- Historic Sites
Clio And The Clintons
An Interview With the President and the First Lady
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
We don’t have a parliamentary system, for example, where the President is the leader of the party in Congress, where if people want to stay in the party and have positions, then they have to vote party line.
I was reading a biography of George Washington the other day. I guess he came to the Presidency with the greatest amount of personal leverage and prestige of anybody in history, and the Senate rejected one of his major nominees, which is something I hadn’t known.
The whole essence of democracy is that people are given limited power, and others have power, and you have to work together to get something done. And the idea is that nobody is the sole repository of complete wisdom.
But in the world we’re living in—instantaneous news coverage, snap judgments, everybody looking for the angle —compromise is more difficult, because the minute you begin serious negotiation, there’s this the-sky-is-falling effect that sometimes takes over the reporting of it to imply that something dishonorable is going on.
But in our Constitution compromise is written in as a virtue, not a vice.
Are there moments in history that particularly fascinated both of you in your early years?
Well, when I grew up in the South at the beginning of the civil rights movement, all Southerners were still obsessed with the Civil War. I mean, really it was amazing. When I first ran for office, I was in the mountains of north Arkansas, which had been the dividing line in the war in the West between the North and the South. A lot of the hill people in the South had become Republicans because they supported Abraham Lincoln, they opposed secession, and they either opposed slavery or didn’t care about it. It wasn’t part of their life.
And there were poor people or people of modest incomes up there that had family books that traced their genealogy back to the Civil War, and they knew who fought for the North, who fought for the South. People were thinking a lot about the whole issue of race because civil rights had come in, but they were still obsessed with the Civil War, or the War Between the States, as the diehards always called it in the South.
And I remember as late as 1975, maybe, or ’76, something like that, I was up in one of those beautiful little mountain towns giving the high school commencement address on a gorgeous June night, and the Ozark Mountains were breathtaking. I was exhorting these kids to overcome adversity, and I was telling them about the terrible things Lincoln had been through in his life. And after it was over, all the guys who ran the county for me, all these great hill-country guys took me out, and we were looking at the mountains. And they said, “That was a very good speech, and you can give it down in Little Rock anytime, but don’t you ever come up here and brag on that Republican President again; if he’d been that good a President, we would have never had a Civil War.”
So these people were still replaying it in their minds over a hundred years later.
I have always been, from childhood, captivated by the figure of Lincoln, not only the historic significance of what he did but what kind of person he was and how he was able, under enormous pressure and frequent ridicule, to hold on to the simple idea that the Union had to be preserved, and then how he was able to move the country to the point where he could break his most famous campaign promise, which was not to free the slaves, and instead issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which obviously set in motion the processes that later led to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
Did you read a lot of biographies of him?
Yes. And I also liked Jefferson a lot when I was a child, because another thing that Southerners were obsessed with was the poverty of the South at the end of the Second World War and the whole idea that the only way out of it individually and collectively was to dramatically increase the level of education. Since Jefferson had founded the University of Virginia and had basically advocated free public education, he had a big hold on my imagination from my childhood, and I read a lot of books about him.
They were the two historic figures in American life who had the biggest influence on my childhood.
Well, I grew up in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, and spent enormous amounts of time as a child studying Illinois and American history, reading biographies of Lincoln, making field trips to Springfield and other places that had some association with Lincoln.
We had very significant celebrations of Lincoln’s birthday all during the time I was a child. So he had a very big place in my historical imagination. I mean, it was just an open-and-shut case that Abraham Lincoln was by far the greatest President, because he had saved the Union and came from Illinois.
I remember clearly one time traveling with my family—a trip to Florida, when I was nine, I think. We got to Vincennes, Indiana, which is very southern Indiana, and checked into a little motel that had a little tiny TV. For the first time I saw a TV series called “The Gray Ghost,” which was about a Confederate soldier. And I was just astonished that anybody would have a television series in which the hero was a Confederate soldier. And then as we traveled farther south, I remember being in Alabama and stopping at gas stations where they sold Confederate flags and things like that.