Wednesday, October 14, 2009
By Robert Franklin, Esq.
I’ve never been a fan of Bill Clinton. And it always seemed that the more I knew the less I liked him. A highly intelligent man, often possessed of what I thought to be impulses toward the good, he confounded himself and us at every turn by his self-involvement.
To me, Clinton could never transcend his childhood as the son of a mostly-absent, alcoholic father. Always driven to please, Clinton reportedly could convince anyone in a 15-minute conversation that he understood them completely and was on their side, only to forget all about them the instant they were out of the room. What we the American people got for our votes was less a man than a personality, a walking set of symptoms. And he just couldn’t seem to keep his pants zipped.
But now there’s a biography of Clinton by historian Taylor Branch that this article says gives an entirely different view of the former president – Clinton the father (Time, 10/5/09). It’s made me rethink my understanding of Bill Clinton.
From Branch’s work we see a Clinton who was totally devoted to his daughter Chelsea. During his eight years in office, Clinton apparently always put Chelsea first, not only listening to her renditions of show tunes and helping with math homework, but even putting off important diplomatic missions to the Far East so that he could be with his daughter during her mid-year exams.
Tellingly, and perhaps more important, Clinton was both smart enough and generous enough of spirit to learn from Chelsea. As she grew up, he came to understand that she had qualities he didn’t. As the Time article says,
Any father can be proud of his daughter, but Branch’s account suggests something more: that Bill looks up to Chelsea and finds the self he never managed to become. She was a source of hope when he was bitter, of perspective when he was self-pitying. Clinton liked doing what he was good at but marvels over Chelsea’s devotion to ballet, how her feet bled after practice, how she worked hard at it because she loved it regardless of how good she was at it. “I’ve always admired that,” Clinton says. “I’ve wondered whether I could ever stick with something for its own sake.” He was one to gather laurels; she preferred to share them. Clinton suggests that she chose Stanford over Harvard partly because Harvard seemed too eager to recruit a President’s daughter; she declined to apply for a Rhodes scholarship, after being nominated by Stanford, because “she decided to leave such possibility for someone else.”
“…the self he never managed to become.” That would be the self who never had a father. But Chelsea, to her everlasting benefit, did have a father and, contrary to what I would have thought, a passionately involved one, despite carrying the massive weight of the presidency year after year. In a relationship of mutual benefit that should instruct us all, the flawed president gave, out of the emptiness of his soul, that which he never had himself – a father. And the young woman that he helped raise, gave back to him what he couldn’t get any other way, the vision of a fully-made human being. And perhaps from that very vision, the man was himself fulfilled, completed and at last able to accept the gift.
Bill Clinton the driven man, the achiever, the governor, the president was, in the end brought to his best self by fatherhood.
It’s a moving story. It’s the story of what adults can do for children and what children can do for adults. It’s the story of a father and his daughter.
Thanks to Don for the heads-up.