Bill Clinton could fairly claim that his presidency had been among the most successful in modern times. He presided over economic expansion and achieved the first budget surplus in decades. With the exception of such efforts as his bold early plans to balance the budget and revamp health care, his policies were not especially provocative. Still for much of his presidency, he had to fight an opposition that his wife Hillary indignantly called a “right-wing-conspiracy.”
Son of a nurse, Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III in 1946 in Hope, Arkansas, three months after his father died in a car accident. (He later took his stepfather’s family name.) Clinton made his way to Georgetown University and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. After Yale Law School, he returned to Arkansas, and came close to being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974. The following year, he married his fellow Yale Law graduate Hillary Rodham, and in 1980, their daughter Chelsea was born.
Clinton was elected the state’s attorney general at age 30 and governor at 32. But in 1980, he was defeated for a second term by voters who feared that he had gone too liberal. When they restored him to power two years later, he thanked them for giving him a “second chance.”
Eschewing a presidential race in 1988, he ran in 1992 and won the Democratic nomination. With the Cold War just over, he complained that President Bush had not done enough about domestic problems such as the recession that afflicted the nation. Clinton won the election, as the third youngest president in history, but with only 43 percent of the vote, thanks to the presence of third-party candidate Ross Perot, who won 19 percent.
In 1994, he paid for his daring on health care, the budget, and such initiatives as the North American Free Trade Agreement when voters ousted the Democrats from leadership in the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. Clinton moved to the center and told Congress that “the era of Big Government is over,” winning reelection in 1996 over former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas with almost half the popular vote.
Confronted with continued Republican control of congress, Clinton turned to foreign policy. He championed NATO bombing to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, approved the bombing of Iraq to “deny” Saddam Hussein the “capacity” to use weapons of mass destruction, and worked hard to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
But in 1998, while questioned under oath, he falsely denied an intimate relationship with a young woman. His belated apology and admission that he had prevaricated under oath did not stop demands that he resign or be impeached. Acting mainly on party lines, the House impeached Clinton but in the Senate there were only 45 votes to convict—well short of the required two-thirds.
An important element of Clinton’s political survival was the steadfast public support of his wife, Hillary. In 2000, the couple established residence in Chappaqua, New York, and she won election from that state to the U.S. Senate.
Following his years as president, Clinton built a foundation, wrote his memoirs, and oversaw the creation of his presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas. He also supported Hillary Clinton’s political career during her tenure in the Senate and as secretary of state, and her 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns. He remains actively involved with the work of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and the initiatives of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
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