BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Maraniss, author of "First in His Class", if you could have been with Bill Clinton at any time period in his life to see him up close, which one would you pick?
DAVID MARANISS(Author, "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton"): I would have picked his early childhood. It's probably the least known part of his life and the part I had the most frustration trying to recreate -- starting with his birth and up through probably his first 10 years, dealing first with a young man without a father and then an alcoholic stepfather. And although I've got a lot of people talking about that part of his life, I really don't know what it was like for young Bill Clinton to be in that household, and I'd really like to watch that and how it affected him.
LAMB: How did you try to find out what that period was like?
MARANISS: Well, I moved to Hope, Arkansas where he was born, and spent a few weeks there interviewing dozens of people who knew the family. I talked to a lot of his aunts and got a lot of the letters of that era and tried to recreate what it was like in that small town in the South during the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Then I moved up to Hot Springs, where his stepfather was from, and stayed in the same hotel that Al Capone used to hang out in, in the Arlington Hotel up there, and tried to talk to as many women of his mother's generation, many of whom also dealt with the same problems that she did in terms of being treated as equals with men and being abused by their husbands. So I spent a lot of time trying to recreate that generation.
LAMB: How old was Bill Clinton in that picture I just showed?
MARANISS: He's only 4 years old in that picture.
LAMB: What was life like for him in those early days in Hope?
MARANISS: Well, essentially, he had two mothers. His own mother, Virginia, had left Hope when he was less than 2 to go down to New Orleans to study to be a nurse anesthetist. And so he lived with his Mama Cassidy, who was a very rigid character. Bill Clinton is such a contrast of people; he has a certain discipline, and yet he's very undisciplined. His discipline comes from that grandmother, who would wake him at a specific hour, whether he was ready to awake himself or not, and fed him constantly on a pattern. So he had two mothers, one mother who was sort of rebelling against the life in Hope and wanted to get away from it, and this grandmother who was teaching him the discipline of that time and place.
LAMB: His grandmother, you write, was a nurse, but there was a relationship between her and her husband that was at times rocky, or accusatory that somebody was running around on the other person?
MARANISS: Many of their relatives told me the stories of how Mrs. Cassidy would scream and yell at her husband, Eldridge Cassidy, who was probably the best-liked man in Hope. He was the iceman at first. He would deliver ice on a horse and wagon and then eventually got a truck. But he was known as a very, very friendly man, and she thought he was too friendly with some of the women in town and would let him know.
LAMB: Who's in this picture right here?
MARANISS: That is Virginia and her first husband, Bill Blythe, who is Bill Clinton's biological father, most likely.
LAMB: Most likely?
MARANISS: Well, it's a very sensitive subject. But in the book you'll notice that the time when Bill Blythe got out of the military in World War II does not quite correspond with the point where Virginia, Bill's mother, always claimed that he got out of the military, so there's some question about when Bill Clinton was conceived.
LAMB: Was that information new?
MARANISS: Yes, I mean, I had never heard it before. I had heard it from people in Hope who would raise questions about it. I'm not trying to disparage Bill Clinton's mother, but as a historian I had to look into that, and, unfortunately, I wasn't able to totally resolve it. But there are some discrepancies on the dates.
LAMB: How many times had Bill Blythe been married?
MARANISS: He'd been married at least four times before he met Virginia Cassidy. She knew about none of those marriages. It's possible that there were one or two others. It was hard for me to trace them out throughout the small courthouses of the South, but there are several others.
LAMB: How many courthouses did you go to?
MARANISS: I went to five. In Madill, Oklahoma, and Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma City and Sherman, Texas, and in Shreveport, Louisiana, and in Texarkana -- actually six I guess. I found five.
LAMB: And what were you looking for?
MARANISS: I was looking for W. J. Blythe. That's the way he was known. He was never Bill Blythe or William Jefferson Blythe until he met Virginia, Bill's mother. But I was looking for divorce and marriage records and birth records.
LAMB: How many times had Bill Clinton's mother been married?
MARANISS: She had never been married before.
LAMB: No, but when she did, how many times?
MARANISS: Oh, when she did, well, she married Bill Blythe, and she married Roger Clinton, then she married Jeff Dwyer and then she married Kelly, Dick Kelly. So, she'd been married to four men, but five times. She married Roger Clinton twice. Roger Clinton married Virginia when Bill Clinton, President Clinton, was 4 years old, and they divorced when President Clinton was 14, 15, but only for three months, and then she felt sorry for him. She didn't love him any more. He was an alcoholic who had abused her. The divorce records are full of cases. One time he took her high heels and beat her on the head with the high heels, and he accused her of a lot of things which were untrue. It was not a very comfortable marriage, but she remarried him after only three months of divorce because she felt sorry for him.
LAMB: How much violence and alcoholism did President Clinton see as he was growing up?
