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Born on Aug. 19, 1946, in Hope, Ark., William (Bill) Jefferson Blythe IV grew up in a troubled home. His father had died in an automobile accident three months before his son's birth, and his mother later was forced to leave her two-year-old son with his grandparents when she moved to New Orleans to pursue her nursing studies. The family settled in Hot Springs, Ark., after his mother married Roger Clinton, whose surname Bill later adopted. As a young man, Bill was determined to succeed and frequently earned academic honors, including selection as a delegate to the American Legion Boy's Nation program in Washington, D.C., where the 16-year-old Clinton met Pres. John F. Kennedy and determined to embark on a political career.
Attending Georgetown University to study international affairs, Clinton served as an intern for Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas before receiving his B.S. degree in 1968. After winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, Clinton returned to the United States to enroll at Yale Law School. In 1972 he helped to manage presidential candidate George McGovern's Texas campaign. After graduating from law school in 1973, Clinton returned to Arkansas to teach and to plan his political career. On Oct. 11, 1975, he married Hillary Rodham, a fellow law student he had met at Yale.
After 12 years of Republican control of the presidency, Clinton came to office amid high expectations for fundamental policy change. Early in his administration he reversed a number of Republican policies. He ended the federal prohibition on the use of fetal tissue for medical research, repealed rules restricting abortion counseling in federally funded health clinics, and used his appointment power to fulfill a promise to place many women and minorities in prominent government positions.
Although backed by a Congress controlled by the Democratic party, Clinton found it difficult to change the course of national priorities during his first two years in office. Early in his administration several of his appointees encountered congressional disapproval. His proposal to end the ban on homosexuals in the military met with widespread opposition from Congress, the military, and the public and had to be altered substantially. Clinton had promised to reverse the Bush policy of returning Haitian refugees to their homeland, but he eventually decided to continue implementing his predecessor's plan.
The failure to enact comprehensive health-care reform proved to be a major setback for Clinton.
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Clinton's biggest setback came in 1994, when the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress to the Republicans. Within the Republican party, meanwhile, the conservative wing became predominant, especially in the House of Representatives. In 1995-1996 some Clinton White House activities were subjected to criticism, and several alleged scandals became the target of congressional investigations, most notably the "Whitewater affair," an investigation into alleged improprieties by the president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a 1980s Arkansas land deal. Administration actions that became the focus of investigations included White House requests for FBI security files, the White House travel office firings, and fund-raising methods used for the 1996 presidential campaign. Yet Clinton's popularity increased as the strength of the economy continuedand as the public tired of actions led by the GOP (Grand Old Party; Republican), such as congressional investigations, cutbacks in services for the poor, anti-immigrant legislative proposals, and attempts to rescind affirmative-action programs.
In seeking reelection in 1996, Clinton claimed a number of achievements, among them a deficit-reduction plan, a college-loan payback plan, the Family and Medical Leave Act, an anticrime bill, and a welfare reform bill that ended federal guarantees and shifted the responsibility for these services to the states. His domestic record showed that he had cut the deficit in half, had expanded earned-income credit for the working poor, and had significantly reduced the number of government workers.
During his first term Clinton succeeded in appointing two members to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, both highly respected federal judges, were the first appointments to the high court made by a Democratic president in 25 years.
In the first years of his administration, Clinton experienced many of his greatest difficulties in the foreign policy realm. Indeed, issues involving Bosnia, Haiti, the former Soviet Union, Somalia, Cuba, North Korea, and Iraq seemed intractable, but his inexperience in foreign affairs showed when he appeared unable to establish a consistent U.S. position on these daunting problems. In response to a wave of Cuban refugees seeking entry into the United States in 1994, Clinton reversed the U.S. policy of giving asylum to those seeking to escape Fidel Castro's regime but worked out an agreement with the Cuban government to allow more refugees into the country. In August 1995 Clinton vetoed legislation to lift the Bosnian arms embargo.
Nevertheless, Clinton succeeded in some of his foreign policy efforts. Under threat of an imminent invasion, Haiti's military junta agreed to relinquish power in favor of the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. U.S. troops entered Haiti to keep the peace. A major conflict with North Korea was eased with an agreement offering North Korea assistance with its civilian nuclear program in return for the relinquishment of plutonium-producing nuclear reactors. Clinton used currency funds controlled by the president to grant Mexico a $40 billion loan guarantee. One of his more controversial decisions was to grant U.S. recognition to Vietnam. In 1994 Clinton deployed troops to Kuwait when Iraq, protesting UN sanctions and the enforcement of a no-fly zone, appeared to threaten its neighbor again. Two years later he ordered air strikes against Iraq for violating the terms of peace agreed to at the end of the Persian Gulf War.
On balance, Clinton demonstrated that he had adjusted to the tasks of the presidency and had become an astute political leader. In 1996 voters chose him by a comfortable margin over Republican nominee Robert Dole, making Clinton the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to be elected to the office twice.
