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COLUMN ONE : Clinton: Healer or Waffler? : Turbulence in his youth inspired a determination to defuse conflict. Supporters see someone who can build consensus. Critics see a compromiser too easy to bend.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirty-two years later, Virginia Kelley still remembers the scene “as clear as day.” Her husband was a good man, she recalls, but sometimes bourbon changed him. That day was not the first time he had hit her. But it would be the last.

She watched as her son, still a boy but a head taller than his stepfather, walked over to the older man’s chair. “Daddy, stand up,” he said. “What I have to say to you, I want you to be standing up.”

The boy helped the older man get to his feet. “I don’t know what I will do if you ever strike my mother again,” he said. “I would advise you never to strike her again.”

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Grown now to be a man, the son remembers the scene as well. “I couldn’t wait to get big enough to know there would be peace in my home,” Bill Clinton remembers. He was just 14 then.

By his own account, as well as the recollections of friends and close associates, the bringing of peace to his mother’s home was a shaping event for Bill Clinton, one that set a course for his life and his life’s work.

The confrontation gave the young man a sense of accomplishment. “I was proud” to have “put an end to the violence in my house,” he recalls.

But, at the same time, it was a searing event that had an immediate and lasting impact on Clinton’s development. From that moment on, his childhood was over. “He felt he had to protect me and his brother,” Virginia Kelley recalled. It left “a strong emotional burden,” Clinton said. “It always made me ambivalent about the imposition of my will in other places.”

Born three months after the death of his father and left in the care of his grandparents by a mother determined to finish her education in a distant city, raised by an alcoholic and, at times violent, stepfather, Bill Clinton has been shaped by forces that might have crushed a less determined soul.

The events of Clinton’s life established an impulse which has become central to his career and, now, to his quest for the nation’s highest office: a dogged determination to forge consensus and to defuse polarizing conflict.

And, over the years, the pattern set by the private drama has been reinforced by public events.

As an 11-year-old child, Clinton watched racial polarization tear apart the schools of Little Rock and turn the state capital into a national symbol of racism.

Working his way through college as a Senate aide in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1960s, he watched as polarization over the war in Vietnam tore at the soul of his mentor and model, Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright. As a young man just home from a Rhodes scholarship, Clinton mourned a close friend and Oxford classmate who had committed suicide in agony over the choice between draft and exile.

And, as a 34-year-old governor, he was handed a stunning defeat after one term--a loss he interpreted as due to his trying to do too much too fast without first building enough public support.

Today that emotional background provides a key strength, but also the potential key weakness, to his campaign as well as to any future Clinton presidency.

Strength because Clinton, now 45, is at his most effective as a leader vowing to bring unity to a divided nation and as an executive using his formidable intellect to bring together disparate groups.

Weakness because the imperative to resolve conflict--to be a healer--has at times held Clinton back from fully engaging other candidates and addressing some contentious issues.

A Small Forum

As he seeks to move from the relatively small forum of Arkansas into the national arena, Clinton’s desire to lead through consensus raises questions about his ability to manage the inherent conflicts of the presidency.

For years, Clinton’s critics have seized on his ambivalence toward power as his biggest failing. They have accused him of being indecisive, vacillating, a compromiser so eager to be loved that he will bend almost any issue to avoid a fight.

For years, too, Clinton’s supporters have rejected that charge, asserting that his experiences have prepared him to offer precisely the sort of unifying leadership the nation now needs.

What both sides agree on is that Clinton is a formidable and driven politician. The origins of that ambition lie 46 years back, on a rain-slicked highway.

From southwestern Arkansas the road north stretches some 800 miles toward Chicago. Over the Ouachita hills, through the vast, flat Delta, up along the Mississippi and across the Illinois farmlands, tens of thousands of Arkansans in the 1940s followed that road northward in search of the jobs and opportunities denied them in their isolated and impoverished home.

