By Norreese L. Haynes
William Jefferson Blythe, III was born in the little hamlet of Hope, Arkansas on August 19, 1946. He is quintessentially a Baby Boomer, and he was most unlikely to be destined to be the 42nd President of the United States. Billy’s (as he called called while growing up) supposedly biological father was killed in an automobile accident three years before he was born. (Other sources – not Clinton’s autobiography, My Life – posit evidence that Bill Clinton was the biological son of a brilliant medical doctor and that he actually attended kindergarten with his half brother in Hope, Arkansas.) Clinton’s strong-willed and party-going mother, Virginia Cassidy, decided to attend nursing school in New Orleans, and little Billy was raised in Hope by his maternal grandparents.
Clinton’s grandfather was an easy-going fellow who ran a general store in Hope, Arkansas. A little illegal whiskey was run out of this store as well…as was the case in many dry counties of Arkansas in these days. His grandfather Cassidy showed kindness to the “colored people” (as African Americans were called back then), offering them groceries on credit just as he did his white customers. Bill Clinton was able to see early in his life the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. He, unlike many other politicians who were raised in a more sheltered environment in the 1940s and 1950s, was exposed to injustices and morality and ethics which were frayed on the edges.
Bill Clinton’s mother later married Roger Clinton who ran an automobile dealership in Hot Springs with his brother. The family moved to Hot Springs, known as a hot-spot of those associated with the Mafia. Hot Springs had its legal gambling and was a party town. Bill had been using the name “Clinton” in honor of his step-father (whom he always called “Daddy”) but when his little brother, Roger Clinton, Jr., was born, then he officially adopted the name “Clinton.”
Bill Clinton was raised around adults when he was young, and he was quite precocious. He was smart kid, and adults favored him greatly. He had an ease with people. Although his mother and his step father stayed out partying late on Saturday nights, little Billy Clinton (even at age five) would get himself up early on Sunday mornings to walk to the local Baptist Church. On his way to church, adults would get a kick out of seeing Billy Clinton walking to church with his big Bible and would blow the horn at him as he cheerfully waved back.
In high school, Bill Clinton succeeded scholastically. He was not much of an athlete. So, he concentrated on the band. He was superb as a saxophone player and earned First Chair in the All State Band. In high school, he was elected as a Student Senator to Boys Nation and made a trip to Washington, D. C., where he now-famously met President Jonn F. Kennedy and had his photo taken with President Kennedy in the rope line.
Clinton had high hopes and dreams for college and was accepted into the prestigious Jesuit school, Georgetown University located in the beautiful Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D. C., near Embassy Row and the resplendent National Cathedral. Washington, D. C., was where action was, and Bill Clinton wanted to be around the action. He had already decided that public service was his call in life. One of the leading Democratic Senators in the U. S. Senate was J. William Fulbright, and Bill Clinton was determined to get to know him and to work for him. Clinton had written to Senator Fulbright’s office, seeking a job. Before his senior year at Georgetown, he received a letter from Senator Fulbright’s office, offering a part-time job. He was elated. Clinton graduated from Georgetown University in 1968 with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Foreign Service.
It is interesting that at Georgetown, Clinton fell under the influence of Professor Carroll Quigley who taught him History and Foreign Relations. Professor Quigley, who also taught at Harvard and Princeton, was enormously popular among the Georgetown students and alumni. One of his significant areas of expertise was the study of secret societies in the twentieth century. He thesis is that a small, financial elite sought to control the institutions particularly in the Anglo world and that its influence was there to ensure that there was not much difference between the two major political parties in the United States, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Quigley contended that this financial elite groups (heading up initially by people like Cecil Rhodes) sometimes worked through front groups like the Commission on Foreign Relations. Quigley served as Clinton’s mentor, and Clinton mentioned Quigley in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 1992. Perhaps Quigley took a special liking of Clinton because of his facile nature and his intellectual bent. Clinton had been elected President of his freshmen and sophomore classes at Georgetown, walking from dorm room to dorm room, regaling about the large and delicious nature of watermelons in Arkansas while soliciting votes from more reticent students.
