The 42nd president of the United States—who had one of the most colorful, controversial, adored, reviled reigns in American history—opens up about his mesmerizing, story-laden new memoir: his tumultuous Arkansas childhood, his extraordinary journey to the White House (and beyond), the controversies of his second term ("I felt terrible about what I'd done"), Hillary's political career, what it's really like being president, and his current-day dreams for himself, America, and the world.
My conversation with Bill Clinton really began three days before I met him at his house in Chappaqua, New York, when the pages of his (then still unbound) autobiography, My Life (Knopf), were delivered to me. By the time I finished the last sentence, I felt as if I had walked with Clinton through every step of his life and through part of American history.
The boy born William Jefferson Blythe III spent his early childhood like I did: amid outhouses, washboards, and buttermilk churns. His father, William Jefferson Blythe Jr., died in a car accident on his way to Hope, Arkansas, from Chicago three months before his son's birth. When the future president was almost 4, his mother, Virginia, married Roger Clinton, a sometimes violent alcoholic. Bill Clinton—who had taken his stepfather's surname—studied international relations at Georgetown University, then spent two years at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Next came Yale Law School, where he met Hillary Rodham. The two married in 1975 and had Chelsea in 1980.
The exacting detail in My Life confirms Clinton's extraordinary memory for even the briefest experiences and for people's names and histories. Long before he moved into the governor's mansion in Arkansas and, in January 1993, the White House, he was a meet-and-greet kind of guy, always ready to tell a story or take one in.
"My friends literally made me president," he says when I meet with him in his cozy house, 40 minutes by car from his Harlem office. He recalls the 1992 New Hampshire primary: "One hundred and fifty people in Arkansas threw down what they were doing, showed up in New Hampshire, and started knocking on doors, saying, 'You've gotta give this guy enough votes to go on.'"
After eight years in office, two Kenneth Starr investigations (Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky), and one flourishing economy (even some of his detractors admit this), Bill Clinton said goodbye to Washington.
On the day we talk in his sitting room, Clinton is lean and mean, thanks to a stint on the South Beach diet. With his dog, Seamus, playing in the backyard, and a framed photo nearby in which he and Hillary are embracing, Bill Clinton does what growing up in the South taught him to do: He tells me a story—the one that carried him from Hope, Arkansas, to the White House.
Start reading Oprah's interview with President Bill Clinton
Note: This interview appeared in the August 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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