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Bill Clinton: His Life

Former President Bill Clinton is known to be some talker and storyteller. And in his about-to-be-released autobiography, "My Life," he keeps telling stories for nearly 1,000 pages.

In an exclusive interview with 60 Minutes, Mr. Clinton tells Correspondent Dan Rather about his difficult childhood, his political accomplishments, his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and about how he finally told the truth to Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Clinton, one of only two presidents in U.S. history to face impeachment, also tells how he considers his impeachment battle a "badge of honor."

60 Minutes spoke with the former president at his home outside New York City, and in the towns where he grew up in Arkansas.

The 42nd president of the United States says he views his economic plan as the greatest accomplishment of his presidency.

"The fact that we were able to have 22 million jobs, and record home ownership, and lower interest rates of the people actually had the ability to do more things than ever before," says Mr. Clinton.

And what does he consider the greatest failure of his presidency?

"I'm sorry on the home front that we didn't get healthcare and that we didn't reform Social Security," says Mr. Clinton.

"And international affairs, I regret that I didn't succeed in getting Osama bin Laden. And equally, I'm sorry that I wasn't able enough to convince the Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace."

On a personal level, he says that his daughter, Chelsea's, high school graduation was the best day he had in the White House: "When I saw what she had become and asked me to speak. And I talked about what it was like to be a parent, and how I felt about her. That's probably the best day."

Mr. Clinton adds that there were a lot of great personal days, but admits that the worst day was "probably the day in August when I had to – before I testified for the grand jury when I had to talk to Hillary. My family had found out what had happened."
The president had finally told his family that he had been lying about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"That was just a simple day when I had to acknowledge to the people I loved most in the world that I had failed. I had done something bad. And I hadn't felt I could tell them about it before," recalls Mr. Clinton.

"And it was an awful, because there was no -- it wasn't about comparing what I had done or what was being done to me. It was just about facing up to my failure. It was a bad day. … All my bad personal days in the White House were related to what I thought were shortcomings of my own."

But was the affair the worst thing he's ever done? "In my whole life? Oh, I don't know," says the former president. "I think I've talked about that a lot in the book. And I think I've said enough about my personal life. And I think I've honestly tried to say more about my life than I believe any public figure ever has. And probably more than anyone ever should. And I think I'll leave it at that."

Mr. Clinton says he committed adultery for the worst possible reason: "Just because I could."

"I think that's just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything – when you do something just because you could," says Mr. Clinton.

"As I said in the book, I think that's part of the problem of the people I faced and combated with. But in that moment that's, I believe, I don't think it's much more complicated than that. I just think that that's what happened," adds Mr. Clinton.

"I've thought about it a lot. And there are lots of more sophisticated explanations, more complicated psychological explanations. But none of them are an excuse. I have to say that over and over again, because I know that people will raise Cain about that. But only a fool does not look to explain his mistakes. People should try to understand why they did the things they did."

At the beginning of his 957-page book, Mr. Clinton says that he believes the roots of his successes and failures are directly linked to his years growing up in Arkansas. So 60 Minutes asked the former president to take us back to his home state to learn about the problems he had growing up.

On the front porch of boyhood house in Hope, Ark., Mr. Clinton told Rather about his stepfather, Roger Clinton, the second husband that his mother, Virginia Kelley, married. His nickname, says Mr. Clinton, was "Dude," and he was an abusive alcoholic.

"I do not believe that she would have married him if he had ever abused her -- before they got married. That's something that happened afterwards," says Mr. Clinton. "But you might say that – maybe mother liked guys that were a bit rakish. She probably thought she could tame them. They liked her."

But Virginia couldn't tame Roger Clinton or stop him from attacking her with his fists, a pair of scissors, and even shooting his gun at her.

"This sounds crazy but I never hated my stepfather, Roger Clinton. Even after he pulled the trigger in here, when he was drunk, even after he beat my mother -- even after I got big enough to stop him from beating my mother," says Mr. Clinton.

"I had some understanding that he was a good man and couldn't whip his drinking problem. And that he was full of demons that he couldn't control it and he took it out in destructive, hateful ways. I hated what he did, but I never hated him."

Mr. Clinton never told any of his friends what was going on at home. As he writes in his book, from his childhood into his adult years in politics, he has lived "two parallel lives" -- the public one everyone knew about, and a dark secret one he says he says he never talked about.

"I don't think I was conscious of it in the beginning. But at some point, when I had moved to Hot Springs, and we just kept having these violent incidents in our home, and I realized that I never talked about it," recalls Mr. Clinton. "And as far as I know, nobody knew about it. I became aware it was a conscious decision that my mother and I had made to carry on. … Yeah, carry on, and just go on and try to make a normal life."

At Hope, the former president took 60 Minutes to the cemetery where both his mother and his biological father, William Jefferson Blythe, were buried – and told Rather why he always feels comfortable there.