MARANISS: That's one of the things I would like to know. I think he saw a lot. That's why I said I would have liked to have been there during that era. That's not to say that every day in that household was a terror or that it was terrifying. I know, from recreating Bill Clinton's life through his letters and conversations with some of his friends, that it did not dominate the exterior of his life. His friends didn't even know that his stepfather was an alcoholic or abusing his mother, but I think that there were many occasions when it got pretty nasty inside that house. And I think that's what drove him in a lot of ways.
LAMB: When did you first interview Bill Clinton?
MARANISS: I first interviewed him in December of 1991.
LAMB: Did you interview him for this book?
MARANISS: I interviewed him six times in long interviews during the campaign. I wrote a number of longer stories about Bill Clinton and his life and career. The day I started writing a book, I contacted his press people, who all knew me, and said, "I'm doing a biography." From that day until the day the book was published, I tried to get interviews with him, and he denied all of my requests.
LAMB: Were you ever told why?
MARANISS: Yes. I'm not always satisfied with the answers I got. I think that largely the reason why was that Bill Clinton is a person much more comfortable with the present and the future than with his own past. I was told, actually by Hillary, his wife, that their lawyers recommended against him talking to me. I could only surmise that one of those reasons was monetary, that they thought it might affect their own future memoirs.
LAMB: You make a note in the preface here that both Mrs. Clinton and President Clinton declined to be interviewed for this book. Some White House aides, especially those attached to Hillary Clinton, were unhelpful. What did you mean by that?
MARANISS: I don't want to make too much of it, but, generally speaking, dozens, scores of their closest friends cooperated with me to one degree or another. They all gave interviews. There were about three or four occasions where people who were in Hillary's part of the life called the White House, called Hillary's staff and said, "Should we talk to David Maraniss?" and they were told no. So I considered that unhelpful that, in fact, they were trying to suppress interviews.
LAMB: Again, do you know why?
MARANISS: I have no idea why in that case. The interviews that I was trying to get were not those that would be the most embarrassing in those cases. Two of the interviews that people were told not to talk to me were her former ministers. A couple were roommates or friends from Wellesley College, her college years. Now, there are several other people who said they were not eager to talk to me because, why would I want to write a book about a sitting president. And so I went around and around with some people for a long time, but there were no indications that the White House was trying to talk him them out of it. Those were the only I found of that.
LAMB: Why did you want to write a book about a sitting president?
MARANISS: I thought it was a great story. That was really the underlying motivation, was that whatever anyone thinks of Bill Clinton's presidency or his ideology, that his life is a great American story, and it's a narrative that I thought revealed a lot about ambition, the clash between ambition and idealism, coming out of nowhere, that part of America, dealing with a troubled family, rising out of Arkansas from the point where he shook John Kennedy's hand in 1963 to actually living in the White House himself. I mean, that's just a great story. The other thing that intrigued me was -- I am of his generation; I'm three years younger than Bill Clinton -- but I thought I saw him and Hillary as a means of writing a book about the postwar baby boom generation, using them as the main characters.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the book cover. Where is this picture from?
MARANISS: You know, I think that nine out of 10 people would guess wrong about that picture. He looks maybe like he's somewhere between 18 and 22. In fact, he's 27. He's running for Congress in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He had just moved back from Yale Law School to be an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville., 1974, running for Congress against John Paul Hammerschmidt, his first race there, which he did well in but lost.
LAMB: Why did you pick this?
MARANISS: We had a lot of pictures. Some were much more familiar to people, the picture of him at Oxford, a few other pictures that you would see and just know it's him and not think anything about it. I thought that that picture was unfamiliar to people, and it has a certain allure to it. I think it's an intriguing picture that grabs you and shows that there is more behind this man than you might think, good and bad. It's not something that you just see and say, "Oh, I know that."
LAMB: Where did you find it?
MARANISS: It was taken by a photographer for the paper up in Springdale, Arkansas. I had accumulated hundreds of pictures while I was doing the book.
LAMB: It says at the top, "A Biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class." Where did you get the name?
MARANISS: It just sort of came out of a few discussions between my editor, Alice Mayhew, and myself. We knew that it had to have "first" in it, and it doesn't reflect -- he was never first in his class academically, but he was close. He was fifth in his high school class; he was Phi Beta Kappa at Georgetown. At Oxford he never got a degree, and at Yale Law School, he graduated without the law degree, but he was never in class. But "first in his class" means that he's the first member of his generation to become president.
LAMB: Below your name it says, "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize". What did you win that for?
MARANISS: I won that for my stories on Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign. They were not campaign stories per se; they were stories about his life and career. I think that I probably wrote about 25 larger stories about him, and 10 were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
LAMB: Your name David Maraniss, as you know, is mispronounced a lot.
MARANISS: Maraniss, Marainis, yes.
LAMB: What's the origin? Where does the name come from?
MARANISS: That's a great question. Maraniss comes from Marrano, which is a word that was given to Spanish Jews during the Inquisition, conversos. My father is from a Jewish family; he's not a practicing Jew. My mother's Scotch-Irish. We're the only Maranisses in the country -- my brother and my father and my son and my brother's sons.
LAMB: In the country? Where's home then?
