Clinton: The Early Years
In a rented white cottage on Potomac Avenue near Georgetown University, Bill Clinton and his four college roommates once grooved to '60s hits spinning on their record players.Skip to next paragraph
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Saturday night will be an amplified version of that past, as more than 1,000 Georgetown alums and guests mellow out with the Righteous Brothers band on the lawn of their former classmate's tonier residence, the White House.
The event (paid for by Georgetown) celebrates the 30th reunion of the Class of '68. Then, as now, Bill Clinton was a leader.
Close friends who knew him at Georgetown say President Clinton is much like he was in college: ambitious, a thinker interested in world and national events, a "people person" concerned with the common good, as well as a tireless politician who gravitates toward the center.
But they add that coming to Georgetown - the only college to which the young man from Arkansas applied - was what gave Clinton the opportunity he needed to develop his core values. "It enlarged him and enabled him to fulfill what he was," says Tom Caplan, one of the Clinton roommates in the Potomac Avenue house, all of whom are still buddies with the president.
Clinton wasted no time in assuming a leadership role at Georgetown. Within days of his arrival at the university's School of Foreign Service in 1964, he started a door-to-door drive to get himself elected freshman class president of the East Campus, which included the foreign service school.
On the face of it, nothing favored a win. Here was a soda-drinking Southern Baptist from Arkansas trying to make inroads at a Roman Catholic school whose student government was traditionally dominated by beer-drinkers from Long Island. But his hard campaigning, Southern friendliness, and realistic platform convinced voters.
The victory was an important step for Clinton. It proved he could compete outside of his home state, and it "gave him a chance to play out his political self on a scale beyond the dreams of his mother and his principal," says David Maraniss, author of the bestselling biography "First in His Class."
Clinton went on to win the sophomore class presidency, and broadened his base in his second year as the student officer responsible for greeting incoming freshmen.
The Hot Springs youth who boasted about the size of watermelons back home was admired for another reason: his uncanny ability to anticipate test questions by studying and befriending the professors giving them. His class notes, arranged in Roman numerals with subpoints marked off by letters, were highly sought after.
'HE'S very bright. He just inhales things and digests them," recalls Otto Hentz, who taught Clinton philosophy and once urged him to become a Jesuit (to which Clinton jokingly replied: "Don't I have to become a Catholic first?")
The Georgetown professors gave Clinton the "tools," as roommate Caplan called them, to deal with the world. The lessons of Carroll Quigley, a fearsome yet brilliant professor who taught world civilization, have been invoked in many a Clinton speech.
The "Quigleyism" Clinton echoed is that tomorrow can be better than today, and that each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it better. (The young Clinton picked up another idea from Quigley: setting his alarm clock for only five hours of sleep a night, supplemented by cat naps.)
In the larger scheme of things, Georgetown's greatest contribution to Clinton was the window it opened on Washington.
Through connections back in Arkansas, the budding politician was able to secure a part-time job on Capitol Hill, working for his hero, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D) of Arkansas. Third-year student Clinton was assigned to the documents room of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Senator Fulbright chaired. Between school and work, he was putting in 18-hour days.
Clinton ate it up, working on the Hill during the summer and in his senior year as well. He was directly influenced by Fulbright, adopting his anti-Vietnam War stance and applying, at the senator's suggestion, for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.
Both the war and race relations were favorite kitchen-table debating subjects for Clinton and his roommates.
Clinton memorized Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech and was prone to quoting whole stanzas. During the race riots that left Washington smoldering, Clinton and a friend hauled supplies and food to an inner-city church.
Clinton had the opportunity to take radical positions on race and Vietnam, but he stuck to a more moderate course instead.
He could have marched in Selma, Ala., for example, or he could have joined the throngs of antiwar demonstrators at the Lincoln Memorial in October 1967. But neither he nor his roommates took that activist course. Georgetown just wasn't an activist kind of place.
That moderation, though, contributed to Clinton's first political defeat at Georgetown. Because he wanted to win over the school administration instead of directly challenging it, and, as another Clinton roommate once said, because "Bill was just a little too slick for some people," Clinton lost the biggest election of his student career: student council president.
The defeat taught Clinton a useful life lesson. Next time, he confided in a friend, he would have to listen harder to people.