Book: 'Bill Clinton: An American Journey'

In his new book, Bill Clinton: An American Journey, author Nigel Hamilton looks at the life experiences that really formed the 42nd president of the United States.

Hamilton looks back at Clinton's upbringing in Arkansas, his student years at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale universities and his decisions regarding Vietnam and military service.

Read chapter one from Bill Clinton: An American Journey.



Arkansas Beginnings

Few American presidents have had so little idea of their family's past as William Jefferson Clinton. On his father's side-well, the many questions that surround his paternity we must defer until later. On his mother's side, however, he had reasonable cause to believe he was a sixth-generation southerner, able to trace his Cassady forebears back through Alabama to South Carolina in the early nineteenth century. Then, in the late nineteenth century, he was told, a certain James Monroe Cassady left Alabama with his wife, Sarah Lou, and his Russell parents-in-law, in a traditional covered wagon. They migrated across the Mississippi River, moving to an area known as the New Hope Community and settling beside Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church in Bodcaw, Nevada County, Arkansas, a group of extended families numbering perhaps a hundred souls, 110 miles southwest of Little Rock, the state capital. There, in 1886, they built a wooden house, became Arkansans, and began cotton farming.

Whatever had been the motive for the Cassadys' move, however, it did not bring prosperity for the family. Arkansas was, at the end of the nineteenth century, a backward, landlocked state, the twenty-fifth in the Union, some 55,000 square miles in size, bordering the Mississippi on its eastern side and abutting Indian territory on its western frontier. In between, spread out not only across its lowland, delta landscape but up high into its hinterlands, which stretched across the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains to the northwest, the state boasted almost one million people, almost no industry, the worst schools in the nation, and widespread poverty among whites as well as blacks-who, in the wake of slavery and the Civil War, made up more than a fifth of its population.

James Eldridge Cassidy

The Cassady family seemed to go in for presidential names-though none can seriously have imagined that one of their descendants would actually become a U.S. president. William Jefferson Clinton's great-great-grandfather had been baptized with the names George Washington Cassady-though why James Monroe, his eldest son, left Alabama, several years after getting married in 1880, nobody knows. It was on the small cotton farm in Bodcaw, Arkansas, however, that James Monroe's third son, James Eldridge Cassady-William Jefferson Clinton's grandfather-was born on August 19, 1898, the youngest of their five children.

James Eldridge Cassady's childhood was marred by poverty and death. He was orphaned at eight, when his father died of pneumonia on a train trip to the old family home in Alabama. The family farm was sold two years later, in 1906, and, moving with his mother to her widower brother's home, he was thereafter raised by his uncle Bill Russell, alongside Bill's ten children, on whose cotton farm he was expected to work once he left school. This he did at age thirteen, after fifth grade.

Had cotton been financially profitable or had they been able to obtain credit to switch to other forms of farming, the life of small Arkansas sharecroppers might have held out the prospect of economic progress after the ruinous years of civil war. However, without access to banking credit, small farmers in Arkansas had come to rely on cotton as their sole cash crop in order to survive-and the decline in the price of cotton in the latter part of the nineteenth century had resulted in white penury on a gigantic scale. "The debt-ridden, one-crop economy consigned the majority of Arkansans to subsistence on an annual income well below what would have been reckoned the poverty level in the growing American cities," one historian summarized.

It was in rural poverty in Bodcaw, then, that young James Eldridge Cassady worked as a half orphan-and at age twenty-three, having changed the spelling of his name to Cassidy, he got married on January 3, 1922, to Valerie Edith Grisham, the nineteen-year-old proverbial girl next door, whose family was also "eking out a living raising cotton" on her family's "hardscrabble farm."

Opting for Change

"Edie" Grisham was a short, handsome, feisty girl who was somewhat better schooled than Eldridge, having reached eleventh grade. The following year, on June 6, 1923, Edie gave birth to a child, indeed their only child, a daughter whom they named Virginia-Virginia Dell Cassidy.