MARANISS: I don't know where home is anymore. My parents live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and I've lived in Washington. I've worked for the Washington Post since 1977, but eight of those years I was in Austin, Texas, as their Southwest bureau chief, and that's where my two children went through high school, so they think of Austin as home and I think of Madison as home. My wife is from Madison, too, so we're sort of from all over.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
MARANISS: To the University of Wisconsin.
LAMB: Back to your parents. How did they meet?
MARANISS: My parents met at the University of Michigan. My dad grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York and he got a baseball scholarship to the University of Michigan in the late 1930s. And my mother was a townie. She grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and was a freshman when he was a senior. He was one of the editors of the Michigan Daily, and that's how they met.
LAMB: There's so much in the book that it's hard to know where to start, but I want to ask you about some people.
LAMB: One name that comes up near the end of the book a lot is Richard Morris. Who is he?
MARANISS: He is a largely unknown character in modern American politics. He's a consultant who works out of Connecticut and New York City. He is a Machiavellian, fascinating character who knows how to connect with politicians in a way that few other consultants do, but yet there's a certain embarrassment about him because he's so clearly Machiavellian that the politicians for whom he gives advice often don't want the public or the rest of the press to know that he's doing it. He started advising Bill Clinton when Clinton first ran for governor in 1978, and he was, along with Hillary and one other person, Betsey Wright, Clinton's key advisor throughout his entire governorship era in Arkansas.
Yet when I went through the clips of the papers in Arkansas, his name was never there, but he is the one who gave Clinton most of the key advice during his comeback after he had lost the governorship in 1980 when he came back and advised him all the way up to the point where Morris was, basically, I don't know, he was almost apolitical, but moderate to conservative, and eventually he started advising only Republican candidates except for Bill Clinton. Finally, I think it was the Republican national chairman who said, "Look, Morris, you've got to give it up. You can't keep advising Clinton. He might want to run for president." So Morris had to drop Clinton, too, but I think he's still advising him.
LAMB: You've obviously interviewed him.
MARANISS: Several times, on the record.
LAMB: Was he reluctant to be interviewed?
MARANISS: He had not been interviewed before, but I think he knew that I was writing a serious historical biography, and he wanted his role to be there for history, I think.
LAMB: How many interviews did you do for the book?
MARANISS: I say I did 400, I think. When I've gone through my notes again, it's more than that, maybe 450. Some people I interviewed many, many times and some just once.
LAMB: Anybody besides the president and Mrs. Clinton just flat out say they wouldn't talk to you?
MARANISS: Yes, one of Clinton's college girlfriends, who's in the book, Ann Markesun, would not talk to me. Flat out. I tried for a year and a half. Two of the troopers who talked to the American Spectator would not talk to me.
LAMB: Did they say why?
MARANISS: I think that they were more comfortable dealing with some of the other people that they had arrangements with.
LAMB: Back to Richard Morris. On Page 455, you write this, "Cabe stood by. Clinton suddenly lost control, according to Cabe, and slugged Morris, sending him reeling. Clinton apologized, Cabe later recalled, but he was still" -- I won't use the language -- "ticked off" is the expression. "Morris did not resign. He stayed on for the rest of the campaign, though every now and then, according to Cabe, he would mutter, 'I can't believe Clinton hit me.'"
MARANISS: You know, most of the people who covered Clinton over the years in Arkansas said everybody knew he had a temper, but no one knew he'd ever hit anyone before. To get that anecdote, Richard Morris wouldn't confirm or deny it, but I already knew it to be true, and Gloria Cabe confirmed it for me.
LAMB: Who's Gloria Cabe?
MARANISS: She was Clinton's campaign manager during that 1990 campaign, an Arkansas woman who had been in the state legislature there and had known Bill Clinton since the beginning of his political career. I don't even think Morris would dispute the fact that probably there are dozens of politicians around the country who, when they read that anecdote, sort of smiled and said, "Good for Clinton," because Morris has a way of getting under people's skin and driving them crazy. He knows that.
LAMB: What about Richard Morris and his advice to the current president when he was running for governor? You talked talk about something called the "permanent campaign"?
MARANISS: Well Morris's advice was often very astute, and that's why Clinton, and even more so Hillary Rodham Clinton, really relied on Morris. Morris is the one who told Clinton to apologize to the people of Arkansas for his first term, which proved to be very effective, saying that he understood that he'd made mistakes and almost like the prodigal son saying, "Let me back." It worked very effectively, and it was a technique, a sort of humble admission that Clinton and Hillary remembered for the future and used again and again over the years.
LAMB: When did this happen?
MARANISS: That happened in 1981, when he was preparing to run again in 82. They taped a TV spot where Clinton essentially said, "I'm sorry. I learned my lessons. It will never happen again." At that point Clinton was the youngest ex-governor in American history. He was really depressed and fit the ironic description of the Rhodes scholar, which is a bright young man with a future behind him. And Morris really pulled him out of it and told him, "Apologize, go forward."
