By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster. 448 pp. $25

Go to the first chapter of "First in his Class"

Go to Chapter One

Running From the Start

By Matthew Cooper

Sunday, February 12, 1995; Page X01

A MAJOR FIGURE usually has to be six feet under -- or at least past his prime -- before his life is treated by a decent biography. Sure, there's occasionally a strong study of someone still in the public eye, such as John Judis's thoughtful biography of William F. Buckley. But for landmark works such as David McCullough's Truman or Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, decades must pass before sources feel free to talk.

It is remarkable, then, that David Maraniss has come up with an elegant, richly reported biography of Bill Clinton while the President is still alive, let alone still in office. The President and the First Lady both declined to speak to Maraniss for his study, but plenty of Bill Clinton's friends and foes felt no such qualms. They turned over their diaries, letters and recollections. What emerges from their accounts is a nuanced Bill Clinton, a figure simultaneously capable of noble deeds and astonishing pettiness. Maraniss, a Washington Post reporter who won a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his textured pieces about Clinton, wisely foregoes examining Clinton's over-examined presidency. Instead, he scrutinizes the enigmatic Arkansan's life from his boyhood to the autumn day in 1991 when Clinton announced his bid for the White House.

Maraniss's best material deals with Clinton's early years. He reminds us that great leaders may or may not grow up in modest homes, but they almost always hail from adoring homes. In Clinton's family, Bill was the heroic son with photos and trophies lovingly charting an upward trajectory. Clinton has referred to himself as a band nerd, but in the culture of Hot Springs, music was on a par with athletics, and years before he'd don sunglasses for the Arsenio Hall Show, Clinton was a local star. Wearing shades, he belted out tunes in his high school lunch room along with a band called The Three Blind Mice. By 1963 when 17-year-old Billy Clinton visited John F. Kennedy's White House, he was all self-promotion. The shot of Clinton shaking hands with JFK became the stuff of legend. What's less known, Maraniss reveals, is that Clinton hounded his youth group's chaperone incessantly in order to be photographed with Kennedy. There was also a darker side to Clinton's golden boyhood: the alcoholism and violent rages of his stepfather, Roger. In Maraniss's analysis Clinton became the classic child of an alcoholic who strives for perfection; he assumed the role of a "family hero" who presents a brave face to the outside world and at home strives to mediate and reconcile. He also shows that Clinton's role in ending the violence has been somewhat exaggerated. According to Bill Clinton, he once stood down his stepfather. The physical abuse stopped that night, Clinton said. But while this story brought cheers to the 1992 Democratic Convention, court records show that the violence in Clinton's home was unabated.

This kind of truth-shaving became a staple of Clinton's career. There can't be any doubt, after First in His Class, that Clinton took active measures to avoid military service and then dissembled about it for the remainder of his career. But then there's the flip side. Though Maraniss chronicles Clinton's fudging on Vietnam, he makes it clear that to Clinton's credit he steadfastly avoided the excesses of '60s radicalism. He really didn't inhale, Maraniss reports. And despite the irritable ramblings of Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Cal.), Clinton never offered "aid and comfort to the enemy" during the Vietnam War. One can question the wisdom of organizing demonstrations against U.S. policy while one is abroad, but no one can question the sober and thoughtful manner in which Clinton helped organize demonstrations while in England on his Rhodes scholarship. His idea of protest was a teach-in at a church rather than setting flame to his nation's flag. And if Clinton was moderate on Vietnam -- anti-war without being anti-American -- he was always fervent about prejudice whether it was adopting a pro-civil-rights position at the Boys Nation meeting in D.C. in 1963 or being the lone white to sit at the Black Power table in the Yale Law School cafeteria in 1973. Clinton the moderate could be seen in his student-council campaign slogan in 1967: "A Realistic Approach to Student Government."

It was at Yale that Clinton met his partner, Hillary Rodham. Their marriage defies easy stereotyping. Maraniss doesn't name names, but he claims that Clinton did cheat on Hillary (and on his college girlfriends before that). As early as 1974 when Hillary had made what her friends considered a foolish move to Arkansas to be with Bill, Clinton continued to sleep with one of his congressional campaign workers. And after the marriage took place, he continued to haunt sleazy clubs and sustain affairs. The fighting between the Clintons was real and loud. In the early '80s, Maraniss reports, Clinton considered divorce.

BUT THE Clinton marriage, like any other human relationship, was complex. Real love bound them; indeed, it would have been easier for his political career if Clinton had snagged himself a trophy wife. (He once dated a Miss Arkansas.) For her part, Hillary emerges in these pages as an equally complex figure -- capable of both a commitment to the poor and a vulgar materialism that seems to partially explain why they embarked on their cattle futures and Whitewater ventures in the late '70s. In 1985, for instance, she desperately wanted a swimming pool built at the governor's mansion. When one of Bill's political advisers suggested that this would not exactly endear the state's first couple to the electorate of a poor state, Hillary bellowed: "Why can't we live like normal people?"

Above all, Maraniss chronicles Clinton's ambition. There is the boy fantasizing his own presidency from adolescence, maintaining a notecard file on everyone he met, scribbling thank-you notes with diligence. When Clinton learned as a student at Georgetown University that many of the great men of history had gotten by on a few hours of sleep a night with short catnaps during the day, he got himself a big ticking alarm clock and cultivated his now infamous insomnia. Maraniss also has the subtlety to show that Clinton was more than a Southern Sammy Glick. He was a dear friend who helped many close friends through tough times. The book would have been better served, though, if Maraniss had taken a stronger interest in Clinton's use of power. For surely one of the things that's harmed Clinton the most since his arrival in the capital has been his failure to exercise power in the strong, decisive way that characterizes pols as diverse as Lyndon Johnson or Newt Gingrich. Maraniss's book will rank as one of the great presidential biographies. It would have been greater still if he had, as Robert Caro has done in his works on LBJ and Robert Moses, chronicled this aspect of his subject's personality.

If this book is like others in which publishers have a big investment, the most salacious nuggets will get the most play. That would be a shame. There are plenty here, such as the disturbing anecdote about Hillary finding out about one of Bill's affairs and telling him that she plans to sleep around to get back at him. Or the more amusing, but revealing tale from Oxford that has Clinton approaching feminist author Germaine Greer after she wowed her audience with a close-fitting rawhide skirt and a lecture on why dumber men are better in bed. After the speech, Clinton moseyed up to the alluring author and told her that if she ever abandoned her aversion to intelligent men, he'd be happy to help her out. Juicy bits aside, it is in the context of his life that Clinton should be judged. That's an important message to remember in Washington, where the talk-show culture renders snap judgments. Thanks to David Maraniss's terrific biography, we don't have to wait until Clinton is gone to learn that basic truth.

Matthew Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, covers the White House for U.S. News & World Report.

© 1995 The Washington Post Co.

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