Who exactly is Bill Clinton, and why was he, of all the brilliant and ambitious men in his generation, the first in his class to reach the White House? Drawing on hundreds of letters, documents, and interviews, David Maraniss explores the evolution of the personality of our forty-second president from his youth in Arkansas to his 1991 announcement that he would run for the nation's highest office. In this richly textured and balanced biography, Maraniss reveals a complex man full of great flaws and great talents. First in His Class is the definitive book on Bill Clinton.
About the Author
David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post and a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for journalism and was a finalist three other times. Among his bestselling books are biographies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente, and Vince Lombardi, and a trilogy about the 1960s – Rome 1960; Once in a Great City (winner of the RFK Book Prize); and They Marched into Sunlight (winner of the J. Anthony Lucas Prize and Pulitzer Finalist in History). A Good American Family is his twelfth book.
Hometown:Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wisconsin
Date of Birth:August 6, 1949
Place of Birth:Detroit, Michigan
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
What People are Saying About This
David Maraniss has written a compelling, vivid portrait of a very complex man. First in His Class is, moreover, a work of great integrity, notable for the scrupulousness of its documentations, which shines forth from every page.
Robert A. Caro, author of Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was one of the best, most inspiring, and most detailed biographies i have ever read.
I was touched by this book because it offered an in-deepth look at the trauma of being an orphan followed by the abuses of alcoholism. Furthermore, it offers a look at the drug abuse problems of his brother. I beleive this book sends the message that prominent families can be affected by trauma and drug abuse.
A gripping read is hard to come by, especially if your tendency as a writer is more journalistic than literary. For any author to attempt a political biography is a gusty move. David Maraniss does the job well. His rich and detailed 500 page plunge intothe mind and political style of William Jefferson Clinton provides us with wonderful insight into the making of a brilliant, albiet contraversial, Commander in Chief. In fact, I think Bill should read it himself!!