The Early Years
Tens of thousands of veterans were streaming home from World War II, eager to start new lives and new families. Among them was William Jefferson Blythe, a native Texan who had served in the army as a mechanic and was now beginning work as a salesman. After a whirlwind courtship, he married a small-town girl from southwest Arkansas, Virginia Cassidy. Before their son was born, Blythe died in a tragic car accident, trying to make it to Hope on a long trip from Chicago, where he worked and where they planned to live after their baby was born. With a resolute faith in her destiny, and the sturdy support of friends and relatives, Virginia pressed ahead with her life, determined to be a good mother to William Jefferson Blythe III, born in Hope, Arkansas, on August 19, 1946. There were immense challenges ahead for her and for Arkansas—but nothing that couldn’t be conquered with a firm faith in the future.
The Learning Years
In the autumn of 1960, Dwight Eisenhower presided over a comfortably conformist nation, still dominated by memories of the war. Four years later, the New Frontier had come and gone, and Lyndon Johnson was taking his first strides toward tackling civil rights and the war on poverty. Bill Clinton changed during those years as well. From the moment he was old enough to go to school, he loved the world of learning and the limitless possibilities it signaled. At Hot Springs High School, he was fortunate to come under the influence of several gifted teachers, including principal Johnnie Mae Mackey, and band instructor Virgil Spurlin. Music became a lifelong passion for the young saxophonist, who ultimately earned all-state honors. Perhaps more importantly, music taught him the rudiments of political organization, as he helped Mr. Spurlin plan the statewide competitions that brought hundreds of aspiring band performers to Hot Springs each year. Political conventions were quiet in comparison.
After finishing law school in 1973, he started teaching as a professor at the University of Arkansas Law School. He fell in love with Fayetteville and the hill country of North Arkansas, and soon was thinking about running for Congress against John Paul Hammerschmidt, a popular Republican incumbent. At first, it seemed hopeless: two years earlier, Hammerschmidt had coasted with 77 percent of the vote. But Watergate had dimmed the luster of Richard Nixon and his defenders, and Clinton ran a brilliant campaign in the rural hollows of the Ozarks, determined to meet as many voters as possible. It nearly worked. On Election Day in November 1974, he won 13 of 21 counties, but he lost the popular vote by a narrow margin of six thousand votes. The day after his defeat, he was out on the hustings again, thanking the voters for the experience of a lifetime.