First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton

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Overview

Drawing on letters, documents, and interviews with several hundred people whose paths intersected with Clinton's at every level -- family, friends, girlfriends, classmates, teachers, campaign workers, staff, and associates -- Maraniss explores the evolution of the personality whose greatest strengths are also his greatest weaknesses: his talent for politics and careful networking, his perseverance and optimism, his ever eagerness to please, his tendency to shade the truth, and his insatiable appetite for life and...
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Overview

Drawing on letters, documents, and interviews with several hundred people whose paths intersected with Clinton's at every level -- family, friends, girlfriends, classmates, teachers, campaign workers, staff, and associates -- Maraniss explores the evolution of the personality whose greatest strengths are also his greatest weaknesses: his talent for politics and careful networking, his perseverance and optimism, his ever eagerness to please, his tendency to shade the truth, and his insatiable appetite for life and ideas. It is a definitive study of Clinton's rise from obscure, provincial Arkansas, of the clear development of his ambitions, and of the Faustian bargains he made along the way. Maraniss looks at the split personality of Hot Springs, where Baptist churches and gambling casinos, all-American ideals and vaporous spas, were next-door neighbors -- and how these childhood influences worked their way into Clinton's persona. The Georgetown-to-Oxford-to-Yale years reveal Clinton as a remarkably quick study, a smooth and astute operator, and an unrivaled magnet, drawing many of the brightest people of his generation, first and foremost his wife and closest adviser, Hillary Rodham, and others who are now key members of his administration and circle. His career in Arkansas provided the important learning experiences and stepping stones that propelled him to the Oval Office -- and the stumbling blocks that threaten his stay there. Still, Maraniss shows, Clinton is not a man to count out of any fight. There have been numerous defeats along the way -- in "dress-rehearsal" elections for student council president, "out-of-town runs" for state office, and even now that he is on center stage -- but Bill Clinton has learned and bounced back, stronger after every setback.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this incisive, richly textured, fair-minded biography of Bill Clinton, which ends on the night he announced his presidential candidacy, Washington Post reporter Maraniss limns a quintessential politician, "sincere and deceptive at the same time.'' Drawing on interviews with nearly 400 people, including Clinton's closest friends, colleagues and relatives, Maraniss taps two sides of Clinton-one intelligent, empathetic, indefatigable, another petulant, tantrum-prone, indecisive, misleading, too eager to please-and declares that these components of the man are inseparable. There are revealing glimpses of Clinton the semi-bohemian Oxford antiwar activist; the casual, disorganized University of Arkansas law professor; and the Arkansas governor soliciting large contributions from corporate leaders for the public relations arm of his permanent political campaign. Maraniss, whose articles on Clinton's presidential candidacy won a Pulitzer Prize, also illuminates Clinton's pragmatic partnership with Hillary Rodham and their dependence on each other during their long haul from Arkansas to the White House.
Library Journal
Clinton books have been as ubiquitous as photos of the president in jogging shorts and ill-fitting suits. Maraniss's biography similarly suffers more from overexposure than content. Most of the book examines Clinton's educational roots-from high school, where he graduated fourth, not first, in his class through Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale universities. Washington Post reporter Maraniss is at his best portraying Clinton as a product of the 1960s, when his life experiences and views were tempered by liberalism. He was tormented, as were so many of his peers, by the possibility of being drafted to serve in Vietnam; his actions were buffeted by wanting to avoid service without becoming involved in protests that could haunt his political career. This sympathetic portrait concludes with Clinton's decision to seek the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Maraniss's book complements John Brummett's Highwire (LJ 9/15/94), which also sees Clinton as a product of either his educational or geographical roots. The large number of existing Clinton titles and his declining popularity may make this book a tough sell. For public libraries.
-- Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Township Library, King of Prussia, PA
Library Journal
Clinton books have been as ubiquitous as photos of the president in jogging shorts and ill-fitting suits. Maraniss's biography similarly suffers more from overexposure than content. Most of the book examines Clinton's educational roots-from high school, where he graduated fourth, not first, in his class through Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale universities. Washington Post reporter Maraniss is at his best portraying Clinton as a product of the 1960s, when his life experiences and views were tempered by liberalism. He was tormented, as were so many of his peers, by the possibility of being drafted to serve in Vietnam; his actions were buffeted by wanting to avoid service without becoming involved in protests that could haunt his political career. This sympathetic portrait concludes with Clinton's decision to seek the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Maraniss's book complements John Brummett's Highwire (LJ 9/15/94), which also sees Clinton as a product of either his educational or geographical roots. The large number of existing Clinton titles and his declining popularity may make this book a tough sell. For public libraries.
-- Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Township Library, King of Prussia, PA
Thomas Gaughan
Maybe it's the logical progression of news media excess or the fact that self-absorbed baby boomers now run that media. Whatever the reason, the character of the first boomer president has received more scrutiny and instant analysis than any figure in history. Now Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maraniss offers a heavily documented (nearly 400 interviews), unauthorized biography that ends with Clinton's announcement for the presidency. Maraniss writes, "My goal was for this book to be neither pathography nor hagiography, but a fair-minded examination of a complicated human being and the forces that shaped him and his generation." He has achieved his goal. His portrait shows Clinton to be, like most public figures, a welter of coexisting contradictions -- "considerate and calculating, easygoing and ambitious, mediator and predator." Maraniss writes that his research caused him to like Clinton even when he disliked him and to dislike him even when he liked him. All in all, First in His Class is solid journalism that thoughtfully evokes the tumultuous times -- desegregation, assassinations, Vietnam -- that shaped Clinton. Maraniss, of course, is also a boomer, but his scrutiny is more balanced and thoughtful than most.
From the Publisher
Steve Neal Chicago Sun-Times First in His Class is a triumph of American political biography.