William Jefferson Blythe III traveled that road one time too many. A heavy-equipment salesman, he was heading back to Arkansas from Chicago to see his pregnant wife in the summer of 1946 when he skidded off the pavement near a small town in southeastern Missouri, hundreds of miles from home. He was thrown from the car and drowned in a roadside ditch. He was 29.

Three months later, in the town of Hope but in a state nearer despair, Virginia Blythe gave birth to a fatherless son and named him William. Soon, she, too, would take to the road.

Mother’s Departure

As a widow with few job skills in a state where the average income was barely half that in the rest of the country, the young mother made up her mind to return to school and become a nurse anesthetist. For four years, she would live in New Orleans. Her infant son would be raised by her parents.

Even now, having lived through the deaths of three husbands, Virginia Kelley recalls that parting as “the most difficult thing I ever did.”

“I’d be working, putting a child under (anesthesia) and tears would be streaming down my cheeks, thinking of my own child,” she said. The boy, too, remembers those tears. He has told several interviewers that one of his earliest memories is of his mother falling to her knees and crying as she bade him goodby on a railroad platform.

Vying with those mental pictures, however, are recollections of a different sort: a grandfather, Eldridge Cassidy, a sawmill watchman who would take young Billy with him on his nighttime rounds and, later, let him help out in the small grocery store where he served a largely black neighborhood.

There are memories, too, of his grandmother, Edith, who insisted that education was the route out of poverty and who taped up flash cards by the window near his highchair and taught him his letters and numbers from the age of 2.

When Billy Blythe was 4, his mother returned home and married again. Roger Clinton, the new man of the house, sold Buicks. It was the 1950s and, as America fell in love with the automobile, the family began to prosper.

Soon, they left Hope and moved to the resort and gambling town of Hot Springs, where Roger ran the parts department of his brother’s car dealership. They moved into a tidy, one-story brick house next door to the Baptist parsonage. Virginia and Roger Clinton had a second son, Roger Jr., and Virginia took a job at the local hospital.

Were it not for Roger Clinton’s sometimes-terrifying drinking bouts, which continued almost until his death in 1968, the family’s life could easily have passed for the stuff of “Leave It to Beaver.”

Instead, there was conflict, a brief divorce when Clinton was 15, then reconciliation. “I was not eager for them to get back together,” Clinton recalls now. But his mother insisted it was the right thing to do and the young man, in part to show support for their decision and in part to make official something that already had become his common usage, went downtown to the local chancery court and formally took his stepfather’s last name.

Already he was a popular and sought-after figure in his town--drum major in the band, class officer, spark plug of numerous organizations.

Above all, Bill Clinton was developing a reputation as one of the smartest students Hot Springs had seen. For him, Clinton now says, education had seemed “the instrument of my liberation,” his ticket out of the life he had seen as a small child--a future of hard labor and low pay.

He was a driven young man, and, in the summer of 1964, that drive paid off in the form of a letter of admission to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington. The job he soon obtained, as an aide to Fulbright, helped pay the bills and gave him a front-row seat to some of the dramatic moments of a turbulent decade.

Unpacking boxes, hanging posters on their walls and anxiously checking out the new mates who would be their companions for the next four years, the freshmen who poured onto the Georgetown campus in those long-gone fall days of 1964 quickly learned to recognize the tall young man from Arkansas.

A softly Southern speech among the harsh accents of the urban East, a Baptist at a Jesuit school, a right hand outstretched in seemingly permanent greeting, a habit of thrusting his tongue behind his lower lip in a way that evoked Elvis Presley--there was much to mark him as different.

But there was something else distinctive. His freshman roommate, Tom Campbell, recalled it this way:

“Bill Clinton,” he said, “was the one guy who never doubted what he wanted to be when he grew up.”

At an age when most young men and women slip in and out of potential career paths as readily as they would try on a T-shirt, Clinton at 18 already had chosen his road. When he arrived on campus, he quickly began doing what came naturally to him--running for office.

