Bill Clinton: The Optimist

Former President Bill Clinton shakes hands while signing copies of his book, entitled "My Life" at the Hue-Man bookstore in the Harlem section of New York, Tuesday, June 22, 2004. AP

Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

My husband's Aunt Gertrude, who died last year at the age of 98, gave a final piece of advice to our teenage son. "Robert, stay out of trouble. But if you get in trouble, get out of it as fast as you can!"

That philosophy pretty much sums up Bill Clinton's view of his life. His 957-page autobiography, "My Life," is filled with the trials and tribulations of his life and how he lived to fight another day.

Betsey Wright, Clinton's gubernatorial chief of staff, once told me, "Virginia (Clinton's mother) and Bill see life through rose-colored glasses. They get up every morning, see a whole new world and start fresh." Clinton's explanation for his actions with Monica, which threatened his presidency, was that as a boy he learned to live parallel lives – an inner life filled with turmoil and darkness and an exterior life filled with purpose and delight.

His description of his growing-up years – in Arkansas, Georgetown, Oxford and New Haven – are the best parts of the book. He describes very candidly what a difficult a life his mother had, married five times to four husbands, and how hard it was for him, first without a father and then dealing with an alcoholic and abusive stepfather, Roger Clinton. The unconditional love he received from his mother and her positive outlook on life gave him the inner resources to go from the world of rural Arkansas to the White House, having fun, making friends easily and a believing in himself. His bouts of loneliness, his embarrassment about being "the fat kid" and his witness to domestic violence always give way to the next adventure and some wonderful person or event right around the corner.

When Clinton first revealed part of this story in early 1992 to then-New York Magazine reporter Joe Klein, few of his friends had any idea he'd had this kind of upbringing. Most of them had come from solidly middle- and upper-middle-class households and assumed this Golden Boy had, too. David Maraniss, in his Pulitzer Prize biography of Clinton, "First in His Class," has many of the stories but not Clinton's personal take on the harsh moments of his early life, his courtship of Hillary and the beginning of his political life. .

His sunny, can-do attitude allowed him to come to Georgetown University on a budget of $25 a week, become president of his freshman class, marry the girl he pursued and eventually win the White House. But not dealing with the demons and repressing all the bad things has caused him political as well as psychological trouble along the way.

In 1980, when he lost the Arkansas governorship, and again in 1994, when Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America captured Congress for the Republicans, Clinton missed the warning signs. His MO both times was to blame his pollsters and get new ones, a way to get an objective measure of dark clouds he had trouble seeing out of those rosy glasses.

Clinton prides himself on being both idealistic and practical and the book reflects good measures of both. He settles some old scores, especially with Ken Starr, but with people he merely dislikes or believes were disloyal (Paula Jones, George Stephanopoulos, Dick Morris) his technique is to brush them off, more in sorrow than in anger.

But it's Clinton's optimism that shines brightly from the pages. Since the death of Ronald Reagan, both President Bush and John Kerry have been falling all over themselves to claim the upbeat mantle. But they will have to go a long way to beat Bill Clinton on that score. He has his reverses, lost elections, lost policy battles, lost loves. But he bounces back, usually after a good night's sleep or after some inspiring person (just about every "real person" he meets) magically appears to give him a renewal of hope. He even made it off the couch and back to the bedroom two months after he "confessed" to Hillary about Monica.

At the end of the book, Clinton recalls being asked by CBS News' Mark Knoller in an exit interview if he was afraid that the best part of his life was over. Clinton admitted that Knoller touched a soft spot with that question, but said, of course, that he was looking forward to continuing to build his library, continue public service through his foundation and support Hillary.

And with that, he and Hillary, so estranged and humiliated just a year before, danced out of the White House, still thinking about tomorrow.
  • Joel Roberts

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