The Clintons Up Close (1995)

The Clintons in October 1995 (Courtesy William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

Here is a brief excerpt from the feature article in The American Scholar written by Jane Warwick Yoder and Edwin M. Yoder Jr. They discuss “a friendship between two couples that yields insights into a presidency and a marriage.” The American Scholar is the venerable but lively quarterly magazine of public affairs, literature, science, history, and culture published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society since 1932. In recent years the magazine has won four National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest honor, and many of its essays and articles have been selected for the yearly Best American anthologies.

“Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous speech, ‘The American Scholar,’ delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College in 1837, the magazine aspires to Emerson’s ideals of independent thinking, self-knowledge, and a commitment to the affairs of the world as well as to books, history, and science.”

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As the current presidential campaign winds down and the major-party candidates drearily accentuate the negative, has it dawned at last on Bill Clinton’s critics, and even some of his old political enemies, that the Clinton era wasn’t so bad after all? The former president is now perhaps the most admired political figure in the country. If so, an old adage has been vindicated: truth is the daughter of time, and as a rule Americans tend to think better of their presidents when they’re well out of office and the irritants and errors are forgotten.

The two of us had the good fortune to be witnesses, a quarter of a century ago, at the creation of the Clinton era. As chairman of the National Governors Association, Clinton was first among equals at a conference of local and state officials, American and Italian, who gathered in Florence in the early autumn of 1987 to compare notes on shared problems. The conference stretched over several days in the shadow of the Medici Palace and other matchless landmarks of art and architecture. In that comfortable setting we first witnessed the capacities of Governor Clinton and his wife, Hillary, two very different people who yet seemed to us knit in an extraordinary, and unbreakable, partnership.

It may now be time to share a few intimate memories that afford an unusual vantage into what the Clintons were like, close up, in private settings.

Jane Yoder: We met the Clintons as guests on a trip to Florence in October of 1987. Bill Clinton came bounding up to me in the airport in New York like an overeager puppy dog, as politicians sometimes did while my husband was writing a nationally syndicated column. Since I identified myself as a moderate Republican—a Howard Baker–Lincoln Republican from east Tennessee—I was not likely to be swept off my feet by the attractive Democratic governor from Arkansas. I needn’t have worried. As I soon discovered, Bill Clinton has a preternatural ability to sense mood and read body language. In my psychotherapy practice, I’ve often noticed this sensitivity in patients who have grown up in emotionally troubled homes. To protect themselves, they learn early to read the environment. Seeing my stone face, he quickly adjusted.

Edwin Yoder: I’d heard of Bill Clinton from his great friend Strobe Talbott, in the 1970s and ’80s a correspondent for Time and for five years head of its Washington bureau, and my occasional squash partner. As I dropped Strobe off at his office one day in downtown Washington, he asked casually, “Do you know Bill Clinton?”

The name rang a distant bell. “Who is he?” I asked.

“The new governor of Arkansas,” Strobe said. They’d been close friends at Oxford. “Keep your eye on him. He’s a great political talent and will probably be president someday.”

With that brief mention, Clinton vanished from my radar until the day Jane and I were waiting in the departure lounge at JFK to board our flight to Rome. I had been invited to Florence by Ed Grace, the organizer of the conference, whose business it was to arrange useful encounters between Americans and Italians. A tall, smiling young man suddenly loomed before us, and like Jane I found Bill Clinton’s physical presence to be forceful.

“You’re Ed Yoder, aren’t you?” he asked. We found that we were headed for the same destination. Once there, Jane and I usually saw him early in the day in the dining room of our ornate hotel (which had once briefly served as the legislative chamber of the reunified Italy) as he fueled for a morning run. I’m afraid I paid no very close attention to whatever it was that seemed puppyish to Jane.

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To read the complete article/interview, please click here.

Jane Warwick Yoder and Edwin M. Yoder Jr. live in Alexandria, Virginia. Jane Warwick Yoder is a clinical social worker and a Jungian psychotherapist. Edwin M. Yoder Jr. won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at The Washington Star and was later a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.



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