It worked, and then he developed what I call the "permanent campaign," which was essentially to go around the established media, the newspapers and television, and, as you're pushing your legislative agenda, use your own public relations apparatus to sell your agenda. It's something that Clinton did from then on, to use polling constantly, not just to find out what the people were thinking about an issue but how they would respond specifically to rhetoric. Clinton loved that. It isn't just pure Machiavelli. Clinton really did love to connect with people -- he always had -- and to have a scientific way of doing it really intrigued him. And he did that for the rest of his career, as well.
LAMB: How did he find Dick Morris in the first place?
MARANISS: I think Morris found them. It was 1978 and Clinton was attorney general of Arkansas, and he was preparing to run for governor. Morris was really starting out in his career and was very aggressively pursuing candidates around the country, and Clinton was one of those that he latched on with. But he drove Clinton's other aides crazy during that first campaign, and they essentially fired him until Clinton was fired as governor after only two years, and then Hillary really called and said, "Come on back. We need you again." Then he stayed on for the rest of the '80s.
LAMB: The names Carville and Begala and Grunwald are not in this book.
MARANISS: No, there are very few people from the '90s -- well, the book ends the day Clinton announced for president. He had certainly met Carville and Begala by then, but they are not what this book is about. This book is not about the 1992 campaign, and it's not about Bill Clinton as president, although I would argue that, although the book ends the day he announced for president, everything that happened since is in the book, because his campaign, in essence, was his life coming back to him, and his presidency the first two years have largely been recurring patterns of his career coming back to him.
LAMB: Betsey Wright was also a part of the permanent campaign? You said Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Richard Morris and Betsey Wright?
MARANISS: Betsey Wright came down to Little Rock about a week or two after Bill Clinton was defeated in 1980. She lived in the governor's mansion for a while, sort of piecing back together all of the detritus of his life, of his political career. She put into computers all of the thousands of note cards that he had of his key political allies and contributors, and then when he won reelection, she became his chief of staff from 1983 through 1990. Her relationship with Clinton is one of the most interesting that I encountered. There's a real sisterly-brotherly, love-hate relationship going on there all through their time together. So she is both fiercely loyal to him and yet is angry at him all the time.
LAMB: Is she angry at you?
MARANISS: I don't think she is. You're referring to when the book came out. There's a scene in the book where Betsey Wright and Bill Clinton meet at her house, and they go over a list of women who might be problematic for him if he were to run for president in 1988. When the book came out she issued what I call a non-denial denial, saying that David Maraniss might have misrepresented her, "misinterpreted what I had told him." But I hadn't; she knows I didn't. It's very clear to me and my editors at the Washington Post that for two weeks before that incident that I was talking to her -- I'd read to her all of the parts of the book that referred to that. We have documents about it. So I don't think she's mad. I think she was under a little bit of pressure to try to deny it, but no one has said a word about it since or challenged any of the other parts of the book.
LAMB: I counted three interviews that you listed in the back with her. Was that right?
MARANISS: Well, the three major interviews. I talked to her many other times, but three long interviews.
LAMB: It might be useful before we go any farther, I want to show the audience how you did this. I don't know that I've ever seen it done quite this way, but what you see here are notes. And every page in which you have an interview with someone that you refer to, it's listed next to the page number here. Where did you get that idea?
MARANISS: I followed the pattern that Taylor Branch used in "Parting the Waters", a book about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Taylor Branch is one of my heroes as a writer, and he also had the same editor. And so when I was looking for a way to do my source notes, I thought that would be a good pattern to follow.
LAMB: And when you interviewed people and you'd list the date in here, do you have tapes to back it up? How did you do that?
MARANISS: Some were tape recorded and some weren't, but I certainly have the notes. I'll be better organized for my next book. But as my researchers will attest, it's all there in files and in notes, and it took me a long time to do those chapter notes at the end when I was done with the book.
LAMB: When the was the last word written?
MARANISS: September 24th, 1994.
LAMB: And, as I remember, you even have an interview that you did on September 24th, or at least 22nd. I have Cliff Jackson on September 22nd, 1994.
MARANISS: I was writing the final scene, and the final scene of the book is what a lot of people who appear in different parts of the book were doing while Bill Clinton was announcing for president. There are things that hit me now after the book is done, but at the last minute, I thought I should call him one more time and say, "What were you doing?" And it turned out that he was at home watching it on TV, and it added a certain texture to that final scene.
LAMB: Who's Cliff Jackson?
MARANISS: Cliff Jackson is another Arkansasan of Bill Clinton's generation who was at Oxford for one year when Bill Clinton was there. According to Jackson, Clinton sort of manipulated or used him to help get out of the draft. Jackson was as ambitious as Clinton at that period. There was a little bit of jealousy going on in that he saw that Clinton had a few characteristics that Jackson lacked in terms of being gregarious and getting along with people and that Clinton would succeed, perhaps, where Jackson wouldn't. They both went back to Arkansas. Clinton rose to power, and Jackson was always in the background, almost in a Shakespearean way, thinking that he was going to get this guy sooner or later, and during the campaign he went after Clinton.