Clinton met everyone. He charmed most of them. In due course, he was elected class president. Unlike some campus politicians, Campbell recalled, young Clinton never took the job itself too seriously, but he loved the contest. “It was the same way someone who wanted to be a football or basketball player would get into those activities,” Campbell said. “He was practicing his art.”

In high school Clinton had thought through his alternatives. A physician had befriended him and caused him to think briefly about a medical career. Writing appealed to him. Above all the teen-ager, large and mature-looking for his age, had enjoyed picking up his saxophone and slipping into hometown hotels to play sets with visiting jazz bands.

And being a handsome young sax player had its advantages. One New Year’s Eve as he paused between songs, for example, a young woman approached him to say she was visiting Hot Springs with her parents from Chicago but they had gone to sleep for the night. “I’m looking for someone to kiss at midnight, and you’re it,” he recalls her telling him.

Fun aside, however, music would not do as a career. The sacrifices were too large and the potential rewards too small. “I was good,” Clinton recalls, “but I would never be great.”

A ‘Natural’

Politics, however--now that was another matter. There, Clinton was a natural.

In 1954, young Bill’s uncle, Roy Clinton, was elected to the state Legislature. On Election Day, the 8-year-old nephew had pitched in, eagerly chasing down potential voters and thrusting palm cards into their hands.

A little over a year later, the family bought their first television set. In 1956, when the Democrats met in Chicago for their convention, Clinton sat enraptured on the floor, watching as the forces of Estes Kefauver and John F. Kennedy sparred over the vice presidential nomination.

With that, he says, “I fell in love with politics.”

And, on a small scale, he began practicing one aspect of the political art--helping people with their problems.

Gia Bavelis, for example, remembers moving to Hot Springs as a 14-year-old immigrant from Sparta in 1958. Speaking only Greek and a stranger in the town, she found a school almost completely unprepared to deal with an immigrant student. Clinton, she says, was the first person who tried to help.

“He tried to communicate, to teach me to speak English. Because of him I stayed in school,” she said.

Several years later, Robert Reich, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, had a similar experience. Reich and Clinton were among the Rhodes scholars who, in the summer of 1968, set sail on the United States to begin their two-year stint at Oxford. Reich immediately became seasick and retired to his room.

“Two days into the sail, there was a knock at my door, and in came Bill Clinton with soup and crackers,” recalled Reich, who has been close to Clinton ever since. “He nursed me back to health.”

Perhaps in part to make up for the absences from home--the father he never knew, the mother whose job often required her to leave the house before her children were awake--Clinton gathers friends with a relentless energy. And, to an unusual degree for a politician, he has maintained those relationships. Until the campaign began, for example, Clinton still had lunch once a month with old friends from high school in Little Rock.

“Bill draws his energy from people,” said Rick Stearns, an old friend now serving as a state-court judge in Massachusetts. “He has an inexhaustible interest in everyone around him.”

Clearly that gregarious nature deepened Clinton’s attraction to politics. At age 16, as Arkansas’ representative to the American Legion’s Boy’s Nation in the summer of 1963, the young Clinton had a chance to visit the White House, to stand in the Rose Garden and shake hands with President Kennedy. When he came home the way was set, his mother recalls. “He never said anything, but you could see it in his eyes.”

Only 12 years would go by before Clinton would make his first bid for public office--an unsuccessful campaign for Congress at age 28.

In the intervening years, Clinton moved from Georgetown to Oxford to Yale Law School. The Rhodes scholarship, which allowed him to travel in Europe and indulge his passion for reading, was “the first time I felt free to enjoy learning for its own sake,” he says. Along the way he met many of the people, such as Reich, who today form the core of an extensive network of policy and political advisers.

By virtue of a high draft lottery number, Clinton never had to decide whether to fight in Vietnam. Friends say he strongly, but quietly, opposed the war, which took the lives of several of his high school classmates.

Meets Future Wife

At Yale, Clinton plunged into his first substantive campaign post, working for a liberal, anti-war Democratic senatorial candidate in Connecticut. Two years later, as he completed law school, he went to work for Sen. George S. McGovern’s presidential campaign.

