Bill Clinton: Family Life

While Hillary Rodham Clinton’s activism as First Lady resulted in probably the highest public profile ever accorded a presidential spouse, the Clintons were deeply protective of the privacy of their only child, Chelsea. Chelsea, whose name came from the popular 1960’s song, “Chelsea Morning,” by Joni Mitchell, was born on February 27, 1980, and spent her entire childhood as the daughter of two very active public figures. Yet the Clintons insisted from very early in her life that they would try to raise Chelsea outside the glare of media attention, in as normal a fashion as possible. Even the Clintons’ bitterest critics have generally given them very high marks for their successful parenting.Some controversy did emerge when Chelsea was enrolled in private school in Washington, rather than in the public schools, which both Bill and Hillary had aggressively supported. But most observers seemed to understand the special demands on a school charged with educating the child of a President and thus the criticism did not take root. Chelsea was a strong student and eventually went to, and graduated from, Stanford University. She was also a frequent traveling companion of her parents and joined the First Lady on a number of international trips.

Professional responsibilities and public service had long been the consuming passion of both Bill and Hillary, but they also maintained a private side. Both loved to travel. Having no private residence to return to during breaks from the White House, they usually spent family vacations at the homes of wealthy friends in Los Angeles or on the East Coast. Bill Clinton also golfed, jogged, and played the saxophone. He devoured books, often working his way through several at the same time, and was an avid consumer of crossword puzzles. While flying on Air Force One, he spent much of his time playing competitive rounds of the card game Hearts.

The White House years proved, however, to be very difficult for the Clinton family. Hillary had long been considered especially close to her father, Hugh E. Rodham. He died in April 1993, just months into the first term, at a time when the Clintons were struggling to weather the early difficulties of the presidency. Bill’s mother passed away less than a year later.

Moreover, allegations of sexual misconduct—some voiced openly, others whispered as innuendo—had been a constant of Bill Clinton’s adult life. Some people close to Clinton have said that he decided not to run for President in 1988 after seeing Democratic candidate Gary Hart hounded from the race in 1987 because of the latter’s womanizing. The 1992 race had barely begun when Gennifer Flowers went public with a story that she had been Bill Clinton’s lover—and aired audiotapes to prove it. Both Bill and Hillary subsequently appeared on the television program 60 Minutes to quell the controversy, with Bill admitting that he had done harm to his marriage and Hillary defending her husband and his work. Later, during the first presidential term, a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Corbin Jones, began legal proceedings against the President, charging sexual assault and harassment.

The pressure on the family reached its high point during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Just after the President had testified to a grand jury that he had not been wholly truthful in earlier statements about his relationship with Lewinsky, he made a nationally televised speech, focusing on the damage he had done to his family. “Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most—my wife and our daughter—and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so. Nothing is more important to me personally. But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It’s nobody’s business but ours.” Clinton’s remarks drew heavy fire from both friends and critics for being insufficiently remorseful. But these words highlight the very personal havoc the Lewinsky affair wreaked on the First Family.

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