Candidates for President Know Firsthand the Hard Lessons of Adversity : Politics: Among the Democrats, poverty, racism and the nearness of death played role early in life.


Their life stories read like Horatio Alger tales, illustrations courtesy of Norman Rockwell. The early pages ache with poverty, racism and the nearness of death.

Today, these men are running for President, and those who ponder such matters say the hard lessons of the past should serve them well.

“If there’s one thing you need to be an effective presidential candidate and an effective leader, it’s the ability to persist,” said Stanley Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst at City University of New York. “That’s one skill they learned--that they could confront something difficult and persist.”

Two of the six major Democratic contenders--Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin--overcame poverty and the early death of a parent.


Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas rose from humble immigrant origins and later triumphed over cancer.

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, almost killed in Vietnam, returned temporarily embittered and permanently disabled.

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves, fought his way into a hostile white society of lawyers and politicians.

The only major Democratic candidate who has been spared such hardship is former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. He comes from a well-off political family but has exposed himself to the woes of others, most notably the sick and hungry in Calcutta and Bangladesh.


Even President Bush, the product of a wealthy family, has had his share of hardships--among them a terrifying confrontation with death during World War II and a young daughter’s death from leukemia.

A compelling personal tale is not necessarily a key to success. But some say the Democrats’ life stories could strike a responsive chord with economically pressed voters.

“In hard times, they look at Bush and think he does not understand. They see him playing golf, they see him at his summer home,” said American University professor Patricia Lee Sykes. “With these other candidates, there’s a degree of empathy because of their backgrounds.”

Those backgrounds are helping to shape the messages and moods on the campaign trail. They also suggest how the candidates might behave in the White House, according to Duke University professor James David Barber, author of “Presidential Character.”


Barber contends this is the crucial question: “What does their past show about what they’re likely to do as President?”

Here are their stories:

Clinton: His father died in a car crash three months before he was born. Relatives cared for him for four years while his mother attended nursing school in New Orleans. “I remember my mother crying and actually falling down on her knees by the rail bed” as they parted at the end of one visit, he told a U.S. News & World Report writer.

Clinton’s grandfather ran a grocery store in the black section of tiny Hope, Ark. “They didn’t have much money,” he said of his grandparents. And of his great-grandparents, “By any standard, they were poor.”


Clinton later lived with his mother and an alcoholic stepfather, excelling at school despite problems at home. He attended Georgetown University and Yale Law School, and was a Rhodes scholar.

On the stump, Clinton is eloquent about society’s less fortunate, but he stresses the need for self-help. “We didn’t blame other people” for our circumstances, he says of his own family. “We took responsibility for ourselves and for each other because we knew we could do better.”

Harkin: He comes from Cummings, a southern Iowa town of 151 people. He was the youngest of six children born to a coal miner with an eighth-grade education and a Slovenian immigrant mother with no formal education. “I come from the wrong side of the tracks,” he said proudly in his campaign announcement speech.

Harkin’s mother died when he was 10. His father was 64 by then, and young Tom was sent to live with a sister. He worked on road and construction crews, got an ROTC scholarship, was a Navy pilot and went to law school at night.


His stump speech is scrappy and class-oriented. Bush’s strongest message, he says, is, “Get what you can in the shortest amount of time. Don’t worry about how you get it, and when you do get it, the hell with everybody else.”

Kerrey: The third of seven children, he was drafted after college and became a Navy SEAL. During one engagement, half of one leg was blown off, but he continued to direct his men and won a Medal of Honor.

Kerrey recalls exploding with anger while he was recovering in a Japanese hospital. In response, a sergeant “just ripped me out of bed and carried me all the way outside and then dumped me out in the yard.”

“There are moments like that where you realize you can’t push this self-pity business too far,” he said in a 1988 interview.


Kerrey says his war experience made him cautious about using military force and also gave him faith that government can help its citizens, as it helped heal him.

Health care reform is a major Kerrey theme, and he doesn’t hesitate to remind audiences he is intimately familiar with the subject. All Americans deserve health care, he says, not just those who are poor or old or got “blown up in a war like I did.”

Tsongas: He grew up in Lowell, Mass., and worked in his father’s struggling dry-cleaning business. “My father’s adult work life was 12 hours a day, six days a week, 51 weeks a year. Yet we were caught in the relentless decline of my home city,” he said.

As a candidate, Tsongas senses danger in the country’s growing trade and budget deficits and calls himself a pro-business liberal, an economic Paul Revere. He prescribes stringent treatment--the same kind it took to cure him of the cancer.


Tsongas left the Senate in 1984 to be with his family after he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He grew very ill but recovered after an experimental bone marrow transplant. He has proposed a health care reform plan and says that “for me, it is not just another issue. . . . I am alive because of medical science.”

Wilder: He was the ninth of 10 children born in segregated Richmond, Va., to an insurance office clerk and his wife. The grandson of slaves, Wilder waited tables through college and went to Howard University Law School because the University of Virginia did not accept blacks.

Wilder escaped with scratches from a mortar hit that killed a companion during the Korean War, and he was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism. He was the only black person to pass the Virginia bar in 1959. His combative style, still in evidence, helped him transcend prejudice and build his political career.

“I know exactly how it feels to be told that you can’t get the job, even though you know you have the qualifications to get that job,” he said. “The working people of America have a right to be angry. But my life has taught me this: Anger doesn’t solve anything. It builds nothing, but it can destroy everything.”