More importantly, perhaps, for his future, it was at Yale that Bill Clinton met Hillary Rodham.

“I was cutting across the law school student lounge and I heard a voice saying ‘and not only that, we grow the biggest watermelons in the world,’ ” she recalled. “I asked a friend who that was, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s Bill Clinton, he’s from Arkansas, and that’s all he ever talks about.’ ”

The two soon began dating. “I found him attractive, funny, real smart,” Hillary Clinton recalls. For his part, “one of the things that drew Bill to Hillary was that she was reputed to be the smartest woman in the law class,” Stearns recalled. “That made her a prize.”

That intelligence has served both of them well. By all accounts, Hillary Clinton is her husband’s leading policy and political adviser.

Four years later, after completing a job as a lawyer on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry, Hillary Rodham took a job with the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville, where Clinton was also teaching while running for Congress against an entrenched Republican incumbent. She and Clinton were married a year later.

For a woman who had grown up near Chicago, the intensely personal, small-town atmosphere of Arkansas was “such a different experience,” she recalls. “I would go to the supermarket and people would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I hear you’re the new lady professor at the law school.’ ”

Clinton narrowly lost that 1974 campaign, defeated in part by inaccurate Republican claims that he had been an anti-war protester while in college. But the close race had drawn statewide attention to him. Two years later, he was elected state attorney general. Two years after that, in 1978, he was swept into the Statehouse. At 32 he was the youngest governor in the nation, an eager young man conscious of the fact that he was already three years older than his father was when he died, and ardent to change his state overnight.

Too ardent, it turned out. After a two-year term, the voters slapped Clinton down, stunning most of the state’s political elite by electing his challenger, Republican businessman Frank White.

Many things had gone wrong. The Reagan wave swamped many Democrats that year. The widespread use of negative advertising caught Clinton and his campaign unawares. An increase in auto license fees, enacted to pay for highway improvements, had proven to be wildly unpopular, particularly in rural parts. And the Jimmy Carter Administration’s use of a military base in Arkansas to house Cuban refugees, who subsequently rioted, was blamed on Clinton because he had run Carter’s campaign in Arkansas in the 1976 election.

Then there were matters of style. Clinton had recruited aides from among his college and law school friends nationwide. Many of them seemed strange to Arkansans. Hillary Rodham’s decision not to take her husband’s last name--a decision she reversed after his defeat--rankled some and reinforced the perception that Clinton and his wife saw themselves as different. White made a point of running a campaign advertisement featuring his wife, prominently identified on the screen as “Mrs. Frank White.”

Above all, in a state where many voters consider it their right to walk into their Capitol and see the governor if they happen to be visiting, a large number of Arkansans had come to view Clinton as arrogant, too big for his britches, too far removed from his roots.

Clinton spent the next two years at a Little Rock law firm. He could have built a more affluent life in private practice. (His wife is now a partner in Arkansas’ largest law firm and has been the chief contributor to their net worth of approximately $400,000.) Instead, Bill Clinton aimed for an early return to politics.

He traveled the state, listening to repeated criticisms of his performance as governor. And he reached two conclusions.

First, he decided to do something politicians generally avoid--confess error and apologize. In January, 1982, as he readied his campaign for a return to the governorship, Clinton bought time on statewide television for a one-minute mea culpa message.

I have made mistakes, he told viewers. And “if you’ll give me a chance to serve again, you’ll have a governor who has learned from defeat that you can’t lead without listening.”

Clinton’s second conclusion was that the heart of his problem had been trying to do too much at once, attempting more new programs than the public could possibly warm to at any one time.

When he regained the governorship in the 1982 election, he vowed that this time, he would set a simple agenda. And not surprisingly, given the example set by his own life, the central element of that agenda would be education.

In 1978, just as Clinton was assuming office for the first time, an education professor from the University of Florida, Kern Alexander, had completed a study of Arkansas’ schools. They were, he concluded, the worst in the nation.