Jonathan Alter The Washington Monthly This is a first-rate political biography. To understand why the shorthand on this man [Clinton] is so insufficient, this book is essential.

Joan Duffy The Commercial Appeal Finally, a real book on Bill Clinton.

From Barnes & Noble
This Pulitzer Prize-winning author's study of Clinton begins with his youth & ends with the 1991 announcement of his Presidential candidacy. Explores the evolution of his personality and politics.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780785780694
  • Publisher: San Val, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/28/1996
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.51 (d)

Meet the Author

David  Maraniss
Born in Detroit, David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post. Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author of First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton; Rome 1960: The Olympics that Stirred the World; Barack Obama: The Story; Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero; They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967; and When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, which was hailed by Sports Illustrated as “maybe the best sports biography ever published.” He lives in Washington, DC and Madison, Wisconsin.

Good To Know

In our interview, Maraniss shared some fascinating facts about himself:

"Some facts about me: I got married when I had just turned 20 and am still married, 34 years later, to Linda Maraniss, who is my best editor and partner in all of my books."

"Although I often write about politics, my real interest is in why people do what they do, the forces that shape them."

"I love baseball on the radio, crossword puzzles, Scrabble, and music. I hate ideologues who fail to see the human dimension in all of life."

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    1. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wisconsin
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 6, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Detroit, Michigan
    1. Education:
      University of Wisconsin

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 22: The Permanent Campaign

Two months later, on the afternoon of January 11, 1983, the faithful and curious waited single-file in a queue that circled from the second floor of the Arkansas Capitol down to the rotunda and out the steps into the warm winter wind. It was the largest crowd that had ever gathered for an inauguration in Little Rock, there to celebrate the return of the favorite son. Bill Clinton stood in the receiving line inside the governor's conference room, surrounded by portraits of his predecessors, one of whom was himself. Already that day he had belted out redemptive hymns with his Immanuel Baptist Church choir. He had swept back to the Capitol for the swearingin ceremony in the House, the click of his heels echoing in the marble halls as he moved through his old haunt. He had delivered his inaugural address on the Capitol steps and felt the applause wash over him. Now the welcome-back handshakes and bearhugs made the restoration complete. He was blessing and being blessed in the sacred rite of Arkansas politics.