"I never felt cemeteries were bad or morbid places. I think they're places of homecoming and keep the ties going," says Mr. Clinton.

Bill Clinton had two fathers: The abusive Roger Clinton, and Blythe, his biological father who died before Clinton was even born.
Mr. Clinton recalls Blythe's death: "Mother came home here because she was pregnant with me. And he was coming down to get her and he was killed on a highway. His tire blew out on a wet highway and he was thrown into a drainage ditch in Missouri, and he was actually not injured all that badly but he was knocked out and he drowned in the ditch."

It turns out Blythe was married three times before he met Mr. Clinton's mother. But the former president wasn't told that until after he was elected to the White House. He wasn't told because his mother didn't know either.

"You know, my mother was married five times to four men. Because she married my stepfather Roger Clinton twice, because they divorced once and then they remarried," says Mr. Clinton, pointing out his mother's grave. "My mother was widowed three times. She had a lot of sadness to her life. But she always carried on."

So did Bill Clinton. While his mother was divorced from Roger Clinton, the former president decided to change his name legally to Clinton. Why did he keep the first and second names of his biological father, William Jefferson, but not the last name?

"I think the fact that I was born without a father, and that I spent a lifetime trying to put together a picture of one also had a lot to do with how I turned out," says Mr. Clinton. "Good and not so good. But I think on balance, more good than bad. But it had a lot to do with it."

Later, when Mr. Clinton entered politics and was elected attorney general and then governor of Arkansas, there were rumors about his personal life.

When he ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1992, a storm broke over stories of his relationship with cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers, who claimed to be Mr. Clinton's lover for 12 years.

Mr. Clinton plummeted in the polls, so in an effort to salvage his campaign, he took the risky step of doing an interview on 60 Minutes in front of a huge audience right after the 1992 Super Bowl. During his interview with Correspondent Steve Kroft, Mr. Clinton, who was joined by his wife Hillary, denied ever having an affair with Flowers.

It took years for Mr. Clinton to admit that he was lying in that interview, and that he once had a relationship with Flowers. Even though the interview rejuvenated his campaign, he writes in his book that he was so furious at Kroft for prying into his personal life that he wanted to "slug him."

How was he able to get Mrs. Clinton to appear with him in the interview? "Oh, she wanted to go. She's tough, man. She didn't approve of what was being done," recalls Mr. Clinton, laughing.

"But you know, she thought if she was going to shoot me that it should be off camera. And she didn't think that anybody else ought to be loading the gun. What she thought was, that I was being messed with for reasons that had nothing to do with morality or family values -- and everything to do with power."

Mr. Clinton admits that he never could have become president without his wife's support. So why did he repeat the same mistake years later with Lewinsky?

"There is no explanation which is an excuse. I want to make that clear. I don't make any excuses for myself in this book. But I think it is worth trying to figure out why," says Mr. Clinton. "I was not thinking straight. It, when you ask a question that's a rational question and it's got, supposed to have a rational answer. There is no rational explanation for what I did."

In the book, Mr. Clinton makes it clear that he compounded his mistake by lying about it to his wife, child, the Cabinet, and the country.

"Basically what happened at the end of 1995, I was involved in, as I try to say in the book, two great fights. A struggle with the Republicans over the future of the country, which I won. And a struggle with my old demons which I lost," adds Mr. Clinton. "And if there had been no Kenneth Starr, if we had different kind of people, I would have just said, 'Here are the facts, I'm sorry, deal with it however you please.'"

Looking back, does he wish he had done that? "I'd like to say yes, but I can't. I don't know, because the moment was so crazy," says Mr. Clinton. "It was a zoo. It was unreal. It was like living in a madhouse."

In his book, and time and again in our interview, Mr. Clinton goes after his nemesis, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr. He says he still believes - and is furious about it - that Starr used an investigation into the Whitewater real estate deal as a pretext to delve into the most intimate details of his personal life.

"Starr issued his final report, there were hundreds and hundreds of references to sex, and two to Whitewater. And that there was really nothing to Whitewater," says Mr. Clinton. "It was nothing. It was a deal I lost money on. I made a business investment and lost money."

Mr. Clinton also explains that he eventually settled a sexual harassment suit brought by Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, not because he was guilty, he still insists, but to make it go away. And he says that Starr came up nearly empty in what he calls an "outlaw renegade investigation."
"It cost over $70 million. And we were exonerated in Whitewater, exonerated in the Vince Foster suicide, exonerated in the campaign finance reform. Exonerated in the White House travel office deal. Exonerated in the FBI file case," says Mr. Clinton.

"The judge ruled that the Jones case had absolutely no merit. There was nothing left but my personal failing. That's what people got for over $70 million. They indicted innocent people because they wouldn't lie. And they exonerated people who committed crimes because they would lie. And they did it because it was nothing but a big political operation designed to bring down the presidency."

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