Clinton was a good father

Published 7:12 am Monday, October 12, 2009

I have found something good to say about former president Bill Clinton, and it pleases me to commend him for it: He, who never knew his own father, became a good father to his only child. That a man never knew his father or, worse, knew a father and knew him to be a terrible father doesn’t need to be the end of fathering. When a man has a bad father, his life mission is to start a new family tradition by becoming the father his father never was but his son will become.

I wrote these commentaries through the full period of when President Clinton began to run for the presidency through to his leaving office. I gave him mixed reviews for his policies and executive actions. More seriously and more validly, I expressed severe displeasure with his personal sexual morals. I commented on such behavior while he was Arkansas governor and, of course, his outrageous behavior with “that woman.” An aspect that grieved me was how his personal behavior made his daughter feel. I worried less about his wife, because she is a woman who can take care of herself.

Now we have the report from historian Taylor Branch in “The Clinton Tapes.” Throughout Clinton’s terms, he had Branch come down monthly from Baltimore so they could talk about his memory, observations, and impressions of recent events so Clinton could later fashion these into publications. Branch’s book is not the recorded transcript of those sessions, but his memory of what the president said.

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What strikes me is Bill Clinton as a father, and I very much like what I learned. It’s not within my authority to forgive him for his many moral transgressions, but it pleases me to focus on his fathering. Perhaps I’ll eventually forget the former.

If Clinton had done nothing more than successfully protect Chelsea from the grossly unfair and even blatantly cruel notoriety given a child in the White House, I would have been satisfied. However, he did a good deal more. He was, in a word, unfailingly attentive to his daughter. Bill Clinton was a genuine father, and he was so in a position many people (including some past presidents) would feel him excused from the responsibility. With the world to care for, this father sometimes set the world aside for a while to give attention to his little girl when she needed a father’s attention.

It’s true, as some would argue, that the United States had only one president and the world had only one American president, but I feel it was more immediately true that Chelsea had only one father. And he was there for her.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration occurred in November 1995. Clinton had failed to attend the APEC economic summit, which the Japanese government bitterly resented with a serious rift a consequence. Vice President Al Gore, with complete political validity, urged him to hurry to Japan to mend fences. Gore identified three light days in the president’s calendar that would occur the following January and demanded that his boss use them for a trip to Japan. Clinton would not yield, although the two fought over the matter.

Why would the American president refuse to do a president’s work in this case? Clinton dug his heels in for the simple reason that Chelsea would be taking her junior year midterms at this time. The president told the vice president: “Al, I am not going to Japan and leave Chelsea by herself to take these exams.”

Now Gore was furious, and for very good reason. But, as Branch writes, “It was a choice between public duty on a vast scale and the most personal devotion.” President Clinton went to Japan in April, and Chelsea passed her exams.

The Clintons could have hired any number of top tutors, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Hillary is as capable as he, but he is her father and this is what a father does—even if he’s also president.

Branch reports that Chelsea was in and out of their conversations.

Clinton was generally perceived as “an unabashed narcissist,” but he was selflessly devoted to his daughter.

He was notorious for being late to engagements, but he was always on time for her ballet recitals. He would shamelessly flaunt any asset for political advantage, except for his daughter.

Bill Clinton never knew a father, but somehow he knew what a father is and became one. This is both the responsibility and opportunity of every man who suffers abuse by a father or just his absence. Become the father your father never was, which is the father your son will become.