The Other Bill Clinton

Monday, Oct. 05, 2009

TIMEA daughter seeking her father’s attention faces steep competition when he’s also the leader of the free world. Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice smoked on the White House roof, buried a voodoo doll of the incoming First Lady under the White House lawn, jumped fully clothed into a cruise-ship pool — and persuaded a Congressman to follow. “I can either run the country or I can control Alice,” Roosevelt once said. “I cannot possibly do both.”

Alice was considered the first female celebrity of the 20th century, but her ordeal occurred well before 24-hour news and carnivores with cameras. Chelsea Clinton’s did not. Which explains why Chelsea appeared to be the Garbo of presidential children; after some snide remarks in the press about her awkward adolescence, Chelsea was shielded in the élite Quaker fortress of Sidwell Friends School and fiercely protected by her parents. When Rush Limbaugh called her “the White House dog,” T-shirts appeared saying LEAVE CHELSEA ALONE. Which, remarkably, most people did.

One person who did not leave Chelsea alone was her father. In acclaimed historian Taylor Branch’s new book The Clinton Tapes — woven from Branch’s recorded conversations with the President from 1993 to 2001 — the portrait of the relationship between Bill Clinton, a man who never knew his own father, and his daughter reveals a side we rarely saw on the public stage. Bill Clinton, it turns out, raised a daughter and ran the free world, sometimes in that order.

If you don’t believe it, consider the fight Branch describes between Clinton and Al Gore in November 1995. Gore told Clinton the President needed to visit Japan to heal a rift caused when Clinton failed to attend an APEC economic summit. Looking over Clinton’s calendar, Gore noticed three light days in January. No, Clinton said, he needed to be home for Chelsea, who’d be taking her junior-year midterms. Gore was dumbstruck. “Al,” Clinton said, “I am not going to Japan and leave Chelsea by herself to take these exams.” A new rift opened — between Clinton and Gore. Branch describes Clinton as wrestling with the problem “like a medieval scholastic. It was a choice between public duty on a vast scale, and the most personal devotion.” The Tokyo trip was set for April.

Chelsea wanders into and out of Branch’s account of the Clinton presidency, singing show tunes, soliciting help with math homework or with an essay weighing Dr. Frankenstein’s best and worst qualities. Bill Clinton’s sensitivity to the challenges his daughter faced belies his image as an unabashed narcissist. The President would be late for anything except her ballet recitals; he would flaunt any asset for political advantage except her.

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.”

Love him or hate him, Clinton is the President we can’t take our eyes off of. We’ve been watching him for 20 years now, replacing one cartoon with another: the empath who could feel our pain, the horndog who cared nothing for the pain he caused, the overreaching idealist, the triangulating pragmatist. Back and forth the image swings, but it has always been all about him. There is plenty in Branch’s account to remind people why he drove them crazy. But it is bracing and confounding to see another side, the faults transcended, the ego contained. Clinton had great advantages as a parent, but unique challenges as well, and he rose to them in a way people sensed but rarely saw; a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in 1997 found that 81% of respondents thought he had been a good father, even though that was the role he played most privately. For her sake, he hid what was best in himself. That’s worth remembering the next time we imagine we ever really know the people we judge.

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