LAMB: More than once in the book I came across, "This is the myth, but this isn't the way it happened." To give a small example, the story about how Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton met -- you say Bob Reich, the secretary of labor, who was a friend, actually introduced the two them before they met in the library.
LAMB: How often did you find that the story that's being told about his life is not accurate?
MARANISS: I found in almost every era of his life, there's at least one story that had become mythologized. Sometimes it's totally innocuous, and it's just probably bad memories -- I mean, they might not have remembered that Reich introduced them, and the other stories are more colorful. Sometimes there was definite psychological or political reason for the mythologizing. For instance, another one of myths that Bill Clinton would tell was about how he sort of accidentally got his job as a professor at the University of Arkansas. He says he was just driving back from Yale Law School and stopped at the side of the road on the interstate and called the dean and got the job.
In fact, he had tried to get the job for many months and had gone through the normal patterns of using friends and contacts to get that job, and I think that that myth was established by Clinton because he was going back to a place that all his Yale Law School friends thought he was crazy to go to. And so I think it was sort of like, well, "It was just easy; it was an accident. I didn't try to do it." The reason was that he knew in his mind he was going back to run for Congress, and so the idea that he had worked so hard to get hired as a professor when, in fact, he had really not much interest in being a professor, that's why he would create this myth that it was just sort of a fluke.
LAMB: You say that one of the organizations that he had the biggest conflict with, which surprises you when you read it compared to what's going on today, was the Arkansas Educational Association when he was running for governor or was governor. Why he was having a fight with the teachers of Arkansas?
MARANISS: It does seem odd, because he's always considered himself an education politician and he has so many degrees himself, but, in fact, he was under court pressure to reform the education system in Arkansas. To get the money that he needed, he realized through polls that Dick Morris did and through discussions with the major business leaders in Arkansas who had helped fund his education reform effort that he had to make the teachers accountable in some dramatic, clear way and so he imposed teachers tests, competency tests on the teachers.
They hated it, but the public loved it, and it helped Clinton politically so much to use the teachers as sort of a fake enemy. He just set himself up in opposition to them in order to help himself politically and to get across this broader program of which he thought it had a lot of merit. I don't think he ever really wanted to use the teachers in that way, but they were just convenient for him. So for about six years of his governorship, he and the teachers were at odds, and yet, when I was covering the campaign in 1992 and went up to New Hampshire, there standing next to me was the former head of the teachers union, who used to denounce him all the time, campaigning for him. He has a way of winning people over again.
LAMB: You wrote: "Clinton perpetuated the myth that his life progressed in a series of accidents and uncalculated events."
MARANISS: I think that the Yale Law School to Arkansas is one part of that. I think his whole life has a measure of calculation in it which he has tried to diminish for a lot of reasons, one of which is that raw political ambition in America is often seen as a bad thing. You would never say that about someone who wanted to grow up and become the best ice skater in the world or the best pianist, but, if you wanted to become president at an early age, people would see that as a negative. And so he always wanted to couch that, even though he had that burning desire in him.
So part of the way to temper that is to make it look like a lot of those things happened by accident. But, as the prologue in my book is his handshake with John Kennedy 1963, the iconic transfer of ambition from a president to a future president, and as my prologue shows so clearly, that was no accident, that handshake, that he was the one on the bus ride down who kept asking the chaperon whether they could get pictures taken, and once the bus got to the White House, he race-walked his way to the best position in line to get the handshake. So there was always that calculation.
LAMB: How were you able to reconstruct 30 years later the handshake in the Rose Garden?
MARANISS: That was a lot of fun. I got a list of every boy senator to Boys Nation that year from Judge Orson Johnson down in Alabama, who was one of the boys that had tried to have a reunion of sorts, and so I befriended him and talked to him, and he gave me the list of all the other boys. I found the head of the program, Mr. O'Connor, was a retired lawyer in New York City. Another of the American Legion guys was from Madison, Wisconsin, my hometown. I found him and he had a lot of pictures and an archive full of the documents so I could recreate what happened every day and jog memories of the boys, the men now, that got interviewed for that. So I talked to a lot of them and recreated it that way, including the other senator from Arkansas, Larry Taunton, who is now a businessman in suburban Dallas. He was the closest physically to Clinton during that whole week, so he was very helpful.
LAMB: I tried to write down the myths, the "accidents and uncalculated events." One of them was that he rose from poverty. Did he?
MARANISS: Not really. His grandparents didn't have a lot of money, but they weren't poor by Hope's standards. They certainty weren't rich, but his grandfather never really cared about money, but he did run a store and he lived in a nice white house. So I wouldn't say that's poverty. Roger Clinton, his stepfather, was terrible with money and was always losing it -- wasting it on alcohol and women and gambling. But Roger Clinton's brother, Raymond Clinton, was a wealthy auto dealer in Hot Springs and belonged to a country club, and young Bill Clinton had a car in high school and played golf at a country club. So I wouldn't say that that's poverty. I think there's a little bit of the myth there.
