Clio And The Clintons

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But the idea that the government was somehow the partner of the American people and its servant and that its role would change throughout time reached its apotheosis under Roosevelt—when the unemployment rate in the country was 25 percent and per capita income in a lot of the South was one-half the national average. My grandfather was a person who never did take vacations. He worked fifty, sixty, seventy, sometimes more hours a week when I knew him, even when he already had a grandchild.

Maybe it was mythology, but it was a positive thing that he thought that his President and his country cared about him and his small existence in a small town in Arkansas, when he was slaving away, doing the best he could for his family. There’s a very important linkage, and it’s something that we need to reestablish today.

“I was a junior in high school and ... I just made a decision that I would try to go into public service.”
 

I want to ask both of you about your own experiences as young people meeting historic figures. Of course, we know the great clip—the picture of the young Bill Clinton right here in the Rose Garden meeting President Kennedy. What did you feel as you were leaving the gate? What did you tell yourself?

Well, I don’t know what I told myself—there were a hundred of us here, and we were having a big time—but I remember very distinctly where I was standing and what I did. The fellow we elected president of Boys Nation gave him a T-shirt and something else, and Kennedy gave his little talk. Then he came down in the crowd and started shaking hands, and I was afraid he would just shake one or two hands and quit. I was at the head of the alphabet anyway, and I was bigger than anybody around me, so I just made sure I was there so I got to shake hands with him.

Because to me he represented the country’s caring about my generation. You know, he was a very futureoriented person. He said he would get the country moving again. I had the feeling that we were going to have a good future because he was seeking all those new frontiers. He gave us a sense of possibility that we could deal with things. And he finally began to deal with the civil rights issue in a somewhat more open way than President Eisenhower had, although Eisenhower had sent the troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School.

Eisenhower was a very important person for his time. We had gone through all this unsettling stuff; he settled the country down, and he gave the people a fairly high level of confidence and was willing to let some things happen. I think that history will judge him pretty kindly.

But when Kennedy came in, even though he won by the narrowest of victories—if you look at it, that shows the fear that the American people have of change; we always say we want it, we’re for it in general, but very often we’re against it in particular—I thought it was great. I saw him up there; he just was happy and loose and relaxed. And he seemed interested in kids, he seemed to relate well to young people. It made a big impression on people my age that the President and the people who were working for him were trying to throw us into the future in a positive way.

Your mother said that when you came back home after that experience, she knew you were going into public service. She could just tell.

Actually it was before that. I remember very clearly. I was a junior in high school and had been interested in being a physician and a musician and a couple of other things, but I just made a decision that I would try to go into public service because I thought I’d be good at it and I thought it would be interesting. I thought I’d never have to worry about getting up and going to work every day because it would always be different. I was interested in people and human nature.

And I must say—a lot of times what you think when you’re a kid is wrong, but that was one insight I had that I was right about. I mean, it is a fascinating life in its diversity and challenge. It can be a pain from time to time, but it’s fascinating.

What about you, Mrs. Clinton? I know that as a youth you met Martin Luther King. Was that similar to the President’s experience in meeting President Kennedy?

Well, I came from a very different point of view. I came from a very Republican family that was not particularly fond of the Roosevelts and not particularly fond of the Kennedys. They were strong supporters of President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon. So the feelings I had about the 1960 election were ones of great disappointment. All the excitement about change that seemed to sweep the country was viewed as quite threatening where I grew up—which gives me some insight into how people feel today about much of what this President is trying to do.

But starting when I was in high school, I had a series of experiences that began to pose different ideas for me to consider. And when my involvement with my church led to my going to a speech that Martin Luther King gave, that was a real eye-opening experience. I was very impressed by him.

I was intellectually resistant to much of the Kennedy administration’s agenda, but I was very supportive of civil rights. I can remember having my mother explain what happened when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock and thinking it was just ridiculous that people wouldn’t go to school with different kinds of children.