- Historic Sites
Clio And The Clintons
An Interview With the President and the First Lady
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
I always had just a strong personal feeling about Lincoln, but I also felt the same way to a lesser extent about Washington. And again, he was somebody who had a very large part in our imaginations because of the way the schools treated him. Every year I was in school, we did skits about Washington’s life, we wrote little books about him, we celebrated his birthday. Those two presidential birthdays were how we spent February. And both of them had a very strong appeal—as the father of the country and the savior of the country—to me as a little girl.
THE PRESIDENT : You know, it’s interesting; I confess that I think I underappreciated Washington until I became President. I did. Then I read Cincinnatus , Carry Wills’s book on Washington, and a book called Patriarch , by Richard Norton Smith. Wills is a person I greatly admire; he’s written a book on leaders called Certain Trumpets .
Anyway, I see now in a fundamental way what Washington did, and what he refused to do, in not seeking a third term and giving up power and overseeing orderly transition, and how he kept things together. But I don’t think as a child I appreciated him.
Hillary mentioned being surprised by the Confederate TV series. The flip side was true in our case. I mean, if you were a Southerner growing up, you had to be a big admirer of Robert E. Lee, and you had to know a lot about Robert E. Lee. You just did, you know? He was really still a folk figure in the South, all during the fifties and early sixties.
And it was interesting because I remember I was in a minority among young whites. I was in all the turmoil about the public school integration, and I thought Martin Luther King was great, even when I was a kid, very young. But to me, it was all part of the natural flow of history. I mean, I never thought whether there was a contradiction between admiring Robert E. Lee and admiring Abraham Lincoln.
It’s interesting to hear you speak about those school pageants about Washington and Lincoln, because American history has shifted in recent years, more toward social history. Do you think there is less emphasis today on heroes?
MRS. CLINTON : I do, and I think it’s a great loss for everyone, particularly for children. It is just easier as a child to relate to individuals than to social movements or historical trends.
It’s been important in the last few years that we have pulled out other heroes. People should know about Sojourner Truth and not just about the white men who were heroes when we were much younger. But I think it’s a shame that we lose sight of the heroic qualities of those people who made major impacts on our history and that we don’t use them more as examples and symbols for children.
I remember when I read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin , I discovered things about Franklin’s personal life that at the age of fourteen I was shocked by. I remember going to see my English teacher and saying, “I just can’t believe it.” I felt I had been disillusioned about Benjamin Franklin. And I’ll never forget my teacher saying, “But why would you be disillusioned? He was a great man; he wasn’t a statue somewhere. Men have faults as well as virtues; the real challenge is to see people in their humanity and then admire them even more because of what they were able to accomplish.” And that was one of those lessons that you learn if you’re a person who cares about history. You keep encountering new information about people as you go through life.
So I would like to see a return to an emphasis on individuals—a broader range of individuals—with children being able to see everyone’s contributions but recognizing that there are certain people who stand out because of their roles in American history, and giving those people the attention again that I think they are due.
And even in mythology. I mean, it may not be true that George Washington cut down a cherry tree and said he couldn’t tell a lie, but there’s a lesson in that, and that is one of the ways you convey values to children— in the context of a historic figure who is great on his own. I think that a lot of that has been lost.
THE PRESIDENT : In terms of people in the present and recent past, whether they’re always being taken down, historically that changes. Jefferson was treated in an outrageous and vicious way when he was President. Roosevelt had a reasonably rough time, but not too bad. I noticed an article in The New Republic by a journalist who had covered the Roosevelts. She said that Franklin and Eleanor would not have served the country so well if they had had to deal with all the stuff that’s present today.
When I was a child, my grandfather, who raised me until I was four and was a great figure in my life until he died when I was still quite young, just loved Roosevelt, because FDR symbolized to him that the government of the United States cared about ordinary people like him and would try to help them.
It is only in the last twenty or thirty years that we’ve gotten two extreme views of government, I think, neither of which is very helpful. One is that government is evil and incompetent and always messes up. Well, the National Institutes of Health, the National Park Service, Social Security, and Medicare are evidence that that’s not necessarily true, right? And the other view is that government can solve all people’s problems. Well, if you look at the breakdown of the social fabric in America in the last thirty years, it’s obvious no government program can fix all that.