LAMB: This is small, but you say when he went to Oxford that he was part of the PPE program, but, in fact . . .
MARANISS: He wasn't. I couldn't figure out why he kept telling that story.
LAMB: What is PPE?
MARANISS: It's Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Oxford has a lot of course work that is unfamiliar with the American college students, the way they define it. But that's a course of study which would have been essentially an undergraduate's course of study that a lot of Rhodes scholars took, including Bob Reich, but Bill Clinton did not, and why he said he did, I couldn't figure out. But when I went to Oxford and interviewed some of the deans and professors who had worked with him there, they went through the records and said, no, that, in fact, he was in a different course of study which required one long paper at the end of the two years.
LAMB: Odds and ends that I'd never seen before -- Jerry Brown offered him a job?
MARANISS: I got that one late in my reporting from Mickey Kantor, the trade rep who was from California and knew Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton, and I was interviewing him about another part of their lives together. He described for me how Clinton asked him whether he should go work for Jerry Brown after Clinton was defeated in 1980 as the chief of staff.
LAMB: After being governor?
MARANISS: After being governor. It was sort of -- well, Jerry Brown, "Come out to California. It's where you belong. I'll give you a job out here." But Clinton turned it down.
LAMB: You say that when he was at Yale Law School that he used to sit with the black students at their table. What was the significance of that?
MARANISS: It was at a time of black power, black separation to a certain degree or at least a cultural identity that separated the races in college campuses. Clinton's friends, his roommates, all told me they were afraid to go sit at that table, even though they were, perhaps, further to the left politically than Bill Clinton. They just said they were uncomfortable being over there, and it was clear to them that the black students didn't want them to be there. Clinton just sort of barged his way into the table and would tell jokes about himself, self-depreciating jokes, jokes about the South, jokes about sex, jokes about anything and really was very comfortable in that milieu, just a natural thing that he had. He's very good at adapting to different cultures and milieus and is particularly good at connecting with black people on that level, and almost every black that I had interviewed for the book told me that in one way or another.
LAMB: I'll ask you about some other people that you wrote about. Strobe Talbott.
MARANISS: Talbott was the quintessential Rhodes scholar. He is probably what you would think of in your mind when you would think of one. He's was a Yalie who told me that he would sing the "Whiffenpoof" song in the shower, and he was the son of an establishment figure in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, a very serious young man who studied poetry and Russian politics in college and then at Oxford and turned against the war when he was at Yale and actually gave a commencement speech at Yale right before they went off to Oxford against the war and explaining how even those young men who didn't go off to fight nonetheless were victims of the war or veterans of it in one sense or another.
James Reston, the New York Times columnist, went up to Yale that year of Talbott's senior year at Yale and wrote a column saying that if the good young men of the establishment like Strobe Talbott were against the war in Vietnam, then Johnson was really in trouble. At Oxford, Talbott was a more serious student than Clinton was, but they lived together in their second year over there at a time when Clinton was really out of sorts, and their third roommate was Frank Aller.
LAMB: Who's also in this picture.
MARANISS: Who's also in that picture and was from Washington state. And he was a China scholar. He was the only one of the 32 Rhodes scholars from their class who resisted the draft. He was inducted and refused to go and he stayed over in England as a resister. Finally he came back to the United States a couple of years later, and, in fact, it was in a period he had lost some of the martyrdom that he had in England, and he ended up committing suicide.
LAMB: You mention that Bill Clinton was out of sorts his second year or third year at Oxford. What was the problem?
MARANISS: The draft, largely. About half of the 32 Rhodes scholars went to England their first year with sort of unofficial but clear deferments that they didn't deserve. Johnson had just eliminated graduate school deferments, but most of the local draft boards considered these guys local heroes, and they didn't want them to get drafted right when they'd won this great prestigious honor. So they went over to England with deferments that they didn't really deserve. And in the spring, eventually, finally, of his first year, Clinton got his draft notice, and he came back to Arkansas that summer of 1969 in agony trying to figure out what to do.
He didn't want to fight in Vietnam. He was against the war. Who knows whether he was afraid of dying, but I think most young men are. I mean there's a whole mixture of feelings that he was going through. He wanted to be in politics. He believed in the established way. So he was trying to figure it out, and he eventually manipulated his way into an ROTC post that he never served in and went back to England feeling guilty about that. That's when he was living with Talbott and Aller that second year after he got back.
LAMB: Watermelons. You refer enough times to the watermelons.
MARANISS: The watermelons of Hope, Arkansas. You know, I was in Hope for a long time, but I never saw those big watermelons. I was there in the wrong time of the year. But there are several years when the Guinness Book of Records listed a watermelon from Hope, Arkansas, as the largest in the world. I talked to some old-timers there. He used to describe how the railroads would come through Hope in southwest Arkansas and stop there, and the porters would get out, and there'd be fresh watermelons cut on these trays outside the train, and they'd bring them back, and the people would eat them on the way back to Texas.
LAMB: You mention that Clinton would bring this up a lot, the watermelons.
