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date: 19 June 2018

Clinton, William Jefferson

A Dictionary of Contemporary World History

Jan Palmowski

Clinton, William Jefferson (‘Bill’) 

(b. 19 Aug. 1946).

42nd US President 1993–2001

Early careeer

Born William Jefferson Blythe at Hope, Arkansas, after his father died he changed his name to that of his later stepfather. He rose from poor beginnings to become a student of international relations at Georgetown University, a Rhodes Scholar, a Yale law student, and a law professor. At the age of 30, he was appointed Arkansas Attorney‐General, and two years later he became Governor of Arkansas. He was defeated in his 1980 re‐election campaign, but returned to the Governor's mansion in 1984, where he stayed until his election to the Presidency. Within the Democratic Party, he co‐founded the pragmatic, somewhat populist Democratic Leadership Council. Under his direction, this organization of moderate Governors and officeholders associated with the south lobbied to move the party closer to the political centre. He announced his candidacy for the Presidency at a time when the incumbent, George Bush, was enjoying record popularity ratings. After winning over a relatively weak field in the primaries, he chose Al Gore as his running mate. This added gravitas and experience to Clinton's charisma. He aimed his campaign at suburban and centrist voters, particularly through his conservative positions on crime and welfare. He was elected in a three‐way race with 43.2 per cent of the popular vote, on a platform predominantly concerned with economic matters and health care reform.


Once in office, Clinton pushed through some important legislation, notably the ratification of the NAFTA agreement, as well as the Brady Bill on gun control. His popularity declined during the first two years, largely because of his failure to build coalitions in Congress. Eager to please everyone, and an outsider in the Washington political establishment, he was often seen as indecisive and divisive. He also wasted much political capital on relatively controversial and ultimately unsuccessful policies. For instance, his attempt to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military angered the Republican establishment, while his failure fuelled the disappointment of his own liberal supporters. Two years into his Presidency the Democrats lost control of both Houses of Congress to the Republicans, who emphasized their probity and effectiveness in alleged contrast to the president.

Ironically, Clinton was at his most successful when he dealt with a hostile Congress, proving time and again the winner in escalating confrontations. He won a stand‐off with Congress about federal spending (1995–6), and avoided impeachment over the Lewinsky Affair. However, the increasing acrimony generated by these confrontations hindered much of his domestic legislation. In domestic politics, his major achievement was the balancing of the federal budget after the profligacy of the Reagan administration, though Clinton was helped by a buoyant economy. Stifled in domestic politics by Congress, Clinton directed surprising energy abroad. He intervened peacefully in Haiti to end the dictatorship there in 1993. He also played a key role in the Dayton Agreement concerning Bosnia‐Hercegovina, and in continuing efforts to establish a peace process between the PLO and Israel. Clinton's mediation was also crucial in the Northern Ireland peace process. A man of great intellect and outstanding charm, Clinton ultimately was his own worst enemy, as his personal and human weaknesses prevented him from realizing his more ambitious political visions.

After leaving the Presidency, Clinton proved surprisingly adept at adjusting to the role of private citizen, leaving the political limelight to his wife, Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton devoted his energies to causes such as the fight against AIDS and the construction of medical facilities in Rwanda, while also giving political advice to his wife.