Bill Clinton was elected governor in 1978 and became one of the youngest governors in the nation’s history. He was called “the Boy Governor.” He had been elected Arkansas’s Attorney General at age of 30. He was on a fast track for political stardom. I have had to skip over much of his story, but I hope to weave in other parts of his story, as it is well-delineated in his large tome of an autobiography, My Life,which was published in 2004. Clinton has done much in the world and for the world since leaving the Oval Office in January of 2001. He has had his ups and down, being one of the youngest ex-governors (age 32) and being one of only two Presidents to ever have been impeached. He even lost his license to practice law in Arkansas as result of the Whitewater investigation which was led by Kenneth Starr, an investigation which started off with inquiries into land deals in Arkansas and ended up discussing semen on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.
Clinton was the first Democratic candidate to win two full terms to the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he was the first President in about 50 years to lose both houses of Congress during mid-term elections in 1994. He was seen as American Labor’s friend but he himself signed the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which resulted in what 1992 Presidential candidate Ross Perot predicted would create “a giant sucking sound” of jobs heading south of the border. He was first elected President in 1992 with only a plurality of 43% of the vote. Yet, he began his first term acting like he had a mandate by trying to usher in a national healthcare program, a program which was secretly studied by a group headed up by his wife, now U. S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But, even after having been stunned by one of the greatest political setbacks in U. S. History (the Republican takeover of the U. S. Congress as a result of the 1994 elections), two years later Clinton stormed back to win a convincing victory over Republican Senate leader Bob Dole. And despite this great political comeback, Clinton got embroiled in a nasty and sordid sexual scandal involving the Oval Office and a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. This was not the first sexual scandal to emerge in Clinton’s checkered political career. Even in the 1992 campaign, he was all but written off with the Gennifer Flowers scandal. Again, he emerged like the legendary phoenix from the ashes. After Clinton and his wife went on 60 Minutes to discuss this scandal and their own marriage in what was considered a very risky move, Clinton finished a strong second to Paul Tsongas in the New Hampshire Primary. He and his campaign immediately adopted the moniker of “The Comeback Kid.” Yes, Bill Clinton is one of the most enigmatic political leaders of our time.
How does Bill Clinton stack up as a leader? What about his leadership traits, as the traits are defined by Peter G. Northouse in his well-used text, Leadership: Theory and Practice?
If Bill Clinton is anything, he is articulate. He could sit down with people of any strata of life – be they kings or street people – and he could carry on a pleasant conversation that is right on target of the other person’s interests and knowledge. Clinton has always been seen as someone who can spin a phrase and frame an argument, and we are not necessarily talking about what the definition of what is is. In 1988, Clinton was tapped by the Dukakis campaign to give the nominating speech, and the speech lasted 32 minutes. The reviews consistently criticized Clinton for speaking too long, though Clinton insisted that the speech had been given to him by the Dukakis group. But, because Clinton is so articulate, he probably embellished the original talking points. Clinton has also been known to use more esoteric words when more simple words would be sufficient to convey as thought like he did on page 72: “Except for a brief interregnum in the Carter years…” (emphasis added). I give Clinton a Four (4) in this area, the next to strongest score on the Articulate trait. Sometimes he just doesn’t know when to shut up.
Just how perceptive is Bill Clinton? It depends. In 1990-1991 when most Democratic Presidential hopefuls would normally be involved in exploratory committees and fund-raising activities but were scared away from these activities because of President George H. W. Bush’s daunting high favorable ratings in the national polls, Bill Clinton still perceived that he could beat the seemingly entrenched incumbent. Clinton reasoned that the country would be tiring of the 12 year Republican reign and would be seeking change from an economy which was beginning to show sluggish signs. So, he jumped into the Presidential campaign against lighter Democratic Presidential timber like Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, and Tom Harkin. Though he struggled in Iowa, finishing a distant third behind Harkin, he enjoyed a strong second place behind Tsongas in New Hampshire and finally showed that he could be more than a regional candidate by capturing first place in both New York and California. Yes, he is very perceptive. But, we have to also pay attention to his lack of perception of his problems on the rise in 1994 with Healthcare and his complete lack of perception about his dalliances with the White House intern in 1998. I give Clinton a 3.5 in Perceptive.