MARANISS: It was a way for Bill Clinton to talk about -- he was from a place other than where his friends were from, because he left Arkansas when he was 17 years old, went to the East Coast and was away for nine years and he was dealing with a totally different culture. He was the Southern Baptist himself at Georgetown, full of upper middle-class Catholic kids from the East Coast and the sons and daughters of presidents of El Salvador and Saudi Arabia and the Philippines were in his class. Unlike so much of the kids of that era who would try to forget their past, shed their past, Clinton, I think, used that past almost as a defense mechanism. Rather than being embarrassed about coming from a small town, he played it up. One way he did was by constantly talking about the watermelons.
LAMB: Who had the biggest influence on him?
MARANISS: His mother.
LAMB: Besides her. You mentioned ministers, teachers, coaches.
MARANISS: Besides his mother and his wife, OK, he was in constant search of father figures. He never had that, a father, and I think that later in his life it was his minister in Little Rock.
MARANISS: W. L. Vaught, who was as unlike Bill Clinton as anyone could be in the world. He was a short, wiry, bespectacled, rigid man who taught only from Scripture, was very conservative in his political beliefs, but ran the largest Southern Baptist church in Arkansas. Bill Clinton took to Vaught and really looked to him for, not only spiritual help, but political advice. Vaught helped him work out his positions on abortion and the death penalty, but Vaught died before Clinton ran for president, and I think he missed him a lot during that tumultuous era.
LAMB: Who's Virgil Spurlin?
MARANISS: Virgil Spurlin was an earlier version of Vaught in a sense. He was Bill Clinton's band director at Hot Springs High School, also a very conservative Southern Baptist, former military guy who Bill Clinton revered, was probably a little afraid of, and maybe with his friends, away from Spurlin, would even make fun of, but, in essence, he revered Spurlin. Spurlin was a great organizer. The band festivals for the whole state of Arkansas were held in Hot Springs every spring, and Spurlin would have to organize this massive contest, almost like an NCAA basketball tournament where you'd have people competing with different instruments for a week long, and they had to figure out who would compete where and for how long and when they would be there. Bill Clinton helped him set up these charts that would organize like 3,000 musicians and when they would be where, and I think that was the first political organizing skill that Clinton learned from band, from Virgil Spurlin.
LAMB: A picture of Mrs. Clinton in another time and Clinton's mother.
MARANISS: And his brother, Roger. That's 1979 when he was inaugurated as the youngest governor in America since Harold Stassen. He was then 31.
LAMB: What's the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Clinton?
MARANISS: It's always changing. I think that it was built on a shared passion for policy and politics and books and ideas and intellectual life and also a sense of humor. I think that when he married Hillary, he told his friends that he was going for brains over glamour. I think that she knew what she was getting into when she married him in the sense of his enormous appetite for life, and it's had several tumultuous parts to their marriage, but it's a pragmatic, political partnership with some extra spice to it as well.
LAMB: You report that she was in a role similar to her health care role in Arkansas.
MARANISS: Absolutely. To understand their relationship now you have to understand it's gone through three stages, basically. They met at Yale Law School, and from that point in the early 1970s until 1980 when he was defeated as governor, I think that although they saw that they could get to their ultimate goal together, they were really leading independent lives in the sense that she was building up her own life and career, first as a law professor and then as a lawyer and working in Children's Defense Fund issues.
Then he got beat, and she came to the realization that he could only recover with her more profound help. From then on she was his key financial person, his key political advisor, his pro bono lawyer on ethical issues and his main policy person. She was the head of the task force on education reform, which was successful and which made his name in Arkansas and established his career for the 1980s and helped him become a national figure. They carried that policy partnership into the White House almost without even thinking twice about it, and so then when the health care plan was defeated, it forced them to actually reconsider whether she should be in that out-front policy role. I think they're reworking that right now.
LAMB: Go back to 1988 and his decision whether to run for governor again.
LAMB: You paint a picture of no one, including even his wife, knowing until minutes before, and even maybe as he made the announcement, whether he was going to run again as governor for Arkansas. Was that new?
MARANISS: I think that the detail is new, but people in Arkansas who covered that race were trying to figure it out as well. But it was stunning to me that one of Rodham Hillary's friends called her and said, "Do you know what Bill's going to do?" I mean, here she is, his main political advisor, and there was just enormous uncertainty about whether he would run again that year. Maybe that was a period when they weren't as close as some other periods. I think that that's true that they were a little bit apart then, not separated, but not as close as they were in other eras.
LAMB: Did he tell the people of Arkansas that if he ran and won he would not . . .
MARANISS: He told the people when he ran for governor in 1990 that if he were elected, he'd serve out four years. Someone asked him that question at a political forum, "Will you serve out your term if you're elected?" In classic Clinton style without even thinking, he said, "You bet." Just like that. And then he had to live with those two words and break them.
LAMB: We've had other politicians do the same thing.