The president was not able to deliver a Democratic majority back to Congress, but he developed a deft touch at leading a divided government. In 1997 Congress enacted a major tax cut, the first since 1981, and Clinton negotiated a deficit-reduction package that projected a balanced federal budget in 2002. He also had success with a number of targeted domestic programs on education, health, and the environment; won an increase in the minimum wage; and sponsored a welfare reform bill that established time limits for benefits. He claimed credit for the general health of the economy, for a 30-year low in unemployment, and for the fastest real-wage growth in 20 years. The 1998 fiscal year ended with a federal budget surplus of $70 billion, the first surplus in a generation.
In international affairs Clinton's second term was characterized by attempts to support European unity and strength; to deal with the virtual collapse of the Asian regional economy; to nurture peace efforts in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Israel, and the Korean peninsula; to encourage Chinese cooperation in world affairs; and to ensure Iraqi compliance with international agreements. Clinton and his foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, achieved considerable successes in Northern Ireland and Israel. With Iraq, however, in the wake of ongoing showdowns between Saddam Hussein and UN weapons-inspection teams, the administration came to consider that diplomatic measures had been exhausted; on Dec. 16, 1998, Clinton, together with British prime minister Tony Blair, authorized renewed air strikes against Iraq.
On the domestic front the Whitewater affair consumed much of the president's final years in office. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of allegations of wrongdoing by Clinton and his wife, begun in 1994, eventually expanded to include charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power, which arose from a relationship between the president and a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The ensuing scandal preoccupied the capital from January 1998 on. Clinton adamantly denied any sexual involvement with Lewinsky, but the Starr investigation developed evidence to the contrary. In August Clinton admitted to an "inappropriate relationship." Because Clinton had testified under oath both in a civil case and before the grand jury that he had not had such a relationship, he was open to the charge of perjury. Starr delivered his report to the House of Representatives on Sept. 9, 1998. In November the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings, which ended in mid-December with the refusal to entertain a Democratic motion for censure and the drafting of four articles of impeachment. On Dec. 16, exactly one day before the full House was scheduled to vote on the articles, Clinton launched renewed air strikes against Iraq, causing some of his opponents to claim that the attack was a diversionary tactic - one, moreover, of unprecedented scope. On Dec. 19, 1998, the full House approved two of the four articles (perjury and obstruction of justice). Clinton thus became the first elected president in U.S. history to be impeached. On Jan. 7, 1999, the Senate trial to remove Clinton from office began. It ended on Feb. 6, 1999, with neither article gaining a simple majority (46-54, 50-50). After the vote Clinton returned to efforts directed toward reforming the health-care system and determining how best to handle the budget surplus.
In his final year in office, Clinton still had to deal with matters pertaining to the scandal that led to his impeachment. A committee of the Arkansas supreme court, for example, recommended that Clinton's right to practice law in the state should be revoked because of his "serious misconduct" in a sexual harassment case brought by a former state employee, Paula Jones. Clinton had to devote some of his time to fighting the recommendation that he be disbarred in Arkansas.
The president also spent considerable time in his final year in office battling the Republican majorities in Congress over a host of issues. He vetoed GOP-passed bills on the repeal of estate taxes and the "marriage penalty" (so-called because of unfavorable tax outcomes for some married couples). Clinton offered the GOP a trade: marriage penalty relief in return for his prescription drug benefit plan, which would bring relief to consumers of prescription drugs; but the Republicans ignored the offer. Clinton also battled the GOP over a so-called Patient's Bill of Rights (intended to address consumers' grievances regarding health maintenance organizations) and gun control measures. One of the president's more controversial moves was to order the release of oil from the nation's strategic oil reserve in an attempt to lower home heating costs. Clinton justified the action as necessary given a huge increase in oil prices, but Republicans charged that this was a political ploy designed to aid Vice Pres. Al Gore's chances in the 2000 presidential race.
President Clinton and the GOP-led Congress did come together on one important issue: the granting of permanent normal trade relations with China. The initiative had strong bipartisan support, despite a campaign by human rights advocates to quell the effort because of China's poor rights record. Elsewhere, Clinton's efforts to broker a Middle East peace began to crumble as that region became embroiled in renewed violence. Some criticized the president's efforts as having only exacerbated the tensions in the region.
Historians will debate for years the meaning of the Clinton legacy. Was he a president who benefited politically from a strong economy, or was he the architect of policies that created economic growth? Was he a visionary leader who redefined the Democratic party, or was he a political chameleon who changed ideological stripes whenever it was in his interest to do so? And was his impeachment a partisan travesty for which Republicans will be shamed in history, or was it the justified rebuke of a president who had truly committed high crimes? Regardless of the answers to these questions, there is no doubt that Bill Clinton was the towering political figure of his era and that his impact on the country will be analyzed and debated for generations to come.