Study Guide

Bill Clinton in 1996 State of the Union Address

By William Clinton

Bill Clinton

Where do you even begin with Bill Clinton? Actually, it's obvious: you begin with this picture. (Squint long enough and you'll see a hybrid of Jerry Garcia and Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones).

Journalists, biographers, and historians have spilled libraries worth of ink trying to decode the complex figure of Bill Clinton. He has probably had the most roller-coaster-esque career of any modern celebrity. Depending on whether you agree with his politics, you probably think he's either a) the most corrupt president since Nixon, a total liar, and a creep, or b) an awesome president who made a few bad mistakes.

Early Years: The Overachiever

But let's talk about the man behind the montage for a second. Clinton started off life enduring a difficult childhood (which he wrote a lot about in his 2004 memoir My Life). His father died before he was born, and his mother remarried Roger Clinton, an abusive alcoholic. (Source)

In school, Clinton became that kid. You know, an overachiever. He was a top student, played saxophone in the band, and was a delegate to Boys' Nation, where he met John F. Kennedy. He went to Georgetown for college and became student body president, following that up with a law degree from Yale. (Source)

From there, it was a whirlwind ascension to the top alongside his partner in crime—er, public service—Hillary Rodham Clinton, who he met at Yale. Bill became Attorney General of Arkansas and eventually was elected governor, serving terms between 1978 and 1992.

From Up-And-Comer to Comeback Kid

How did the governor of a small southern state become President? Easy. Clinton was the slickest talker of almost any modern politician. Running against the Republican incumbent/juggernaut /dynast George H.W. Bush in 1992, he stole America's hearts with lines like "I feel your pain."

Clinton and his running mate, Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, represented a new generation in politics, and were able to connect with voters a bit better than the oldies. Clinton modernized the art of running for president by doing things like going on Arsenio Hall to play saxophone. (And nailing it.) If you ever wondered why Barack Obama appeared on Between Two Ferns, you can trace it back to Clinton and his sax.

He also demonstrated the uncanny ability to survive political setbacks and scandals, including early rumors of marital infidelity. In his first presidential primary, Clinton declared himself "the Comeback Kid" after he won the critical state of New Hampshire. From there, he went on the fast track to his party's nomination, eventually wresting the White House from Bush. Even though he only got 43% of the popular vote (third party candidate Ross Perot got about 20 percent), Clinton dominated the Electoral College.

Welcome to the White House, Bill.

First Term Swag

Clinton could do no wrong for the first few years of his administration. He was the first Democratic President in a decade to also have a Democratic Congress backing him, and he was able to pass major policies like the Brady gun control bill. (Source)

Clinton decided to appoint his wife, Hillary, the head of a task force on developing a universal healthcare system. Since the Reagan years, Republicans (and even conservative-leaning Democrats) had staunchly opposed government-run healthcare. Even with their own party controlling the House of Representatives and the Senate, Bill and Hill couldn't quite shoehorn their massive health reform program through the legislative process. (Source)

That's when Clinton started exploring some different harmonies, to use a jazz sax metaphor. Facing a reelection campaign and a Congress that went over to Republican control in the 1994 midterm elections, the sitting President started playing a different tune. He pronounced the death of big government in his 1996 State of the Union, and never looked back. The rest of his presidency would be defined more by budget compromises, tax cuts, welfare reform, and an eventual budget surplus—no more sweeping liberal legislation.

And that's about all, folks.

Er…okay, so there's a little bit more that defined the rest of his presidency.

Scandal…No, Not the Show

During his second term, revelations about Clinton's inappropriate relationship with a White House intern led him to be impeached in the House of Representatives. Though he was later acquitted in the Senate and allowed to keep his job, nobody forgot the media hype and other fallout from the scandal. Clinton remained popular (source), with most Americans approving of his performance as president, if not his personal life. Since too much has already been written about this subject, check out a CNN timeline, if you dare and care.

So when the dust settled, was Bill Clinton a good president or a bad one? A liberal one or a conservative one? Whatever your opinion is, he was arguably the first president of the "present day"…his term coincided with the rise of the Internet, the proliferation of media controversies, and even the first widely publicized incidents of international terrorism, which later became the defining foreign policy issue of the 21st century. (Source)

For all his shortcomings, Bill Clinton had a darn impressive run…after he cut his hair and shaved that lumberjack beard.