LAMB: It doesn't seem to matter, though. What did he get -- 58 percent of the vote in the state of Arkansas when he ran for president? So do you have any idea why people were willing just to let that go?
MARANISS: There's a joke in Arkansas that they voted for him to get rid of him. But that's not it, obviously. But most of them think that Clinton is always asking for forgiveness of one sort or another and people in Arkansas are often willing to give it to him, and they knew all along that his goal was to be president. By the time he made that decision, people in Arkansas knew him so well that those who were for him were for him no matter what, and those who were against him, hated his guts and didn't care. So there were no undecided about Bill Clinton in Arkansas by that time; they'd known him for so long.
LAMB: From the time you started focusing on this book and the time you finished, how long was it?
MARANISS: I started the book the day after the election. Even though I spent a year before that covering him, I said to myself, I'm starting over from scratch, and I tried to as much as possible. Then from that moment until September 24, 1994, almost two years.
LAMB: How did you work? Where were you?
MARANISS: When I started the book I was still in Austin, Texas, as the Southwest bureau chief for the Post, but I got a leave of absence. I was living in Austin, closer to Arkansas, so I spent an awful lot of time in Little Rock, Fayetteville, Hot Springs and Hope, the four Arkansas towns of Bill Clinton's life, moving from one to the other for a few weeks at a time gathering as much research as I could. I went to Oxford for a long time with my wife and went over everything I could of his life overseas. I traveled to Washington a lot and to as many places as I had to find the people from his life.
LAMB: Let me ask you just one quick question because it makes a connection. Alan Ryan, professor from Princeton, was here a couple of months ago to talk about Tocqueville. I read in this book that you did an interview with Alan Ryan and that he was . . .
MARANISS: He was at Oxford then.
LAMB: He was his teacher?
LAMB: Does he remember him?
MARANISS: Barely, vaguely. Ryan was teaching this special class for people who had to make up things, or sort of a cram course for before you write your final exams, and Clinton was in that class. Ryan remembers more clearly Clinton's girlfriend, but he thinks he remembers Clinton too. I can spend literally the rest of my life interviewing people who knew Bill Clinton and who knew him with an anecdote to tell or something where their lives intersected, forever. I interviewed more than 400 people, and I know there's so much more out there. He spent his whole life networking and running into people. I still find people today saying, "Well do you know this about him?" "I knew him in this year," and I'll never know it all.
LAMB: I've heard somewhere that he's been reading this book.
MARANISS: He's read the whole thing now.
LAMB: Did you get any feedback on what he felt?
MARANISS: I haven't gotten it directly, but most of the people in the book who are very close to him have read the book or have written me letters saying that they think it's a fair, accurate book, and they really like it. Clinton obviously can't say that because half the book is critical of him. So he's sort of reading it aloud, abridged version of the stories that are neutral or that are just funny, and he enjoys that part of the book. He's a sensitive person who will argue or debate any anecdote in there or story in which he doesn't come out in the best light. But just the other night I encountered George Stephanopolous and Mark Gearan, and they both thought the book was great, and they're two of his top aides.
LAMB: If you're a Republican running for president and you read this book, what would you conclude about 1996?
MARANISS: See, that is the other irony of this book or actually something that makes me feel good is that Robert Novak, a leading conservative, in a column this morning was praising this book. There's something in there for everybody. There's certainly a lot of material for Clinton's enemies as well as his friends, and I think they can find parts of his life where he was duplicitous, where he manipulated his way out of things and didn't tell the truth about them later, and there are parts of the book where you can see that he's a caring, compassionate, interesting person.
LAMB: What do you think he believes the strongest about?
MARANISS: Well, you know, that's the number one question about Bill Clinton, and in the last month as I've been on the book tour, that's the question that people call in to radio shows about most. What does this guy really believe the most? I mean, in a general way I can say that I think he went into politics to do good and that his life and career has been that clash between idealism and ambition. If you're looking at one issue, as a progressive coming out of the South that race relations always meant the most to him was the burning issue of his childhood and youth and that Vietnam really, in a sense, got in the way of what he wanted to do in terms of his political career and civil rights, and then, again, so did his ambition. So there are two or three points in his career where you can see him making decisions on issues relating to civil rights that are controversial.
LAMB: What are you going to do next?
MARANISS: I worked for the Washington Post for 18 years, and it's a great institution that gave me a sabbatical to do this book, so I owe them. I'm writing a series right now on the new Republican Congress, or trying to work on it as much as I can while I'm talking about this book. But I loved writing this book, and I'd really like to write books for the rest of my life, maybe one on Vince Lombardi. I'm from Wisconsin. I think a cultural biography of him would be fascinating.
LAMB: What is the hardest thing about this book?
MARANISS: The hardest thing was to decide in my own mind what I felt about this guy. I'd go back and forth violently because there were chapters in his life where I liked him and chapters where I didn't. So I would beat myself up, saying, make up your mind; you've got to decide. Then I realized that he is a dual person and that I had it right.
LAMB: David Maraniss, author of "First in His Class", thank you.
MARANISS: Great. Thank you, Brian.
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