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Jewish World Review August 16, 1999 /4 Elul, 5759

Chris Matthews

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Bubba on Bubba -- LIKE ARCHIE BUNKER telling wife Edith to "stifle it," the president's PR boys have squelched the first lady's loose talk of his being "scarred by abuse" at a tender age.

Before the "dingbat" strategy works its full effect, let's dig back to what the man his mom nicknamed "Bubba" once said himself about his upbringing and the effect, if any, it had on him.

I refer to an on-stage interview I conducted with Clinton for the San Francisco Examiner on the eve of the '92 California primary. The Democratic nomination locked, the young Arkansas governor was in a candid mood that evening, even telling us city folk what it was like to lack indoor plumbing.

"It was OK," he said of those youthful trudges to the outhouse, "except in the winter when it was cold and in the summer when sometimes there were snakes down in the hole."

Spotting my opening, I asked if he thought being the "son of an alcoholic" affected his view of the world.

"I do," he began slowly. "My stepfather was an alcoholic. He was an intermittent alcoholic, not every night. And sometimes, he was a violent alcoholic, less so after I got big enough to stop the violence in my home. But I loved him very much and he loved me, and he was good to us."

As he spoke openly of that experience to me, a thousand faces in the darkened audience and the TV cameras, Clinton seemed a man who'd come to grips with his father's addiction and the effect it had on others.

"He had this terrible disease, this awful weakness, and when he hurt my mother, it wasn't because he hated her. It was because he hated himself.

"And all these things are pretty tough for a kid to take, and especially, I think, stopping the violence in my home when I finally mustered the guts to do it."

I asked Clinton how old he was when he had to physically step in and defend his mother.

"First time, 14; the second time, 15."

I asked him what that was like.

"I was terrified in all kinds of emotional ways. I wasn't afraid of him hurting me, because by the time I was 14, I was as big as he was. But I loved him, and yet I was furious at him, and it looked like we were reversing roles. You know, I was the father...

"I think one of the things that ... happens is that you always want to be a peacemaker after that. My opponents in political campaigns have underestimated me, and I have been criticized by the press often as being too accommodating. They say, `Well, ol' Clinton compromises too much and he always wants everybody to get along.' And I think I do go out of my way to do that."

"I can only tell you what it did for me," he persisted. "For me, it made me want to live a good life. It terrified me of indulgence. I was 22 years old before I ever took a drink. I was scared. I was afraid it could happen to me.

"I think children of alcoholics -- you can over-psychobabble this -- it gives you certain strengths. I empathize with other people's problems and their weaknesses.

"But you have to know when to accommodate and when to cut it. You have to know when you can reach out and when you've just gotta draw the line and say, `No more.'"

JWR contributor Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


08/11/99: Hillary's agonizing attempts to understand
08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
08/04/99: Weicker: real third party is on the Left
08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

©1999, NEA