First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton chronicles Bill Clinton’s journey from his modest beginnings in Hope, Arkansas, to the announcement of his candidacy for president of the United States. David Maraniss’ stated intention is to discover how, “out of the thousands of bright, ambitious people from the postwar baby boom generation, [Clinton] became the first to reach the White House.” Both Bill and Hillary Clinton declined to be interviewed for this biography, but the author had access to many of Clinton’s closest friends, colleagues, and relatives, interviewing several hundred people and making extensive use of correspondence and documents. This is clearly a very well documented and seriously considered account of Clinton’s early life. As Maraniss makes clear in his preface, his book is not “preoccupied with Clinton’s sex life, nor is it an investigation of the Whitewater controversy. Both subjects appear in modest proportions. Those hungering for more of either will have to do their dining elsewhere.”
Born William Jefferson Blythe III in Hope, Arkansas, on August 19, 1946, Clinton entered into a family of strong personalities and eccentric characters. His grandparents Edith and Eldridge Cassiday, known to Bill as Mammaw and Pappaw, were both well-known personalities in the small town. Edith, with her heavily powdered and made-up face and black spit curls, was strong and ambitious with a fierce temper, while Eldridge, the local ice delivery man, was gregarious and good-natured. Clinton’s mother, Virginia, was as flamboyant as her parents, fun-loving and flirtatious.
While studying nursing in Shreveport, Louisiana, Virginia had met Bill Blythe, who claimed to be a traveling salesman. Blythe, a charming but mysterious figure, was so taken with Virginia that he took a job in town to be near her, and they married shortly before he left on a troop ship bound for the Mediterranean. According to Maraniss, Blythe was “constantly reinventing himself, starting over every day.” Virginia had no idea that he had been married previously, possibly as many as four times, and had fathered at least two children. The couple were together a total of only six months before he was killed in a car accident three months before Bill’s birth.
In 1950, against her parents’ wishes, Virginia married Roger Clinton, a sharp- dressing, hard-drinking gambler who had been charged with abuse by his first wife and was continually in financial trouble. Although Bill took Roger Clinton’s name, his stepfather did not formally adopt him and was inattentive to his young stepson. In 1952 the family moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where Bill spent the remainder of his youth.
From all outward appearances, Bill’s adolescence was perfect. He was junior class president, a band major, and fourth in his graduating class; he excelled without appearing ever to study. The Clinton household revolved around him; he had the best bedroom in the house, his own bathroom, a Buick, and a living-room wall devoted to a display of his honors. Yet his parents fought constantly, and Roger drank heavily, physically and emotionally abusing Virginia. At age fourteen Bill faced down his stepfather, ordering him never to strike his mother again, but the mental abuse continued, and in May of 1962 Virginia divorced Roger, only to remarry him in August of the same year.
After leaving high school in a blaze of glory, Clinton entered the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. His identity as a small-town southern boy set him apart from his peers there, but he capitalized on this image, winning election as president of both his freshman and sophomore classes, but losing the senior-year election because of the same charges of “slickness” and insincerity that dogged him in his later political life. His first major political campaign experience came during the summer of 1966, when he worked for Frank Holt’s campaign for governor of Arkansas, making valuable political contacts traveling the back roads of Arkansas. He also worked in Senator William Fulbright’s office during his Georgetown years; there he was introduced to the antiwar sentiments that later played a pivotal role in his life. Although his political foes often point to his “radical youth,” Clinton and his Georgetown friends were politically moderate for 1968, a year marked by the Robert Kennedy assassination, Washington riots, and Vietnam protests.
After graduating from Georgetown, Clinton spent two years in Oxford, England, on a Rhodes scholarship. In Oxford he studied infrequently (he did not complete the two-year degree) but added to his ever-widening network of friends and contacts. That year he also faced the most serious soul-searching of his life regarding the draft: “A civil war raged inside him between his conscience and his political will to survive. It seems that he tried to appease both...
(The entire section is 2000 words.)