Poverty in rural Arkansas made for a difficult domestic life. Virginia later characterized her mother as a woman subject to uncontrollable rage-an anger that welled from somewhere deep inside her. Edie had been dealt, Virginia reflected, a cruel hand: born in south Arkansas in rural poverty, growing up on the land, and marrying on the land. In those days, Edie had no option-a person's life mirrored the relentless pattern of nature and the seasons.

With Virginia's birth, Edie did, however, opt for change. She insisted at the end of 1923 that she, her husband, and the infant leave the land and move twelve miles away, to the local market town of Hope.

Hope had a population thirty times larger than Bodcaw, having expanded around a major cotton-market station on the Cairo & Fulton Railroad, effectively displacing the old Hempstead County town of Washington. Her childhood, Virginia later recalled, was punctuated with the whistles and bells of heavy locomotives, since her home was always by a railroad track. The segregated town's main roads had only recently been paved for whites, in 1920, and boasted several expensive residences on "Cotton Row"-but the Cassidys were far from wealthy. They were "country poor," as the town historian Mary Nell Turner put it, and lucky to find employment at the bottom of the proverbial white ladder.

One town resident later recalled that it was "a rough, busy, dirty, smelly town-in the damp, still air of evening every privy contributed its quota of perfume-but you couldn't help but love it." Eldridge eventually found work in the Ivory Handle Company factory-which would ruin his health, thanks to its boiling furnaces, dyes, and tanning chemicals. It did, however, permit him in time to purchase his own four-room house on Foster Street, on a mortgage.

Edith, meanwhile, decided to carve her own career and proceeded to take a correspondence course in nursing, gaining a certificate as an auxiliary, or private-duty, nurse without having to attend college. It was just as well. In the wake of the Great Crash, a long drought, and the worsening economy, as Virginia recalled, money would become "extremely tight"-so tight that when Eldridge lost his job, he was unable to keep up the payments on his mortgage. The Great Depression had arrived.

The Depression Strikes

The Depression hit Arkansas as hard as or harder than any other state in the Union, largely because of its overdependence on cotton. "Cotton remained king for the first half of the twentieth century," the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor-turned-historian Harry Ashmore related-and the cost, in the 1920s and '30s, was ruin. After a brief rise in the price of cotton during World War I, the price began to slide until it fell lower than the cost of production: down to 16 cents per pound in 1928, even before the Great Crash-and to a mere 4 cents four years after that.

In a state where, in 1930, 63 percent of Arkansas farmers worked someone else's land, the quasi-feudal system of sharecropping spelled, in the Depression years, disaster and starvation. Attempts to unionize tenant farmers proved a failure, and cooperative farming also failed, since few but a handful of farmers, in the traditionally individualistic land of "hillbillies," were interested in cooperating. Only God could provide.

The Depression, in other words, hit Arkansas like a long affliction, vitiating any hopes that the state would ever raise itself from its reputation as one of the most backward, uneducated, and fraudulent in America. "The state government remained insular and corrupt," wrote Ben Johnson in his history of modern Arkansas, while the rapidly declining market price of cotton dragged down a region that had set its face against agricultural diversification and lacked sufficient credit-state or private-to invest in alternative crops. As Johnson pointed out, the average Arkansas cotton farmer owned only $137 in equipment in 1929, but the average rice grower required almost twenty times as much. Without federal, state, or commercial programs, cotton sharecroppers in the state found themselves simply too poor to make the switch. They had already racked up a 150 percent rise in indebtedness in the 1920s, following World War I-and they could not withstand the triple onslaught of flooding (which in 1927 affected more than 13 percent of arable land), a crippling drought in 1930, and the financial catastrophe resulting from the collapse of the Wall Street stock market and banking system the year before. With four out of every five of the state's residents living and working on farms and plantations-compared with only 20 percent working on the land in America as a whole-Arkansas was bound to suffer in the Depression, and it did, grievously.