For years, Arkansans had not worried much about that. The state had the lowest proportion of residents with college degrees, only 9.8%. Like many of its Southern neighbors, Arkansas had long based its economic development strategy simply on using low wages and low taxes to lure industry from the North.

Residents had grown used to being near the bottom of most national quality-of-life rankings, and had even coined a phrase, “Thank God for Mississippi,” in mock salutation of the one state that usually kept Arkansas from ranking 50th.

Clinton aimed his efforts at changing that attitude. Presaging an argument he now uses on the national level, he told Arkansans that in an increasingly global economy, the state could not compete simply by being cheap. New education standards would have to be set.

The Legislature created a commission to recommend changes in Arkansas education. Clinton appointed his wife to head the panel, one of several major policy assignments she has taken on during his tenure. At hearings around the state, she quickly encountered a fundamental political reality: Arkansans would not support more money for the schools until something was done about incompetent teachers.

“I kept running over and over again into people who said, ‘these teachers can’t read, they can’t spell, they can’t do anything,’ ” Hillary Clinton recalls. “We weren’t going to achieve any substantial progress until we identified those teachers who needed help.”

That fall, Clinton convened the Legislature and offered a three-part plan: new standards that all school districts would be required to meet, a one-cent increase in the state sales tax to pay for expanded programs and a competency test for teachers.

Opposition to the plan was fierce, both from legislators who opposed the tax hike and from the state teacher’s union, which bitterly battled the test. But the resulting victory established a national reputation for Clinton as a policy leader.

The substantive results have been more mixed. Arkansas still ranks 47th in overall student test scores, 48th in per-pupil expenditures on education, 49th on average teachers salaries.

But measured as a percentage of the state’s overall resources, Arkansas’ effort devoted to public education has now moved into the top half of the states, says professor Alexander, who is now on the faculty of Virginia Polytechnical Institute. And in the 1991 legislative session, Clinton won another tax increase, this time to raise teacher pay and expand the state’s vocational schools.

Schooling Improved

Slowly, the education changes do appear to be taking hold. Science and foreign language programs, once absent from many school districts, are now present in all. Although few teachers actually lost their licenses because of the competency exams, many were required to take courses to improve their skills.

This past fall, for the first time, Arkansas reached the national average in the percentage of high school students going on to college.

More importantly, perhaps, public attitudes about education appear to have shifted. “I’ve been back to Arkansas every couple of years,” Alexander said, and “there’s been a fairly dramatic change.” Where once state residents seemed complacent about bad schools, now quality education has become a priority.

As with education, most other elements of Clinton’s 11-year tenure as Arkansas governor show mixed results. Poor, undereducated, disproportionately elderly and with a tradition of limited and ineffective government, Arkansas is a difficult laboratory for policy experiments.

Clinton has appointed blacks and women to numerous key posts, a dramatic change for a state that was once rigidly segregated and run by a virtually all-male, white club.

But in substantive areas the state remains one of the leaders in teen-age pregnancy, overall poverty and similar indexes of misery.

Tax-Break Habit

Addicted to corporate tax breaks to attract new jobs and hobbled by a state constitution that requires a three-fourths vote to raise any tax other than the sales tax, Clinton and state legislators repeatedly have turned to sales levies to raise money for new programs, leaving Arkansas with one of the most regressive state tax systems.

After launching several environmental and energy conservation initiatives during his first term and finding little public support, Clinton pulled back substantially, compiling a record that has been sharply criticized by environmental activists.

In short, there is no “Arkansas miracle” to attract envious headlines from the rest of the nation.

Several statistics do, however, show a slow but steady progress. Arkansas’ rate of people on welfare, considerably above the national average in 1980, is now slightly below it. Its overall economy in recent years has grown faster than that of any other state in the region, according to federal statistics, and the income of Arkansans has also grown faster than those of neighboring states.

And, even through several intensely negative campaigns, Clinton has remained popular. He was reelected in 1990 to his fifth term as governor.

