President William Jefferson Clinton Biography
Birthplace: Hope, Ark.
William Jefferson Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III in Hope, Ark., on Aug. 19, 1946. He was named for his father, who was killed in an automobile accident before Clinton's birth. Virginia Kelley, his mother, eventually married Roger Clinton, a car dealer, whose surname the future president later adopted.
In high school in Hot Springs, Ark., Clinton considered becoming a doctor, but politics beckoned after a meeting with President John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C., on a Boys' Nation trip. He earned a B.S. in international affairs in 1968 at Georgetown University, having spent his junior year working for Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford between 1968 and 1970. He then attended Yale Law School, where he met his future wife, Hillary Rodham, a Wellesley graduate. The couple has one child, Chelsea.
Clinton taught at the University of Arkansas (1974–1976), was elected state attorney general (1976), and in 1979 became the nation's youngest governor. But he was defeated for reelection by voters irate at a rise in the state's automobile license fees. In 1982 he was elected again. This time he reined in liberal tendencies to accommodate the conservative bent of the voters.
Clinton became the 42nd U.S. president following a turbulent political campaign. He overcame vigorous personal attacks on his character and on his actions during the Vietnam War, which he actively opposed. The “character issue” stemmed from allegations of infidelity, which Clinton refuted in a television interview in which he and Hillary avowed their relationship was solid. Throughout his term in office, Clinton was dogged by allegations relating to the Whitewater real estate deal in which he and Hillary were involved prior to the 1992 election. Though the Clintons were never accused of any wrongdoing, partners in the venture were convicted of fraud and conspiracy in a trial in 1996.
The problems faced by the new president were as daunting as they were varied. In January 1993 he became embroiled with the military leadership over his campaign pledge to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the armed services. He ultimately agreed to a compromise, dubbed the “don't ask, don't tell” policy. His first year also saw Clinton wrangling with Congress over the Federal budget and economic policy.
In his second year, Clinton faced persistent troubles on the domestic front, with acrimonious battles raging over health care, welfare reform, and crime prevention. A health care reform package crafted by his wife failed to gain sufficient support. Clinton had to reduce his objective from massive overhaul to incremental reform.
Clinton won major victories with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect Jan. 1, 1994, and the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which led to the establishment in 1995 of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Congress also approved a deficit reduction bill, rules allowing abortion counseling in federally funded clinics, a waiting period for handgun purchases (the Brady Bill), and a national service program.
Foreign affairs, once a weak point for a man elected on a domestic economic agenda, became a proving ground for Clinton. He improved his international image when the Israel–Jordan peace agreement was signed at the White House in the summer of 1994 by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein. In the fall of that year, the administration succeeded in restoring Haiti's ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power. Clinton scored again by bolstering Russian president Boris Yeltsin's popularity with promises of economic aid.
The problems in Eastern Europe were Clinton's next big challenge. Though he wanted desperately to end the brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, he did not want to commit American ground troops to do so. A peace accord involving American peacekeeping troops was ultimately signed in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995.
The 1994 elections resulted in a Republican-controlled Congress, and 1995 was largely a tug-of-war between the White House and Capitol Hill over budget-balancing and other key points of the G.O.P.'s “Contract with America,” crafted by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
In 1996, anticipating the fall election, Clinton moved to the political center by approving several major and widely popular legislative measures. Included was a welfare-reform bill that reversed several decades of federal policy.
Foreign affairs plagued Clinton's presidency in 1996. In Russia, Clinton's support for Yeltsin drew criticism as the war for Chechen independence erupted. In the Middle East, Israeli-Palestinian disputes continued and Iraq invaded Kurdish territory. Clinton responded to the Iraqi aggression by ordering missile attacks on Iraqi planes and ground forces.
A soaring economy facilitated an agreement on balanced-budget legislation in 1997. Political harmony, however, did not extend far, as the character issues that had dogged Clinton for years soon began to emerge once again. A series of investigations was begun to determine whether Clinton and Vice President Gore had participated in questionable fund-raising practices in their 1996 campaign.
Clinton was again able to strengthen his place on the world stage in 1998. In April, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, Clinton's hand-picked envoy, helped broker a historic peace agreement aimed at ending decades of fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. In May-June Clinton made a controversial diplomatic visit to China. Despite pre-trip criticism, Clinton was generally praised for making advancements in U.S. relations with the most populous country in the world while taking a clear stance against Chinese human rights practices.