Right off the bat, I give Bill Clinton a Five (5) on the Self-confident trait. Who else dreams of being the President of the United States from his teenage years and sets out to make this happen, despite being raised in what is considered a lower middle class background? As soon as Clinton arrived at Georgetown University, he started campaigning for President of the freshmen class and was elected. After a year of study as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England and three years of law school at Yale University, Clinton returned to Arkansas as a professor of law at the University of Arkansas. In almost no time at all, he launched into a race for U. S. Congress, and fared very well. In 1976, at age of 30, he ran for and was elected as Attorney General of Arkansas, and two years later, he was elected as one of the youngest governors in U. S. History. This is confidence.
This trait is not so unlike the above trait, but has more to do with inner feelings of security. Only a psychoanalyst could get a good handle of the secure feelings that Clinton has about himself. He grew up in a tumultuous household wherein his stepfather drank very heavily and often physically abused his mother. He was raised in his early years by his maternal grandparents since his mother was away at nursing school. His grandmother Cassidy was a very stern and strong-willed woman who often was a taskmaster, but her love for Clinton was never doubted. He seemed to be the center of attention for many adults. In fact, his grandmother and mother apparently fought over his attention and affection. This alone would put a lot of responsibility on the back of a small child. But, it also gave him a great sense of his own importance in life. People were fighting over his attention. He was very precocious and did well in school. But, perhaps his attraction to a very ambitious and goal-oriented woman like Hillary Rodham was an indication that he needed this strong-willed woman like his grandmother and mother to continue to surround him in life. Perhaps he felt that he needed someone strong to keep him in line. I think that overall Clinton was/is a very self-assured man, even in the face of adversity, as he often saw it in his political and personal life. For example, after the criticism that he received from giving the long-winded nominating speech of Michael Dukakis in 1988, he turned this negative into a positive by appearing that week or the next week on the David Letterman Show and poking fun at himself. It takes a very self-assured man to engage in self-deprecating humor on national television. I give Clinton a 4.5 on the Self-assured trait.
Bill Clinton is the quintessential persistent leader. He and others like Al Gore founded the Democrat Leadership Council (DLC) to try to veer the National Democratic Party away from a type-cast of left-leaning Welfare Statism and a weakness on National Defense. The Democrats of the DLC called themselves “New Democrats.” Clinton was a leader, if not the leader, of this movement in the Democratic Party for ten years (1982 through 1992). He was persistent in stating that the Democratic Party could not afford to give up the middle ground to the Republicans. It was the middle ground which was determining the elections, and it was this group that Clinton was able to appeal to in the 1992 and 1996 Presidential campaigns. Picking Al Gore (another “New Democrat”) was no accident. Clinton was trying to show the nation that he was a different kind of Democrat…different than McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. His persistent strategy worked. His score on the Persistent trait is a Five (5).
When Bill Clinton determined that taking a firm stand helped him strategically, he did. But, when his stand needed to change, he was not adverse to change his stand, as was the case of his position on welfare and gays in the military. On the latter, the furor that was caused about his relaxing the prohibition of gays in the military resulted in a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Some in the gay community felt that Clinton should have taken a tougher stand. Some felt that he had sold them out. Others were appreciative of his efforts on their behalf, resulting in a less onerous position against them. About welfare: When the Republican swept the country in 1994, Bill Clinton called on the services of his long-time and often-secret political advisor, Dick Morris. Morris advised him to come out with a position of “ending welfare as we know it.” Clinton’s position changed from “welfare” to “workfare,” thus robbing the Republicans of one of their cherished political advantages. Morris helped Clinton take away the issues from the Republicans, and Clinton was able to handedly defeat a hapless Bob Dole in the 1996 election. Because of his sometimes back-peddling, I give Clinton a Four (4) on Determined.
The Trustworthy trait might be Clinton’s weakest of all traits. His wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, might score him very low on this trait. In fact, when Clinton was governor, there appears to have been a constant watch person surrounding him, on look-out for the “Bimbo” factor. In fact, it was called “Bimbo Watch.” I think that most political observers know that Clinton could not be trusted when it came to women. His political handlers had to keep a constant vigil in this area. Also, when Clinton changed his positions on issues like in post-1994 election, many of his partisans on the White House staff were disillusioned with him. His score on the Trustworthy trait is Two (2).