Many of Clinton’s closest advisers doubted he would make the 1990 race. In announcing that he would, Clinton made it clear that he needed another term to complete his agenda, but he confessed “that the fire of an election no longer burns in me.”

“Ambition,” he added, “always takes its price.”

Part of that price has been intense scrutiny of Clinton’s personal life and his marriage.

For years, in the small-town, hothouse environment of Little Rock and in the similarly gossip-prone circles of Democratic politics, rumors have spread that Clinton has had a series of affairs.

In 1987, after the collapse of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign, Clinton nearly jumped into the race, going as far as to assemble a score of his old friends in Little Rock for an anticipated announcement.

The morning of the appointed day, as his friends sat at a table in the governor’s mansion, Clinton came downstairs and informed them he was pulling the plug. A major reason, friends say, was concern over how his daughter, Chelsea, 7 at the time, would cope with the scrutiny which, in the atmosphere of the time, was almost a certainty.

In the 1990 gubernatorial election, the rumor campaign rose to a fever pitch. Larry Nichols, a former state employee who had been fired in 1988 for using state telephones and air freight accounts to raise money for the Nicaraguan rebels, sued Clinton two months before the election and used his lawsuit as a vehicle to name several women he claimed had had affairs with the governor.

Nichols is not coy about his motivations. “I have my own agenda,” he said in a recent interview in which he declined to offer evidence for his allegations. “They roasted me,” and now “everything I do will be done to run him out of the state.”

Fostered by Nichols and others and assiduously pushed by Clinton’s 1990 Republican opponent, Sheffield Nelson, and by rival Democrats, the same rumors have dogged the nationwide campaign for months.

Many of the rumors are demonstrably false. Clinton, however, has never flatly denied accusations of past infidelity, saying he should not be measured against a standard of “perfection.”

“Like nearly anybody who’s been together 20 years, our relationship has not been perfect or free of its difficulties,” Clinton told Washington reporters at a breakfast this past fall to which he was accompanied by his wife. “We believe in our obligation to each other, and we intend to be together 30 or 40 years (longer).”

As she campaigns for her husband, Hillary Clinton warns Democratic audiences that “people are going to start saying desperate things.” Democrats should “keep their eye on the ball and keep this campaign rooted” in the issues that can be used to defeat President Bush in November rather than be sidetracked by “the politics of distraction.”

In a recent interview, Clinton said: “What I think the people want, what I hope they want, is not someone who ever pretends to be perfect in any way.”

“Most people intuitively sense whether they’re dealing with a person who has a center or a core,” he added. “That’s far more important to them than whether a person has made any mistakes in his life.”

The core for Clinton is intimately bound up with his life’s work. Inevitably, he has been cut off from much nonpolitical experience. A longtime friend and former aide, Rudy Moore, recalls lending Clinton a beat-up old Volkswagen during Clinton’s 1974 congressional campaign. When he got the car back, Moore found Clinton had burned out the engine by ignoring the oil warning light on the dashboard.

“He knows about politics,” said Moore, but “he’s so focused, he never had time to learn about putting oil in a car.”

Clinton has become a professional politician in every sense of the word. He has practiced and mastered the arts of the campaign--from precinct organization to negative advertising--and takes a self-evident joy in the handshaking and back-slapping of the trail.

To his detractors, Clinton’s life-long attachment to politics is a major failing. His political skills, they say, are just another conflict-avoidance ploy by a slick operator prone to the artful fudge.

Clinton, himself, admits that his aversion to conflict has “historically” been a weakness. “I always thought I could resolve all conflicts,” he said.

“In my early years,” he added, “I got the worst of both worlds"--reaping conflict while still losing many of his objectives. Now, he insists, he has come to terms with the fact that “conflict is part of the lifeblood of politics.”

Others remain unconvinced, citing issues on which Clinton’s statements seemed calculated to give ground to each side.

When Congress was voting a year ago to authorize President Bush to use force in the Persian Gulf, for example, Clinton said he supported the resolution but was sympathetic with the arguments of those on the other side.

