Bill Clinton's life has been defined more by loss than triumph. The first loss occurred before his birth, when his biological father, a traveling salesman named William Jefferson Blythe, was killed at age twenty-eight in a car accident. William Jefferson Blythe III was born three months later on 19 August 1946 in the small town of Hope in southwest Arkansas, where his mother was staying with her parents. In later years the son would, in his campaigns for president, enjoy the poetry of portraying himself as the man from Hope, but that was largely a myth. No one named Bill Clinton ever lived there. He was known then as Billy Blythe.
His early years were dominated by two strong women who fought for his attention and represented the competing forces that would shape his life. His mother, the young widow Virginia Dell Blythe, was irrepressible and fun-loving. His grandmother, Edith Cassidy, who took care of him for long stretches while his mother studied nursing in New Orleans, was temperamental and frustrated by her position in life. She regimented her grandson's days with metronomic discipline. He would carry both the freewheeling optimism of his mother and the stubborn will of his grandmother into later life.
Most of his childhood was not spent in Hope but in Hot Springs, only fifty miles up the road but an entirely different world, a resort town nestled amid the pine-covered mountains of a national park, with vaporous spas, nightclubs, and the largest illegal gambling operation in the South. He moved there at age five with his mother and stepfather, Roger Clinton, a failed auto dealer and alcoholic. The relationship between Roger Clinton and Bill's mother was tempestuous, marked by divorce and remarriage and sul-lied by Roger's frequent drunken rages in which he would physically or mentally torment Virginia. Despite that, when Bill was fifteen he took his stepfather's name and became William Jefferson Clinton.
Without diving too deeply into the opaque waters of psychoanalysis, it is apparent that Clinton's status as the oldest son, the guardian of his mother and younger brother (also named Roger) against the unpredictable outbursts of an alcoholic stepfather possibly molded his personality in ways that resur-faced in his career as a politician. In moments of self-reflection, Clinton later attributed this propensity to avoid sharp conflict and please all sides to his constant attempts to bring peace within a dysfunctional family.
The racier side of Hot Springs was counterbalanced by religion and education. Although his mother was more likely to attend the racetrack, Clinton took refuge from his family troubles in the Park Place Baptist Church, to which he walked alone on Sunday mornings. And in a state ranked near the bottom in education, Hot Springs High, which Clinton attended from 1960 to 1964, shined as an exception. It provided excellent courses in mathematics, science, music, and foreign language. Its principal, Johnnie Mae Mackey, who taught her charges to be God-fearing, patriotic, and civic-minded, viewed bright and ambitious Billy Clinton as her prime disciple.
It was under her tutelage that the best-known moment of Clinton's early life occurred. In the summer before his senior year, he was sent to Washington as one of two Arkansas delegates to Boys' Nation, a mock political convention sponsored by the American Legion. There, in the Rose Garden of the White House on a July morning in 1963, Clinton met President Kennedy. Their handshake was captured in photographs and newsreels and later came to symbolize the transfer of power and ambition from one generation to another.
The handshake was no mere accident. On the bus ride to the White House that morning from the Boys' Nation dormitories at the University of Maryland, Clinton stood out among his peers as the boy who kept pestering the chaperon with questions about whether they would have their pictures taken with the president. When the bus stopped at the back gate, it was Clinton who won the barely controlled race-walk to stake out prime handshake position at the front of the crowd at the Rose Garden.
But that calculating element in the youthful Clinton was balanced by a streak of idealism, most evident in his dealings with the thorny issues of race relations. The Boys' Nation representatives convened in Washington during one of the seminal periods of the American civil rights movement. Only one month later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and deliver his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. While most of his schoolmates were still stuck in the prejudicial traditions of Jim Crow and supported resistance to integration, Clinton was an exception, taking a strong civil rights stance and refusing the entreaties of fellow southerners to go along with his regional confederates.
After his week in Washington and his handshake with JFK, "Billy" Clinton returned to Arkansas determined to realize his mother's prediction from his toddler days that he would some day be president of the United States.