Clinton on Trial

updated 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

IF THE PLANE CARRYING BILL CLINTON AND HIS ENTOURAGE FROM New Orleans to San Antonio could have limped, it would have. Clinton's presidential campaign was deep in crisis, but you'd never know it from watching the candidate confidently head for another fund-raiser. When aides produced a deck of cards for a game of hearts, the Arkansas Governor and consensus Democratic front-runner of the moment joined in eagerly, playing in his customary go-for-broke style. "He usually wins," says campaign director Bruce Lindsey. "He's aggressive. He likes to try to shoot the moon."

In the wake of last week's roiling events, it was an open question whether the same strategy would work for Clinton's campaign. Once again, like Gary Hart before him, a Democratic candidate was being held hostage to embarrassing questions about his personal life. In this case Clinton, 45, flanked by his wife, Hillary, 44, gambled that a post-Super Bowl appearance on 60 Minutes could effectively counter charges by cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers, 42, that she and Clinton had carried on a 12-year affair. Before an audience estimated at 34 million, Clinton admitted "wrongdoing" in his marriage—widely interpreted as an admission of infidelity—but flatly denied ever being romantically involved with Flowers. He also criticized the press for publicizing the allegations, which first got national exposure in the supermarket tabloid Star and for which she was reportedly paid upward of $100,000. "I think the American people who saw that 60 Minutes program saw two people who love each other and respect each other and are very proud they didn't give up on their marriage," Clinton later told PEOPLE correspondent Linda Kramer.

After the taping the couple headed back to their home in Little Rock, Ark., to watch the broadcast with their daughter. Chelsea, 11, to whom they had explained the controversy. Curled up next to her parents, she later told them she was glad they were her mom and dad. "I asked him how it affected Chelsea," says Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley, "and he said, 'She's a tough little girl.' " All in all, Clinton felt his appearance had been a success. "I think voters are going to have very serious questions about whether [Flowers's charges] ought to be a cause of negative publicity in a presidential race," he says. And indeed there was some evidence that the electorate had grown weary of campaign coverage in which mention opposition papers" could as easily be taken as references to the Kama Sutra as to the candidates views on health care or taxes.

At the other end of the he-said she-said debate was Flowers, who emerged in a raucous Manhattan press conference to promote her tabloid story. In it, she claimed Clinton would jog the short distance to her Little Rock apartment from the Governor's mansion to have sex, sometimes several times a week. She said he once tried to have sex with her in a men's room at the Governor's mansion, at the same time that his wife was mingling with guests outside, and that he broke down and wept when she called off the affair in 1989 lo date another man.

So Did They or Didn't They? In making her allegations, Flowers, who had previously denied rumors of an affair with Clinton, did not immediately produce any letters or photographs to document the alleged romance, which she claimed lasted from 1977 to 1989. What she did offer were snippets of tape recordings of phone conversations with Clinton that she claimed to have made surreptitiously over the past two years.

While hardly conclusive, the Flowers tapes were certainly suggestive. On the tapes Clinton never makes any specific reference to having a romantic relationship with her but does admit nervousness that rumors about his womanizing will start to leak out. "And there's no negative to me running except this," he says in one sound bite, before going on to speculate that he might lose the nomination to rival Democrat Bob Kerrey. "...[He] looks like a movie star, won the Medal of Honor. and since he's single, nobody cares if he's screwing," Clinton says with a laugh. Another time, Flowers frets that the $17,500 secretarial job she got with the Arkansas Employment Security Division in 1991, and which Clinton aides concede they helped "steer" her to, could become an issue. "The only thing that concerns this point is the state job," she says. Replies Clinton: "Yeah, I never thought about that.... If they ever ask if you've talked to me about it, you can say no." Clinton contends that in his conversations with Flowers, whom he describes as a "friendly acquaintance," he merely advised her to tell the truth about their relationship.

If the spectacle of a front-running presidential candidate being splattered with mud seemed depressingly familiar to many, overcoming a grievous setback is nothing new for the man who came into the world not as William Clinton but as Billy Blythe. In May 1946, his father, William Blythe III, an affable, 29-year-old trawling salesman, was killed in a car accident near Sikeston, Mo. Three months later Bill IV was born to his newly widowed mother in Hope, Ark. "For a long time I felt, subconsciously at least, I was living for two people," says Clinton. "I had lo do a good job with my life because he didn't get to live his." In retrospect, Clinton sees his lifelong intensity as a direct result of his father's early death. "My psychological clock was tuned to the idea that you might only get to live 29 years, and that made me much more driven to do everything I could in life as soon as I could," he says.

The immediate effect of his father's death was to force his mother, Virginia, then 22, to leave baby Bill with her parents in Hope for a year while she went to nursing school in Louisiana. One of Bill's earliest memories is of his mother on her knees, crying, as she said goodbye to him after a visit.

Nor was that the last time he saw his mother weep. When Bill was 4, Virginia remarried. His stepfather, Roger Clinton, worked as a car salesman in Hope and moved the family to Hot Springs, Ark., a few years later. Behind the outward comfort, however, lay deep trouble. It turned out that Roger had a serious drinking problem and was liable to turn mean when he drank. Once, Roger became enraged at some imagined slight. He grabbed a rifle and fired into the wall as Virginia and Bill looked on in horror. "It could have ricocheted, hit my mother, hit me," Bill recently told a reporter. "I had to live with that bullet hole, look at it every day." The abuse continued, according to Bill, until, at the ago of 14, "I broke down the door of their room one night when they were having an encounter and told him that I was bigger than him now and there would never be any more of this while I was there."

