Why Bill Clinton Always Blows It

A psychologist analyzes the former president's destructive streak


Back in 1993—doesn't that seem like a century ago?—President Bill Clinton likened himself to a famously resilient comic book character. "I'm a lot like Baby Huey. I'm fat. I'm ugly. But if you push me down, I keep coming back."

But if recent events have proven anything, it may be that the self-styled "Comeback Kid" is a lot more like Baby Jane Hudson, the captivating-yet-repugnant title character played by Bette Davis in the 1962 camp classic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Like the faded, bitter and spiteful ex-child star, Clinton doesn't seem to know how to share, much less exit, the stage gracefully. Worse still, like Baby Jane, he seems to have little sense of how he's horrifying his audience.

How else to explain his behavior related to this year's presidential election (which, alas, unlike the debates there for awhile, has no chance of being postponed or canceled)?

During the Democratic primaries, Clinton continued to take swipes at Barack Obama long past the point of helping Hillary Clinton's chances at securing the nomination. In January, he derided Obama's derogatory claims about Sen. Clinton's voting record as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." That and similar outbursts were widely viewed as damaging his wife's campaign and causing serious harm to the larger Democratic cause.

In June, Britain's Telegraph reported that Clinton had told friends that Obama would have to "kiss my ass" to garner his support and only a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention in August, Clinton was still pointedly refusing to state unequivocally that the Illinois senator was qualified to hold the nation's highest office.

Then there's recent history. During an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman this week, Clinton lavished praise on his wife and GOP nominee John McCain while mustering little to no enthusiasm for his party's nominee, whose name scarcely passed his lips during a quarter-hour chat. "People will wind up liking both [McCain and Obama]," suggested Clinton, "People will go in that polling booth and say: 'You know, I really admire Senator McCain. He gave about all you could give to this country without getting killed for it. But I've got to have a change, and I'm going the other way.' " Clinton's reticence to unambiguously stump for Obama led the show's next guest, comedian Chris Rock, to comment, "Is it me, or he didn't want to say the name 'Barack Obama'?"

The Letterman appearance wasn't a one-off. During an appearance on The View, he said the former POW has "given something in life the rest of us can't match" and emphasized that Hillary Clinton had garnered more primary votes than Obama, flourishes he repeated on Good Morning America. Elsewhere, he praised Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in terms he might have once reserved for a White House intern: "I come from Arkansas, I get why she's hot out there…why she's doing well."

What is going on here? Even his detractors admit that Bill Clinton is a tremendous strategist and master of political nuance (who can forget the incredible semantics lesson regarding the meaning of "is" he selflessly taught the nation?). It's clear that Barack Obama's political platform closely resembles his own and his wife's, yet he doesn't seem to be able to acknowledge Mrs. Clinton's primary defeat and his potentially pivotal role in securing a Democratic victory come November.

John D. Gartner's captivating new book, In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography (St. Martin's Press), may help explain the ex-president's behavior. To be sure, psychobiography can be a dodgy business—in "Young Man Luther," one of the great pioneers of the genre, Erik Erikson effectively reduced the Reformation to an epiphenomenon of the monk from Wittenburg's chronic constipation. But Gartner, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Medical School and author of The Hypomanic Edge, brings real insight—and an investigative journalist's doggedness—to the subject.

He conducted dozens of interviews with friends, confidantes, and enemies of Clinton on several continents, and even makes a credible claim to having discovered the ex-president's actual birth father (Clinton bears the last name of his stepfather). Gartner sifts through inconsistencies in various accounts surrounding the birth of Clinton and argues that the deceased George Wright, a doctor who worked with Clinton's mother and used to visit extensively with Bill on summer vacations, was his biological dad.

Though openly sympathetic to Clinton, there's a lot here that even former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr would find mesmerizing. Gartner argues that Clinton possesses a "hypomanic temperament," rather like a constant state of irritation, "a mildy manic personality that imbues some people with the raw ingredients it takes to be a charismatic leader," including huge reservoirs of energy, drive, enthusiasm and beliefs in personal destiny.

On the flip side, hypomanics also "have problems with impulse control, frequently in the area of sex." Gartner exhaustively and engagingly catalogues the psychic twists and turns of Clinton's childhood, especially his desires to please both his stern, disciplinarian grandmother Edith and his lax, good-time-loving mother Virginia. He persuasively argues that the Man from Hope "has always simultaneously need a relationship with both types of women."

For all of Bill's political life, Hillary has played the Edith role—focusing his efforts and saving him from his most self-destructive urges. With the effective end of his political career and the rise of hers, however, Bill is in a very different position, a supporting role in which he is undoubtedly unpracticed and uncomfortable. Now he may be torn between defending the woman who made his own success possible and the party that spurned her for president.

As Gartner documents, Clinton has an immense capacity for forgiveness (he made peace with his alcoholic, abusive stepfather) but he also has trouble reining in his fierce temper. "I have found," writes Gartner, "that behind every successful hypomanic stands a more levelheaded, controlled partner…who serves as an external governor. For Bill, that person is Hillary."

It may well be that Sen. Clinton, who no doubt nurses her own wounds from the bruising primary season, is too busy with her own career now to police her husband on the campaign trail as she once did.

Which may mean defeat for the Democrats—but plenty of captivating political theater between now and November.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of reason.tv and reason online. A version of this ran in the September 28, 2008 edition of The New York Post.