President Bill Clinton (Honorary)
United States President | Class of 2002
William Jefferson Clinton, a native of Hope, Arkansas, was the fortieth and forty-second governor of Arkansas and the forty-second president of the United States. Clinton was the second-youngest governor in the state’s history, after John Selden Roane, and the third-youngest person to become president.
Bill Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe IV on August 19, 1946, in Hope, the son of William Jefferson Blythe, III, and Virginia Cassidy Blythe. His father, a traveling salesman, was killed in an automobile accident before Clinton was born. He changed his name to Clinton after his mother married Roger Clinton, a car dealer. The family moved to Hot Springs, where he graduated from high school.
Clinton graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; attended Oxford University in Oxford, England, on a Rhodes Scholarship; and, in 1973, received a Juris Doctorate degree from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he met his future wife, Hillary Rodham of Park Ridge, Illinois. He then returned to Arkansas to teach law at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (U of A). Rodham joined him on the faculty in 1974, and they were married on October 11, 1975.
In 1974 shortly after he joined the U of A faculty, Clinton ran for United States representative in the state’s Third Congressional District. He won the Democratic nomination but lost in the general election. Clinton made an easy and successful run for attorney general in 1976. In 1978, he easily defeated four candidates again for the Democratic nomination for governor and was elected.
In his first term, Clinton proposed modest reforms in education and commercial regulation, particularly to control pollution. However, his biggest initiative, a highway program, was expensive fiscally and politically. He persuaded the legislature to increase taxes on motor fuels and to raise other fees on vehicles. These increases were met with public opposition. Clinton was further hurt politically by the presence of Cuban refugees at Fort Chaffee sent there by his friend, President Jimmy Carter. Frank D. White, a former banker and state industrial-development official, switched parties to run for governor in 1980. He blamed Clinton for the threat to public safety that the Cubans represented (several had broken out of Fort Chaffee in May 1980 and rioted) and for higher vehicle license fees. He defeated Clinton in the election with almost fifty-two percent of the vote.
In the meantime, Clinton practiced law in Little Rock and prepared for the 1982 governor’s race. He easily defeated White to regain the office and was subsequently re-elected in 1984, 1986, and 1990. During the campaign of 1982, Clinton promised to make major strides in education, including a large investment of public money. The regular legislative session of 1985 was devoted to economic development. The legislature approved almost all of Clinton’s program, which included changes in banking laws, start-up money for technology-oriented businesses, and large tax incentives for Arkansas industries that expanded their production and jobs.
He set his sights on the presidency. On October 3, 1991, Clinton announced that he would run for president in 1992. His education reforms and leadership of several national organizations, including the National Governors’ Conference and the Democratic Leadership Council, strengthened his national stature and gave him important connections. He deflected several controversies during the primary election and easily won the Democratic nomination. Clinton chose Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee as his vice-presidential running mate.
President George H. W. Bush was high in poll ratings when the campaign began, but a sluggish economy and high unemployment damaged his chances. Clinton received forty-three percent of the popular vote to Bush’s thirty-eight percent. He earned an even more decisive victory in the Electoral College with 370 votes to Bush’s 168.
Although he had been battered by controversy during his first term and his party had lost control of both houses of Congress in 1994, Clinton had an easier election for a second term in 1996 when he defeated Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, the Republican nominee. Clinton was re-elected with forty-nine percent of the popular vote to Dole’s forty-one percent. This time, Clinton won the electoral vote with 379 votes to Dole’s 159.
Bitter controversy dogged Clinton from his election until he left office. However, in his first two years, he succeeded in passing a law that required companies with more than fifty employees to give them up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave each year to cope with family problems, in addition to another law that established a national service program called AmeriCorps which allowed young people to perform public service work for a period of time. His budget package, which passed both houses of Congress without a single Republican vote, reduced government spending and increased taxes mainly on high incomes. The legislation also expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provided extra income for millions of low-income families. The deficit declined sharply over the next two years and disappeared in 1998. After Republicans regained control of Congress, Clinton spent the next six years battling conservatives over the federal budget and social issues. The Republican majority sought to cut federal spending on education, environmental protection, Medicare, and Medicaid.
In the field of foreign affairs, Clinton tried to arrange peace between religious and ethnic rivals in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland. He successfully brought an end to religious strife in Northern Ireland, a declaration of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and an agreement between Israel and Jordan to end their state of war. When the Mexican peso collapsed in 1995, Clinton devised a loan package to restore world confidence in Mexico. Mexico rallied and paid off the loans with interest three years ahead of schedule.
The major instrument of Clinton’s foreign policy was trade and economic leverage. Late in 1993 in the face of opposition of even many Democrats, he completed negotiations and won ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which reduced tariffs and created a free-trading bloc among the United States, Canada, and Mexico. He also finished work on a comprehensive world trade agreement called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which Congress ratified in 1994.
For his entire presidency, Clinton, his wife, and members of his administration were hounded by accusations of wrongdoing. After 1994 when Republicans regained control of both houses of Congress, congressional committees conducted investigations and lengthy hearings on accusations of misconduct, none of which produced evidence of illegal activities.
The most troublesome, damaging, and expensive investigation involved a real estate deal the Clintons and another couple undertook in 1978, while Clinton was attorney general. The investigation known as “Whitewater,” the name of the land development company Whitewater Development Corp., accused the group and their real estate project of having benefited from the operations of a local savings and loan association that eventually went bankrupt. Neither the Clintons nor any others in his administration were ever implicated in any wrongdoing in the Whitewater-related activities. However, the special prosecutor appointed to the case accused Clinton of “high crimes and misdemeanors” (the grounds for the impeachment and removal of a president) and brought four articles of impeachment against him. On December 19, 1998, in a vote along party lines, the House adopted two of the articles—perjury before the grand jury and obstruction of justice—for an inappropriate sexual relationship with a White House intern. Democrats charged that the impeachment proceedings were a Republican vendetta to destroy a popular president. On February 12, 1999, after a lengthy hearing, the Senate defeated the articles of impeachment. Clinton remained in office.
Since his presidency, the Clintons have bought a house in Chappaqua, New York, to establish residency in the state. Hillary ran for and was elected twice to the U.S. Senate from New York. She also ran twice unsuccessfully for the presidency (in 2008 and 2016) and served as U.S. Secretary of State under the forty-fourth president Barack Obama (her 2008 opponent). She is the first woman to have become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Bill Clinton retired to Chappaqua and opened an office in the nearby Harlem, New York, neighborhood and began to write his autobiography. The book, My Life, was published in 2004 and became a bestseller. Clinton’s presidential library opened in November 2004 on the Little Rock riverfront. He has traveled extensively throughout the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, where he instituted efforts to import medicine to combat the AIDS epidemic. In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Clinton and the elder President Bush to direct humanitarian relief efforts. Both Clintons have also been involved in the relief efforts for the victims of natural disasters nationally and worldwide. In 2013, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. The Clintons and their daughter, Chelsea, are heavily involved the operations of the Clinton Foundation. They are proud grandparents to Chelsea’s two children, Charlotte and Aidan.