinton centered his political philosophy on the lessons of his mother's life. His oft-stated belief in future preference, the idea that one generation should sacrifice for the betterment of the next, was articulated by one of his college professors but had its roots in the sacrifices his mother had made for him. She was the daughter of the town iceman in Hope, a man so poor and sensitive that he cried one morning when he did not have enough money to buy her an Easter dress. She studied nursing and worked long hours at her job to pay for her son's education at Georgetown, Oxford and Yale. She ignored the slights of small-town aristocrats who disparaged her colorful ways and the dreams she had for her son. Her life, said one of Clinton's friends, was one warm embrace.
Her illness barely seemed to slow Kelley down in the year since her son was elected. Starting with last year's inauguration, when she was the life of several parties, the president's mother embarked on a whirlwind tour that took her to racetracks, gambling parlors and athletic contests around the country. Even in her final weeks, when she was under closer nursing supervision, she was able to celebrate Christmas at the White House and enjoy Barbra Streisand's performance at Las Vegas. When friends asked how she felt last week, she said "Fine," though they said her eyes looked more tired than usual.
On the last night that Clinton spent with his mother, last week in Hot Springs, they went to her favorite restaurant across from the Oaklawn racetrack, where Virginia Kelley was a regular patron known for her $2 bets. Virginia and her husband, Dick, Clinton and his wife and daughter, Chelsea, were there along with four of Clinton's high school friends. As they finished eating pizza, Clinton turned to his friend David Leopoulos and said, "What do you want to do next?" "Let's go bowling," Leopoulos said. He and Clinton both looked at Virginia Kelley. "That's okay, isn't it?" he asked.
"She just rolled her eyes," Leopoulos said. "The same fun-loving look of love and exasperation we'd get from her when we were kids. That's my last memory of her -- that look of joyful pride. People don't understand. . . . What she did with her two hands and desire, she accomplished far more than most people do with everything material in the world."
© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company