No politician came forward on the state scene who was capable of mitigating the effects of the meteorological and financial drought. Fraud, intimidation, localism, and racism had long characterized Arkansas politics, leaving the state prostrate in the face of the economic debacle. The state's roads were the worst in the country, much highway spending having gone into the pockets of officials rather than into paving. Public education was probably the poorest in the United States, with schoolteachers licensed through a feeble county examination that required only four years of high school. The public debt, meanwhile, was the highest in the country. In a state of dirt roads, "dirt poor" became a reality, not a metaphor.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 white and black families-in a state of less than 2 million inhabitants-soon required Red Cross relief. "Barefoot and without decent clothes, no meal, no flour in the bin, ragged children crying from hunger . . . nothing but hunger and misery," one aid worker described rural Arkansas as the Depression took hold. Strikes and protests were beaten down with a ruthlessness that shocked the nation. Attempts by federal officials, journalists, or outsiders to assess the economic, educational, social, and racial problems of Arkansas were met by vigilante violence that would have done justice to a banana republic-erstwhile slavery having been transformed into a peonage system that seemed little better. Visiting journalists described Arkansas, as the state historian Ben Johnson commented, "as a benighted land almost without parallel in the world."

Coming in succession to a series of floods, drought, and bankruptcies, these events appeared to many to be a biblical prophecy being fulfilled. Certainly no politician ever came forward to speak for the dispossessed or against cruelty toward and intimidation of blacks. For decades fear had underlain the psyche of a male white population too uneducated to ask questions before resorting to shooting, murder, and lynching-even live "roasting." "The Ku Klux Klan had a strong following throughout the state," wrote the historian of black civil rights in the period after World War I, Mark Schneider. "By 1924 it felt strong enough to contest the governorship in the Democratic primary"-making Arkansas a "dangerous place for African Americans," one in which lynchings demonstrated "the impunity with which racist terrorists acted in Arkansas." Will Turner, accused of attacking a white woman, had been seized from a sheriff's posse, hung, and burned before a crowd of thousands in 1921 in Helena. The Arkansas Survey, one of the state's few black newspapers, noted in an editorial that Helena was "a seething cauldron of hate, when the least indiscretion meant death." Barely a week later Robert Hicks was hung by a public highway near Lake Village for simply sending a note to a white woman. In Little Rock the next year, a suspected armed robber was openly lynched in front of the Como Hotel in the downtown center. "No official action against the lynchers is expected," The New York Times commented. Although the Klan's power had declined thereafter, the tinderbox of race relations had remained easy to strike. When John Carter, a black, was suspected by a mob of raping two white women, in 1927, he was riddled with bullets and his body then towed around the black neighborhoods of the capital and finally set on fire on a pyre constructed of wooden pews ripped out of a black church-with no one indicted by the subsequent grand jury.

A century before, Arkansas had proudly advertised itself as an "asylum for the emigrant"; indeed, the "last asylum," as one group of proponents in Little Rock had stated, drawing white immigrants from Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Mark Twain, however, had pictured it as a land of cowardly lynch mobs and "lunkheads," the state becoming a symbol of much that was wrong, even evil, in America-symbolized in its political machinations. The Civil War had made an end of slavery, but the subsequent secret ballot, for example, had simply been used, in tandem with the notoriously backward and segregated public education system, to disenfranchise blacks, who, if illiterate, had to declare this at the polling precinct and submit to being intimidated, often at the end of white men's guns. Poll tax requirements had also militated against blacks' voting, so that between 1890 and 1894 the black vote had decreased in Arkansas by a staggering 65,000! Fearing a coalition between Republicans (the victors in the Civil War) and agrarian reformers, the Democratic Party in Arkansas had retrenched to become the party of reactionary conservatism and segregation: "Dixiecrats." In a move that contradicted the very meaning of its party name, the Arkansas Democratic Central Committee had even changed the nomination procedures for state primaries. Official Democratic Party candidates had to be chosen by a "popular" vote, it had determined-but with the proviso that only whites could cast those votes!

