William Jefferson Clinton was born in Hope, Arkansas, on August 19, 1946. He was a fifth-generation Arkansan. His mother, Virginia Kelly, named him William Jefferson Blythe, III after his father, who died in a car accident before his son's birth. When Bill was four years old, his mother left him with her parents while she trained as a nurse.
When Bill was eight, his mother married Roger Clinton. The family moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where they lived in a small house with no indoor plumbing. Bill's stepfather was an alcoholic, and family life was frequently disrupted by domestic violence. When he was 15 years old, Bill warned his stepfather never to hit his mother or half-brother, Roger Jr., again. "That was a dramatic thing," Clinton recalled years later in an interview with Time magazine. Despite his rocky relationship with his stepfather, Bill changed his last name to Clinton as a teenager.
When Clinton was 17, he met President John F. Kennedy and Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright on a trip to Washington D.C. as a delegate to the American Legion Boys State/Boys Nation program. As a result, Clinton decided that he wanted a career in politics. He entered Georgetown University in 1964. As a college student, he was committed to the movement against the Vietnam War as well as to the civil rights struggle. Clinton graduated from Georgetown in 1968 with a degree in International Affairs. He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship, which allowed him to spend the next two years continuing his studies at Oxford University in England. In 1970, he entered law school at Yale University. After graduation, Clinton accepted a position as a Professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law.
In 1974, Clinton decided to begin the political career that he had wanted since he was a teenager. He ran for Congress, but lost the election by a very close vote. On October 11, 1975, Clinton married Hillary Diane Rodham, whom he had met when they were fellow law students at Yale. They were married in the living room of their first home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The quaint Tudor-style home, now the Clinton House Museum, is recognized on the Department of Interior’s National Registry of Historic Places. In 1976, he was elected Attorney General of Arkansas, an office he held from 1977 to 1979.
In 1978, Clinton ran for the office of Governor of Arkansas. His election, at age 32, made him the youngest-ever governor in the history of the United States to this date. He lost re-election in 1980, but came back to win in 1982, 1984, 1986 (when the term of office was expanded from two to four years) and 1990. In his first term, Clinton tried to make numerous changes, many of which were extremely unpopular, including an attempt to raise the cost of vehicle licenses. In 1980, he ran for re-election as Governor but lost to Republican Frank White. When Clinton campaigned for election in 1982 against White, he explained that he had learned the importance of adaptability and compromise. He received 55 percent of the vote and once again became Governor of Arkansas.
While Clinton was Governor of Arkansas, he pushed for the reform of schools, health care, and welfare. He also continued to be active in Democratic national politics. In 1991, he was voted Most Effective Governor by his peers and was chosen to head the Democratic Leadership Conference. That same year Clinton announced that he was entering the 1992 race for President. Clinton had much competition for the Democratic nomination for President. He came from a small state that many people thought of as unsophisticated and underdeveloped. Critics felt that his lack of experience in national government gave him little understanding of foreign policy. Clinton, however, insisted that he had a fresh point of view to bring to government. Clinton's campaign was also marked by personal scandal. He faced charges of extramarital relationships and questions about his avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War. Clinton remained in the race, however, and became the Democratic nominee, selecting Senator Albert Gore as his running mate. Clinton focused his campaign on economic issues, especially unemployment and health care. In November of 1992, Clinton was elected as the 42nd President of the United States defeating President George Herbert Walker Bush.
Once in office, Clinton continued to work on economic issues, and interest rates and unemployment began to drop. He signed many notable bills into law including the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which made a single trading unit of the United States, Canada, and Mexico; and the long awaited e-signatures bill, which gave online electronic signatures the same legal status as those handwritten.
On October 16, 2000, Clinton attended an emergency meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Both men wanted to come to an agreement to end ongoing violence in their countries. Barak and Arafat left the meeting with a "statement of intent" to end the violence, but neither side was completely satisfied. In that same month, Clinton sealed a major achievement of his administration by signing a bill which gave China permanent, normal trade status. This was considered the most important U.S. trade legislation since the passage of the NAFTA.
Later that year, Clinton signed into law a bill that set the blood-alcohol limit for drunkenness at 0.08 percent. This was a stricter level than most states had used previously. Supporters of the bill said that this national standard, which is used to determine whether or not a driver is legally drunk, could save hundreds of lives every year. Clinton signed another important bill into law in 2000, when he permanently established a separate reserve of heating oil for the Northeast. The law made it easier for the White House to withdraw oil from reserves in case of emergency. Finally, on November 13, 2000, Clinton began a historic journey to Asia, becoming the first American President to visit Vietnam since the Vietnam War. The purpose of the visit was to work on relations between Hanoi (the capital of Vietnam) and Washington, D.C.
In 1998, his relationship with a young White House intern resulted in the president’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. A trial in the Senate found the president not guilty of the charges brought against him. President Clinton apologized for his conduct and vowed to keep working as hard as he could for the American people. As a result, Bill Clinton left office with historically high approval ratings for the job he had done as the 42nd President of the United States.
In the years since leaving office, President Clinton has dedicated his time to leading the development of global initiatives through his foundation. The staff and volunteers of the William J. Clinton Foundation focus on programs of community service, drug acquisition for HIV/AIDS treatment, and fighting childhood obesity in the United States. The Clinton Global Initiative garners the expertise of leaders from around the world in addressing global issues of health care, education, clean energy and environment, job training, and entrepreneurship in under-developed countries.
Outside of his foundation, President Clinton has worked alongside former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush in disaster relief efforts for the tsunami in South Asia, Hurricane Katrina in the United States, and the earthquake in Haiti.
Want to volunteer your time? The Clinton House Museum can always use the time and talents of those interested. We are looking for friendly faces to help make this experience memorable to our visitors.
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