Presidential History

Why Bill Clinton Always Blows It

A psychologist analyzes the former president's destructive streak

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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.

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  1. What’s disappointing to me is not Clinton’s character (clearly he has issues there.) It’s the fact that the top two Democrats who are relatively moderate on economics (and with a proven track record of bringing spending under control,) are basically washing their hands of BHO. So in a putative BHO administration (which seems more likely in the wake of JMC’s post-economic crisis collapse in the polls,) his chief advisers will be doctrinaire ideologues like Ted Kennedy and “Xerox” Biden.

    Not exactly a happy occasion.

  2. Love the phallic symbol-laden photo with the Freud reference.

  3. “Love the phallic symbol-laden photo with the Freud reference.”

    Sometimes, a saxaphone is just a metaphor for a national sex scandal.

  4. Which may mean defeat for the Democrats

    Meh. I don’t think any Democrats are waiting for either Clinton to tell them who to vote for.

  5. It’s all about the Clintons. Hillary will be too old in 2016. 2008 was her best shot and 2012 will be her last.

    I know, I know. It’s sexist that an old woman can’t get elected but an old man can. Don’t shoot the messenger.

  6. It’s not sexism. An old woman might be a witch, and we can’t have witches running things.

  7. It’s not sexism. An old woman might be a witch, and we can’t have witches running things.

    Only if she weighs the same as a duck.

  8. If the dude could keep his junk in his pants, we never would have gone through the miserable last 8 years!

  9. What else floats?

    “Very small pebbles.”

  10. we can’t have witches running things

    Well, it really depends on which witches you’re talking about. I’ll take Fairuza Balk tyranny any time.

  11. Wasn’t all the analysis here pretty obvious in, say, 1994? And incredibly, unbearingly obvious on the day Clinton left office, with a barrage of ridiculous pardons that basically said “Fuck You America I Don’t Give A Shit”?

  12. Well, it really depends on which witches you’re talking about.

    Aw, Epi, were you a preadolecent girl when that movie came out, too? Did you play the light-as-a-feather game at slumber parties?

  13. Aw, Epi, were you a preadolecent girl when that movie came out, too?

    I have been many things. But not that.

    Did you play the light-as-a-feather game at slumber parties?

    Does hide-the-salami count?

  14. Remember that Clinton was one of the leading lights of the sort-of-centrist DLC. He was never a leftist. He knows that Obama is a crypto-Marxist and will, if elected, forever damage the Democratic brand and the country as well. He can’t come out and say that, because to do so would doom Hillary’s chances next time, so he’s in passive-aggressive mode toward Obama. Or maybe he’s actually trying to do what he thinks best for the country (it could happen!).

  15. Come on, JohnL.Bill Clinton only cares about Bill Clinton. Now, that worked out well for us in the 1990s (notice how he dropped national healthcare and gun control like hot potatoes when they endangered his re-election).

  16. Does hide-the-salami count?

    At our sleep-overs, someone’s creepy cousin or brother would always try to play that game with us. Now I know it was you! Or maybe it was Slick Willie…?

  17. It’s sexist that an old woman can’t get elected but an old man can.

    I’m not so sure an old man can, either. It’s been, what, 24 years since Reagan won an election? Since then, the contests have either been between two men of basically the same age, or the old guy has lost, right?

  18. Now I know it was you! Or maybe it was Slick Willie…?

    I’d bet on the latter. Is your real name Chelsea?

  19. If the dude could keep his junk in his pants, we never would have gone through the miserable last 8 years!

    shanefish, if Clinton would have let the elected VP be his VP instead of his wife, Al Gore may have had a better shot at the presidency in 2000. It wouldn’t have taken much to put him over the top. If he was seen as having done something presientialish during the 8 years of Clinton’s terms, it couldn’t have hurt. Think Al is bitter on Hillary? I could see a president Barack making the same mistake, maybe.

  20. Is your real name Chelsea?

    Ouch! Although I was appropriately jealous of her cushy consulting and hedge fund gigs, I luckily avoided an awkward phase as monumental as hers.