As his tenure wore on, Clinton came under increasing pressure from Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who in 1994 took over the investigation of the Clintons' involvement in the Whitewater land deal. Over time, Starr's brief was expanded to include other matters, such as the death of White House lawyer Vincent Foster, the handling of firings in the White House travel office, and shocking allegations of sexual misconduct by Clinton.
The President seemed to win a point in April 1998 when a federal judge in Arkansas threw out a long-pending sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Corbin Jones, a former Arkansas state employee. But Starr had already begun investigating the possibility that Clinton had perjured himself in his testimony in the Jones case over an alleged affair with a young White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky. A few months earlier, Clinton had adamantly denied ever having engaged in sexual relations with Lewinsky, or of asking anyone to lie to cover up the affair.
Despite the explosive charges, Clinton's overall popularity among Americans remained high. The country seemed willing to ignore his weaknesses in character, much as they did in the 1992 elections, as long as the economy was good, his policies were popular, and the United States remained strong abroad. On Aug. 17, 1998, Clinton made history by becoming the first U.S. president to testify in front of a grand jury, in an investigation of his own possibly criminal conduct. In an address to the nation that evening, he now admitted to having had an “inappropriate” relationship with Lewinsky, but reaffirmed that he did not ask anyone to lie about or cover up the affair.
By August, the Lewinsky scandal so dominated Clinton's agenda that when he responded to the bombing of two American embassies in Africa by sending U.S. cruise missiles to strike alleged terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan, many questioned whether the strike was a ploy to draw attention away from his domestic plight.
On Sept. 9, Starr—a conservative Republican whose investigation was seen by Clinton supporters as a politically inspired vendetta—delivered his report to the House of Representatives. While the report outlined 11 possible grounds for impeachment, none stemmed from the initial subjects of the investigation, including the Whitewater real estate deal. The real focus of the accusations seemed to be Clinton's moral conduct, and the “Starr Report” graphically detailed his sexual affair.
Despite the American population's general disapproval of a trial (which was reflected in poll after poll), Congress moved forward in its highly partisan and acrimonious impeachment proceedings. In December the House Judiciary Committee approved four articles of impeachment: for grand jury perjury, civil suit perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. Republicans rejected Democrats' call to censure Clinton for “reprehensible conduct” rather than continue with impeachment, and on Dec. 19, Clinton became the second president in American history to be impeached. Two of the four articles of impeachment passed (Article I, grand jury perjury, and Article III, obstruction of justice), the votes drawn along party lines. After a Senate trial in Jan.–Feb. 1999, Clinton was acquitted on both counts. On the charge of perjury, the vote was 55–45 with 10 Republicans voting for acquittal along with all 45 Democrats. On the charge of obstruction of justice, the vote was 50–50, with 5 Republicans joining Democrats in voting for acquittal.
While the impeachment trial overshadowed all other activity in Washington for a good portion of 1998, Clinton was forced to respond to continued problems with Iraq at the end of the year. In December, Saddam Hussein blocked a weapons inspection by the United Nations. The U.N. responded with airstrikes that would continue on a nearly-daily basis for the next three months, and then off and on through the spring and summer, as Iraq taunted the U.S. and its allies further by shooting at jets patrolling the no-fly zones set up after the Persian Gulf war.
In the spring of 1999, the Middle East took a back seat to disturbing developments in the Balkans. Reports of continued ethnic cleansing in the Serbian province of Kosovo were growing. Clinton and his British counterpart, Tony Blair, helped lead the push for NATO intervention, which resulted in a 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia that began in March. Political arguing over whether to send in NATO ground troops began to heat up, with Clinton receiving some sharp criticism for holding back on their deployment. Clinton was ultimately justified, however, as Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic finally agreed to a peace treaty, signed June 9.
Following the Kosovo conflict Clinton faced the challenge of smoothing over important international relationships. Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, had opposed NATO airstrikes from the start. The fragile relationship between the U.S. and China was also shaken up on May 7, when NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three journalists.
The summer of 1999 found Washington debating what to do with a surprisingly large budget surplus. The President, riding high on reports that the 1996 welfare overhaul was achieving great success, pushed for further social reform—specifically, revisions in the Social Security and health care systems. Republicans countered with calls for drastic tax cuts.
The President also prepared for the 2000 elections, in which his support would be called upon not only by presidential hopeful Al Gore, but by Clinton's wife as well. By fall 1999, after several months of rumored consideration, the First Lady appeared likely to make a run for the U.S. Senate in New York. She won that seat, while Al Gore lost to George W. Bush.