As C. Calvin Smith noted in his history of modern Arkansas, by the 1930s the state of Arkansas in the mind of most Americans had become synonymous with "watermelons, the unshaven Arkie, the moonshiner, slow trains, malnutrition, mental debility, hookworms, hogs, the big fat lie, shoelessness, illiteracy, windy politicians, and hillbillies with paddlefeet who could not pronounce correctly the name of their state." With Arkansas politicians indifferent or powerless to improve conditions in the worst areas of rural poverty, revolution had become a looming possibility. In January 1931, white Arkansas farmers made national radio news history by marching on England, a small town south of Little Rock, in a strange repeat of Wat Tyler's fourteenth-century peasants' revolt in old England. "When we get to town, we'll ask for food quiet-like," their organizer declared, "and if they don't give it to us, we'll take it, also quiet-like." Some on foot, some in buggies, some on horseback, the rest in rusting trucks, they made their way toward the banks that had failed them, in despair of being helped by the Red Cross, which was now refusing even to give out provisions. "Red Cross headquarters at St. Louis was called by phone and advised of the situation," the Arkansas Gazette reported as the men-more than half of them armed-shouted, "Our children are crying for food and we're going to get it!"

In fear of looting, England's local merchants handed out enough food for 1,500 white mouths, hoping the Red Cross would reimburse them. But the march became symbolic, nationwide-and a further nail in Herbert Hoover's approaching presidential coffin. Thanks in large measure to Hoover's successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his new administration, America survived the Depression, but the experience for Arkansans was grim. Roosevelt's revolutionary New Deal measures to help farmers proved of little immediate assistance to poorer folk in Arkansas. The administration's agricultural initiatives worked through grants to landowners, not tenants or sharecroppers-who were thus the last to benefit.

Rightly or wrongly, the Depression further cemented an image of poorly educated hillbillies clinging to outdated, pretractorized forms of agriculture and using obsessive, die-hard racism and hatred of the North as their calling cards. When one of Roosevelt's administration officials sought to speak at a meeting in Birdsong, Arkansas, in 1935, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union official who began the convocation with the words "Ladies and gentlemen" was interrupted by a group of riding bosses from nearby plantations, "There ain't no ladies in the audience," they shouted, "and there ain't no gentlemen on the platform. We don't need no Gawdamn Yankee bastard to tell us what to do with our niggers"-and they ran the Roosevelt official out of town.

Religious fundamentalism also gained ground during the Depression. "Fundamentalist Christianity always assumed a close relationship between this world and God's," wrote the Arkansas historian Michael B. Dougan. "The economic disaster overtaking the nation was viewed by some as a punishment for sin." With the "double whammy" of the drought of 1930 and falling farm prices, churchgoers were treated to apocalyptic and Pentecostalist visions of the end of the world. Fundamentalist preachers viewed the Rooseveltian notion of WPA community work to alleviate the ravaging effects of drought, cascading cotton prices, and bankruptcy as northern heresy. Southern Baptists and Methodists remained wedded to prayer, Bible study, and stalwart domestic morality as the answer to all earthly problems.

In this struggle between biblical-minded traditionalists and modernists calling for more responsive government and change, the frontier spirit of Arkansas proved, yet again, to be a dead end. Arkansas became the only U.S. state in the Depression to default on its debts-suspicion of Roosevelt and the federal government remaining endemic despite federal assistance programs. Administration "handouts" would be taken, greedily, but the state itself would do little or nothing to emulate Roosevelt's public works program; indeed, it even refused to pay its own teachers when the education exchequer ran dry, assuming the federal government would pay for such things. Ordinary Arkansans could either starve or leave, state politicians and administrators reckoned.

Many left. "I have traveled over most of Europe and part of Africa," wrote the novelist and educational reformer Naomi Mitchison, "but I have never seen such terrible sights as I saw yesterday among the sharecroppers of Arkansas." Given the poverty sweeping the land-a land in which no more than 1 percent of farms had the benefit of electricity-migration was often the only recourse. As Ashmore wrote, "Hundreds of thousands of white and black Arkansans joined the forced migration that began in the depression years and continued for three decades, taking those called Arkies to California and dumping the others, black and white, in the inner city ghettoes of the East and Midwest. For many of these it was a pilgrimage not much less cruel than the Cherokees' trek across the Trail of Tears."

The Cassidys, however, stayed-and lost their home.

Excerpted from Bill Clinton by Nigel Hamilton Copyright© 2003 by Nigel Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.