This Northouse leadership trait is very similar to the Trustworthy trait. Often Bill Clinton could not be depended on to take a firm position and to stick to it. For example, in Arkansas, the anti-capital punishment people found out that they could not depend on Clinton. In fact, some political pundits knew that Bill Clinton was very serious to reach the White House when he returned to Arkansas during the Presidential campaign to oversee the execution of a man whom most people felt was retarded. Three other people were executed by the State of Arkansas when Clinton was governor. Clinton had earlier been an opponent of the death penalty. I give him a Three (3) on the Dependable trait.
I don’t know if there has ever been a friendlier President than Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan certainly had a cheery disposition, but Clinton, by nearly all accounts, is supremely friendly on a one-on-one personal level, much more so than accounts of Presidents like Barack Obama. Both of the Bushes are supposed to be very friendly on a personal level, but Bill Clinton makes the person to whom he is talking think that he or she is the most important person in the world to Clinton. Clinton can also be feisty and temperamental, especially when it comes to criticism. But, when he is not threatened by criticism, he is like the likable friend next door. I don’t know if this comes partly from his being raised in a small Southern town or it’s just part of his genetic make-up. By many accounts, his mother, Virginia Cassidy, was as out-going as they come. She seems to have never met a stranger. Clinton scores a Five (5) on the Friendly trait.
Similar to the Friendly trait, Bill Clinton was/is very Outgoing. His office today is located in Harlem, and he acts as though he is the American Ambassador to the entire World. When Clinton showed up at Georgetown University, he never met a stranger, and he was at ease with everyone from the shy student to the highly-placed administrators in the Georgetown administration. A friend of my actually met Clinton by accident at the old Omni in Atlanta the day after his disastrous nominating speech for Dukakis, and my friend says that Clinton talked to him like they were long-lost cousins. Clinton’s Outgoing score is also a Five (5).
Clinton probably does not fare as well on this Northouse leadership trait. He is notoriously late for meetings. The media had a heyday recounting his many treks to McDonald’s for Big Macs and fries while he was President. So, being “thorough, organized, and controlled” might not be his strength, but, hey, a person can’t have it all. His Conscientious score is a 2.5.
Bill Clinton’s characteristics of persistency and hardworking are not doubted. He loved to sit up to the wee hours of the morning discussing very wonkish policy issues with friends or people on his staff. Even when he was turned out of the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock at the age of 32 (one of “the youngest ex-governors,” as Clinton joked), he persistently worked to get re-elected Governor in 1982 and held onto this office until he was elected President of the United States in 1992. His score on the Diligent trait is 4.5.
Clinton is known for showing tolerance and being tactful and sympathetic to others. Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, recounted the time that Reich was very sea-sick on the voyage to England where he and Clinton were fellow Rhodes Scholars. He said Clinton was very sensitive to his plight during the vovage, even showing up to his room with a bowl of soup. In My Life, Clinton recounts about his getting a job in Senator J. William Fulbright’s office, relieving any thought of not returning to Georgetown because of his concern for any stress that his attendance there put on his parents’ finances. He also showed his sensitivity to his step father’s cancer and grave physical condition. During his senior year at Georgetown, Clinton traveled back to Arkansas each chance he got to spend a lot of time with his step father, although their relationship had been strained through the years because of Roger Clinton’s often abusive treatment of Clinton’s mother. The relationship between the Bill Clinton and his step father healed greatly during this time. Clinton, however, was not very sensitive to Hillary Clinton’s feelings when he engaged in some of his extra-marital affairs. The rating on this Sensitive trait is a Four (4).
Bill Clinton was down in the polls when the bombing of the Alred P. Murrah Federal Building took place in Oklahoma City in April of 1995. He showed unusual empathy for those victims and their survivors. Clinton was/is not afraid to hug openly and to shed a tear. Some political pundits have concluded that this display of empathy is what helped Clinton turn the corner after the drumming that he and the Democrats received in the mid-term elections in 1994. The feelings of Americans seemed to soften toward Clinton as they witnessed the empathy that President Clinton showed toward these families. The Clinton score on Empathetic is Five (5) for Strongly Agree.
I have enjoyed reading about Bill Clinton through the years. He is my favorite President. As a former elected official, I have tried to emulate some of Bill Clinton’s stronger leadership traits and avoid some of his weaknesses. But, like Clinton, I too am human. It has been fun applying Peter Northouse’s leadership traits to the life of Bill Clinton.