Oprah Talks to Bill Clinton
Oprah: By the time you moved to Hot Springs with your mother and stepfather, you say you'd already established yourself as a loved boy. You write: "Most people can make it if they have one person in the world who loves them."
Clinton: Right. When I was governor, I read an astonishing study about ten people who'd grown up in impossible circumstances but all made successful lives. One guy had been abandoned early and had four brothers in jail, yet he was a doctor. He'd lived with his grandmother and sometimes slept under the steps of the apartment. Near the entrance to the building, a guy who ran a newspaper stand there would talk to this child every afternoon. He kept saying, "You can do anything; you're a really smart kid." The study concluded that this boy and the other nine people had one thing in common: a caring adult who made the child feel like the most important person in the world. When I met Hillary, she was working at the Yale Child Study Center, and I began learning through her work about child development issues. It was the first time I got it: I am where I am because somebody made me feel I could be anything. That's something a government program can't provide.
Oprah: But did you have a hole in your heart for the father you never knew?
Clinton: Always. That's why I begin the book with him. He was always this looming presence in the back of my mind. I'm not over it yet.
When I was around 12, I was down in Hope visiting my uncle Buddy. One day this guy walked up, took one look at me and said, "You're Bill Blythe's son, aren't you?" I just beamed.
Oprah: It's interesting that in spite of the troubles your mother had with her husband, Roger, you went down to the courthouse to take his last name.
Clinton: I did that because of my brother. He was 5, and I was 15. And by then, I'd gone by Clinton for years. I thought it was weird to keep going by a name I didn't really have. So I changed it—partly for myself, partly for him. I never hated my stepfather, because I knew his alcoholism was a sickness.
Oprah: You write that when you were 5, he fired a gun at your mother.
Clinton: Yes. It was scary. But the crazy thing about living with an alcoholic is that most of them are good people. They're not inherently mean. Most are driven by demons and fears and insecurities, and they hate themselves for what they do.
Oprah: But when someone is under the influence, doesn't a mean spirit come out?
Clinton: Yes, but it's not the dominant persona. That's what I believe about my stepfather. Still, I didn't want my mother to go back to him when she did. By then I knew he could get help but wouldn't, and I didn't think he could whip it alone. He didn't beat it until he was dying. To beat any kind of addiction, most people need help, understanding, and a routine. The addiction feels like a safe place to fall back to when you're threatened, afraid, and feeling like a failure. I saw that with my brother's drug problem.
I think I always had more emotional space than my brother did, because Roger [Sr.] wasn't my biological father. I had enough distance from him to be objective about his problems and his good points. It was much harder for my brother.