Morton: Happy birthday, President Clinton

On this day (Aug. 19) in 1946, William Jefferson Blythe IV was born at the Julia Chester Hospital in Hope, Ark.

His traveling salesman father, William Jefferson Blythe III (1917-1946) died in an automobile accident a few months before Bill was born. After her husband’s death, Bill’s mother, Virginia Dell Cassidy (1923-1994) studied nursing, and, in 1950, married Roger Clinton Sr. and moved to Hot Springs, Ark.

At age 16, Bill changed his surname to that of his stepfather, thus becoming officially William “Bill” Jefferson Clinton. There is some evidence that Clinton’s alcoholic stepfather sometimes physically abused Bill’s mother and his half-brother, Roger Clinton Jr., to such an extent that Bill had to intervene to protect them.

In Hot Springs, Clinton attended St. John’s Catholic Elementary School, the Ramble Elementary School, and Central Junior High School. At Hot Springs High School, he graduated fourth in a class of 323 in 1964. In high school, the ambitious, gregarious Clinton excelled as a student (was a member of the National Honor Society and a semifinalist in the National Merit Scholarship contest), was an accomplished tenor saxophone player, and an active student leader (member of the student council and junior class president).

As he later wrote in his autobiography “My Life” (published in 2004): “Sometime in my sixteenth year, I decided I wanted to be in public life as an elected official. ... I knew I could be great in public service.”

Clinton, while in high school, claimed that there were two defining experiences that further prompted him to go into public service: 1. As a Boys Nation senator, in 1963 he met and had his picture taken with President John F. Kennedy at the White House; and 2. He heard, and later memorized, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug. 28, 1963, “I have a dream” speech.

In 1964, the 18-year-old Clinton enrolled in the Foreign Service School at Georgetown University in Washington, from which he graduated four years later as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He then won a three-year Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied politics, economics and philosophy. While at Oxford, he traveled extensively, usually alone, all around Great Britain and in Europe to Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia. Foregoing his third year at Oxford, Clinton returned to the U.S. to attend the Yale University Law School, from where he earned a Juris Doctor degree in 1973.

It was while at Yale that he met and began dating fellow law student Hillary Rodham, whom he married Oct. 27, 1975, and with whom he had his only child, Chelsea.

Bill Clinton’s meteoric and controversial political career that led to his being only the second U.S. president (along with Andrew Johnson) to have been impeached, but found not guilty, and his somewhat sordid private life (especially the Monica Lewinsky scandal) are well-known and have been almost exhaustively analyzed, examined and widely written about.

Most notably before his 1992 election (and re-election in 1996) as the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton served as the 50th attorney general of Arkansas (1977-1979) and as the 40th (1979-1981) and 42nd (1983-1992) governor of “the Land of Opportunity” that Arkansas claims to be.

In the early 21st century, Bill Clinton has become the almost universally admired elder statesman of American politics. Revered and admired or not, William J. Clinton is considered by an increasing number of Americans (although he still has a large number of critics) to be one of the most politically experienced, well-traveled, well-educated, and knowledgeable of the 43 presidents in U.S. history.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.