Virginia soon divorced Roger but quickly remarried him after a reconciliation. Clinton has often said that he subsequently look his stepfather's surname in order to help bind the family's wounds. (Roger died in 1968.) Bill was a precocious youth. At Hot Springs High School he played the saxophone, served as drum major for the school band and excelled in the classroom. But his greatest gift seemed to be for politics. In 1963 he was selected Arkansas's representative to the American Legion's Boys Nation convention in Washington, D.C. "He returned with a photo of him and President Kennedy in the Rose Garden," says his mother, who is now married to Richard Kelley and lives in Hot Springs. "I remember the expression on his lace, and I could tell then that politics would be his life."

That determination only grew stronger during college, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where Clinton studied foreign policy, and during his two years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Returning to the U.S. in 1970, he entered Yale Law School, where he met a bright fellow student named Hillary Rodham. Hillary, who grew up in the middle-class Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, had graduated with high honors from Wellesley, where she was president of the student government. After graduation from Yale and a brief stint as a government lawyer, she took a leaching job at the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville, so she could be near Bill as he began to immerse himself in state politics.

It was an uncharacteristically traditional move for a committed feminist. "I saw Hillary as one of the brightest hopes in the women's movement," said Betsey right, cofounder of the National Women's Education Fund, who met her in the early 1970s. "I thought it would be a great loss for her to leave the national scene and come to Arkansas." These days Hillary Clinton works for a prestigious law firm in Little Rock, mostly handling women's issues. She gave up her maiden name in 1980 to appease those among her husband's constituents who disliked her independence. In recent years she has also carved out a sizable public role for herself, serving on the board of directors of the Children's Defense Fund, a national lobbying organization, as well as on the boards of several corporations. A 1988 survey by the National Law Journal named her one of the 100 most powerful lawyers in the country—one of only four women to make the list.

In 1976 Clinton won the race for Attorney General in Arkansas, and two years later, at 32, he was elected Governor, making him the youngest chief executive of any state in the nation. Turned out of office in 1980, he has subsequently won election four times by comfortable margins. As Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn has observed, "Bill Clinton has been a boy wonder in three different decades."

It was during his tenure in Little Rock that rumors of Clinton's womanizing began to circulate. As he began his presidential campaign this fall, Clinton tried to preempt the issue. At a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington last September, he and Hillary conceded that their marriage had not been perfect but that they had worked things out. The whispering might have stayed in the background had it not been for a lawsuit filed in 1990 by Larry Nichols, a former Arkansas state employee who had been fired for running up nearly $1,400 in personal phone charges to Nicaraguan contra leaders on the state's bill. In a wrongful-dismissal suit, Nichols accused Clinton of conducting affairs with several women, including Flowers. When she found out that Nichols was also spreading the allegations around Little Rock, Flowers, then working as a singer al local clubs, vehemently denied them. But when she was recently confronted by Star reporters, who told her the accusations would run with or without her cooperation, she agreed to sell the story to the magazine.

For Flowers, the sudden attention is, in an ironic the larger stage she has always wanted. In 1968, after graduating from high school in Brinkley, Ark., she moved to Little Rock and landed a brief job working as a reporter for a local television station, KARK. Her real goal, though, was to become a successful singer. Although she has some talent, she didn't seem able to break out of the Little Rock lounge circuit, which she evidently found frustrating. "I guess you could call her ambitious," says Gary Pharis, a drummer who often played with flowers in recent years. "She was always trying to play the celebrity singer kind of thing."

To that end, Flowers apparently padded her résumé. For instance, she repeatedly told people that she had been on the television program Hee Haw and had been an opening act for country singer Roy Clark, which both deny. Yet an ex-boyfriend, Finis Shelnutt, 40, a Little Rock stockbroker who dated Flowers from late 1989 until a few months ago, maintains that behind the flashy clothes and hair she is a fairly simple soul. "She comes across, I guess because of her appearance, as more of a showbiz-type person," he says. "But she's really not that way. She's really a down-to-earth, low-key person." Shelnult, who is divorced, says, "She was kind to me, and my two daughters adored her. My little one likes Barbies, and she always thought that Gennifer looked like a Barbie."

His promising relationship with Flowers was sabotaged, says Shelnutt, when leaflets alleging Clinton's affairs with her and several other women began appearing around Little Rock shortly before the 1990 gubernatorial election. The source of those leaflets was never determined. "They were putting them on people's windshields," says Shelnutt. "[Soon after], my feelings for her went downhill." At least three of Flowers's friends and colleagues insist, without offering proof, that she shared with them the secret of her alleged affair with Clinton, but one friend says she gave no hint at all. Flowers maintains that soon after Larry Nichols filed suit, she started recording her conversations with Clinton to protect herself. It didn't help: She lost her job on Jan. 29 for not reporting to work, according to her boss.

Thus, Clinton's presidential aspirations may well hinge on how people choose to interpret some ambiguous banter captured on audiocassette. The candidate now seems clearly philosophical about his fate, win or lose. "I've been sort of at peace with myself in all this whirlwind," he says. "The worst that could happen to me is that I'd go home to my friends and my family and my wife and my work."


From Our Partners