On the politically volatile issue of term limits, he makes a point of saying that while he is personally opposed and would prefer to try campaign finance reforms first, he would not stand in the way if voters felt they had no other way of disciplining the process.

On abortion, Clinton opposed a bill to require parental consent for minors to have abortions but signed one to require notification of parents or a judge. His declaration that he would like to see the procedure be “safe, legal and rare"--a stance that probably corresponds well with the gut feelings of most voters--discomforts activists on both sides.

Opponents call those statements carefully hedged. Supporters say Clinton’s statements simply show that he knows enough about issues to know they are not simple.

Her husband is “not St. George trying to slay every dragon who comes down the road,” Hillary Clinton says.

“He isn’t trying to fulfill his macho quotient for the day,” she said, but picks his fights carefully before deciding to plunge in.

During 17 primary and general election contests in the past 17 years, Clinton has demonstrated a willingness, even an eagerness, to battle it out in the electoral arena, trading punch for punch, negative ad for negative ad.

And at times, his ability to serve as a mediator has produced remarkably effective results.

In the mid-1980s, for example, when governors began pressing Washington for changes in federal welfare laws, Clinton became the chief negotiator forging a unified position among his colleagues, then selling it to both liberal Democrats in Congress and conservatives in the Reagan Administration.

The process led to the first major overhauling of welfare in more than half a century, expanding benefits in many states but requiring states to begin at least limited “workfare” programs designed to move welfare recipients off the dole and into jobs.

Along the way, Clinton reached a working partnership with the then-head of the Republican governors’ caucus, New Hampshire’s John H. Sununu. At one point, recalled a participant who watched the two governors in many of the meetings that led to passage of the 1988 welfare reform law, Sununu paid Clinton the ultimate political compliment.

“Bill,” he said, partially in jest, “if you ever run for President, I’ll organize New Hampshire Republicans for Clinton.”

Now, although without Sununu’s help, of course, Clinton is in the midst of the presidential campaign. It is no exaggeration to say that he has prepared for this race for 30 years.

And in an era in which Americans have seemed increasingly turned off not only by politicians, but by politics itself, Clinton has staked his ambition on his ability to do one thing: to convince a skeptical public that politics--the career to which he has devoted his life--can, in fact, once again be made relevant to their lives.

After a succession of Presidents who were ambivalent, at most, about the worth of government, Clinton believes voters will respond to a candidate who believes government can be made to work and who can convince them that he knows how to do it.

And he has structured his entire campaign--from his initial speeches to his television advertisements--around that central theme.

Americans, he insists, are not truly cynical about government, they are just “fed up with failure.”

“The purpose of politics,” he adds, “is to change people’s lives.”

A Career Shaped by Compromise

Clinton’s Background

Born: Aug. 19, 1946, Hope, Ark.

Education: Georgetown University (1968)

Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University (68-70)

Yale Law School (1973)

Family: Married, 1975, to Hillary Rodham, one child, Chelsea

Career: Elected governor in 1978. Reelected in 1982, ’84, ’86, ’90

Presidential Campaign Themes

Short term:

* 10% tax cut for the middle class, to cost roughly $25 billion, paid for by raising taxes on incomes above $200,000.

* Replacing the current tax deduction for dependents with a new tax credit of $800 per child.

* “Economic lifeline” proposals designed to change banking and medical care regulations to help families keep their homes and health insurance during the recession.

* Accelerated spending on federal highway programs to spark the economy.

Long term:

* Increase spending on education and worker training.

* Establish a national trust fund for college loans to be paid back through taxes or through national service.

* Expand the earned income tax credit and loans for low-income entrepreneurs.

* End corporate tax deductions for excessive pay to executives. (He has not yet defined excessive pay.)

* Reform welfare by providing job training and education funds while requiring recipients to find work after two years.

* Cut the military budget by $200 billion over the next five years.

* Control medical costs by changing the current insurance system and by guaranteeing universal coverage. He promises to spell out a specific plan in his first year in office.


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