Clinton was back in power; but he was not picking up where he had left off a few years earlier. Everything was different this second time around. The youth crusade atmosphere of the first term was long gone. His staff was almost entirely recast in a more reassuring image, with a grandmotherly receptionist and a good ole boy executive assistant, old enough to be his father, and another senior aide whose duties included praying with fundamentalist preachers when they visited the governor's office. "He realized that he needed some older folks on his staff," recalled Paul Root, who had been Clinton's high school world history teacher and was recruited at age fifty to work in the governor's office on education and church issues, which often intersect in the Bible Belt. "He said the first term he had some of the brightest people he knew, but they were all policy people, and if a right-wing preacher came in, he didn't have anyone to pray with him." The emphasis this time was on how aides got along with the public, state agencies, and the legislature. To sharpen his focus and open up the decision-making process, Clinton began chairing staff meetings every morning at seven while the legislature was in session during the first few months of the year. They were freewheeling, open-door discussions at which interested legislators were welcome to get some coffee and take a seat.

The state's mood had also changed. In place of the pride-and-hope theme of his first inaugural, Clinton now spoke of a battle "with an old and familiar enemy: hard times." Arkansas was in the midst of a recession, with three bad years on the farms and double-digit unemployment in the towns. He attributed the recession in part to the Republican policies of the Reagan administration in Washington, and in part to a larger state and national lethargy in adapting to a changing world economy through a renewed focus on education, information services, and worker retraining, themes that his Rhodes Scholar friend Bob Reich was expounding in his book The Next American Frontier. But the central parable of Clinton's inaugural speech came not from his generational experience but from Depression-era family folklore: the story of when Pappaw Cassidy fell to his knees and cried because he could not afford to buy young Virginia a two-dollar Easter dress.

If the public image Clinton conveyed was one of earnest determination, in private he feared that the state's condition, and his political situation, were more precarious than he had let on. In this moment of vindication, he was nagged by a sense of impending disaster. The bad news had started on the morning after the election, when Frank White's chief of staff had called Betsey Wright, who would be Clinton's staff director, and revealed that there was a $30 million shortfall in state revenues. Much of the transition had been consumed with targeting budget cuts. And there were other worries. In his comeback campaign, Clinton had pounded away at utility companies, portraying them as greedy villains and himself the returning champion who would give consumers a break on spiraling rates. The populist theme had helped him get elected, but now he had to deal with the raised expectations. He did not yet control the Public Service Commission, which set rates. Legislators and editorialists were lined up against his pledge to require that the utility commissioners be elected rather than appointed. A federal ruling, on the state's financial obligations to a regional nuclear power consortium might force rates higher. In the end, he worried, he might appear no better on the issue than White.

An even more difficult predicament loomed. The Arkansas Supreme Court was considering a lower court ruling that had declared the state's system of financing public education unconstitutional because it denied equal opportunities to students in poor districts. A final decision, almost certain to uphold the lower court ruling, was expected sometime during the new two-year term. Clinton's options looked unappealing. He could try to take money from rich districts and give it to poor ones, which would invite class warfare and be of minimal value since education was severely underfinanced in the entire state. Arkansas was at the bottom nationally in student spending and teacher salaries. He could make a concerted push for consolidation among the state's rural school districts, an effort that might reopen the old desegregation wounds and was sure to hurt him politically in areas that would lose their high school sports teams and school identities. Or he could raise taxes for education, the most likely alternative, yet a disturbing prospect for a governor who could not forget that he had lost his job attempting to get more money for better roads.

But among the things that had changed since his first term was Clinton's strategic approach. His political personality was largely unchanged: he was still restless, eclectic, intellectually hungry, eager to please. But this time he had a survival plan: the permanent campaign.

Copyright © 1995 by David Maraniss

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