    (You totally blew the salami/Slick Willie set-up, btw. Or is ‘willie’ not a euphemism here like it is north of the border?)

  21. The above is not to imply I disagree BC not keeping it his pants was a factor – just not the only one. (not that you were implying it was the only factor…)

  22. You totally blew the salami/Slick Willie set-up, btw. Or is ‘willie’ not a euphemism here like it is north of the border?

    It is a euphemism here too. I’m a little dumb today. Wacky night last night.

  23. I’m a little dumb today.

    Spin it as giving the simpler folk a fighting chance. Might even count towards your community service hours. 😉

    Wacky night last night.

    Reintroducing the clown suit can only lead to wackiness. Cocaine probably doesn’t hurt, either.

  24. Might even count towards your community service hours

    They are never-ending. Maybe I should coach a junior hockey team.

  25. Maybe I should coach a junior hockey team.

    It would increase your chances with the hockey mom set. And it beats those kids’ birthday parties you’ve been trolling.

    Plus, who doesn’t strive to emulate Emilio?

  26. Why no reference to this Reason article from 1994?

    https://www.reason.com/news/show/29549.html

    I never forgot it. Thought it was awesome.

  27. It would increase your chances with the hockey mom set

    And this would be a plus…why?

    And it beats those kids’ birthday parties you’ve been trolling

    Clown suit!

    Plus, who doesn’t strive to emulate Emilio?

    Well, there’s Repo Man Emilio and there’s Young Guns II Emilio. Different emulations.

    I had a friend in college who maintained, seriously, that Young Guns II was the finest movie ever made. Crazy, but man was he generous with the weed.

  28. And this would be a plus…why?

    Please don’t question the gospel of the Palin. It makes you sexist, just so you’re aware.

    Clown suit!

    Just when I thought my fear of clowns couldn’t get any worse.

    Well, there’s Repo Man Emilio and there’s Young Guns II Emilio.

    Both wrong. Breakfast Club Emilio, obviously! Or, the lesser known St. Elmo’s Fire Emilio.

  29. Repo Man: the best movie evah about the mechanics of cult indoctrination.

  30. It makes you sexist, just so you’re aware

    “Does that make us sexist?”

    “Well, it does now, Charlie!”

    Or, the lesser known St. Elmo’s Fire Emilio

    I know it and hated it. And he was a wrestling jock in Breakfast Club, which is not as cool as a repo man. And never forget (or maybe you should) Maximum Overdrive.

  31. I know it and hated it.

    You didn’t love Demi’s contrived freakout? Or the lack of a coherent plot? Or the terrible music? I pity you, sir.

  32. Why does Bill Clinton have a “destructive streak” if he’s not 100% complimentary toward Sen. Obama? Not that “honesty” and “Bill Clinton” go that well together, but if he doesn’t like Sen. Obama, why should he pretend he does?

    I may well vote for Sen. Obama, but it won’t be because I like him or trust him or think he is “qualified” to be president, it will be because I prefer his (the Democratic party) position on most issues to those of Sen. McCain.

    Bill Clinton is more persuasive — e.g. about how people should vote for Sen. Obama — because he doesn’t oversell it.

  33. J sub D got it right- Hillary still WANTS to be president…and Bill wants it for her. Their lukewarm support for the Democratic Nominee can only be explained thusly (there really is no other reason- remember Occam’s Razor!)…. if Obama loses, and we have another four years of horrible greed driven republican leadership, the Dems will surely win in 2012…and who will be the dem nominee? Hillary, of course! BUT, if Obama wins, and does well, he might well win another term….. and after that? …its rare for any party to hold the white house for more than 8 years…so Hill’s chances are nil for the future if Obama wins…..

    I used to like and support them both, but its clear they are now only interested in themselves and the power they seek- not the country or the people who live here.

  34. Reintroducing the clown suit can only lead to wackiness. Cocaine probably doesn’t hurt, either.

    You didn’t see nothing old man. We’re just five happy party clowns, sitting down to a plate of beef. White- powdery- beef.

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