Bill Clinton was born on August 19, 1946, in Hope, Arkansas; he was the first U.S. president born after World War II. Growing up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Clinton was a Boy Scout and sang in his church choir. When he was in high school, Clinton met then president John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1963 and decided he also wanted to work in the Oval Office one day.
In 1968, Clinton graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., before accepting an important international scholarship called the Rhodes scholarship to study at England’s University of Oxford. (Clinton is the only Rhodes scholar who was also president.) He returned to the United States to earn a law degree at Yale University, graduating in 1973. He met his future wife, Hillary Rodham, while the two of them were law students together.
FROM LAW TO POLITICS
After law school, Clinton taught law at the University of Arkansas for a few years before deciding to run for elected office. When he was just 30 years old, he was elected to be the Arkansas attorney general, which is the head lawyer for the state. By 1978, at age 32, he had become the nation’s youngest governor. Although unseated in the 1980 election (at the time, the Arkansas governor served for two years instead of four), Clinton became known as the “Comeback Kid” after he regained his post in 1982. He went on to serve four more terms as governor of Arkansas.
By 1991, Clinton decided he was ready to run for president. As a candidate, he portrayed himself as a moderate “New Democrat” who was more in touch with regular Americans than his wealthy Republican opponent, George H.W. Bush. He promised to deliver changes that the middle class wanted, such as higher taxes for the rich and stricter crime laws.
In 1992, the 46-year-old Clinton and his vice-presidential nominee, Tennessee senator Al Gore, 44, became the youngest national ticket ever elected. They were the first all-Southerner pair to serve as president and vice president since the Jackson administration of 1828. (Like Gore, Andrew Jackson was also from Tennessee; his vice president was from South Carolina.)
FIXING THE ECONOMY
After defeating Bush for the presidency, Clinton’s first major problem to tackle was the country’s economy. The nation had gone through an economic crisis during Bush’s presidency. The country owed a lot of money to other countries, and many people could not find jobs.
To improve the economy, Clinton needed to cut the country’s deficit, which is what the United States has when it spends more than it makes in one year. When it has a deficit, the country must borrow money to pay for programs like education and the military. All the borrowed money is called the overall debt. Each year’s deficit is added to the overall debt.
Clinton raised taxes on the rich, which meant those people paid more money to the government. He also cut programs, which meant the government saved money. Now the government was bringing in more money while at the same time as spending less money. For the first time since Lyndon Johnson was president in the 1960s, the U.S. government did not have a deficit. In fact, it even made money from 1998 to 2001. This is called having a surplus. Besides having a surplus, Clinton also paid off part of the overall national debt.
MORE PRESIDENTIAL SUCCESSES
In addition to balancing the federal budget, Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law, making it easier for the United States, Canada, and Mexico to conduct trade with each other. As his presidency progressed, he worked to improve relations with Russia following the Cold War, a long period of tensions between the country, formerly called the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Clinton’s cabinet was one of the most diverse in U.S. history. During his time in office, women made up 44 percent of Clinton administration appointees. Those included Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno, the first women to ever serve in those positions. Clinton also appointed the first Asian American to serve in a cabinet, Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta. He appointed more African Americans to federal judgeships than were appointed during the last 16 years combined. In fact, 14 percent of all Clinton administration appointees were African American—twice as many as in any previous administration. Clinton also appointed more Hispanic judicial nominees than any president before him.
Clinton’s presidency was often challenged. As a supporter of gay rights, the president wanted to end the ban of gays in the military. Congress made him compromise with a policy called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Gay people could be in the military, but they couldn’t say they were gay, and no one could ask them if they were. Many people on both sides weren’t happy with the solution. (The policy was repealed, or ended, in 2010 during Barack Obama’s presidency.)
In 1993, Clinton picked First Lady Hillary Clinton to lead a health-care task force. The group developed a bill meant to improve health-care access for people living in the United States and wanted Congress to pass it into law. But lawmakers who didn’t like the health-care bill focused on the first lady’s involvement, calling the bill “Hillarycare” and saying she had overstepped her role. The bill didn’t pass.
Many people believe that people’s anger over the failed health-care bill caused people to vote out Democrats and vote in Republicans. During Clinton’s first term, Republicans gained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in 40 years, forcing the Clinton administration to battle with members of Congress over how to manage issues such as the budget, taxes, and trade. Still, Clinton easily won re-election in 1996, defeating former senator Bob Dole.
Throughout his presidency, Clinton and his wife were investigated for a failed business deal that happened while he was governor. An independent prosecutor (meaning, a lawyer who had no ties to Republicans or Democrats) named Kenneth Starr led the investigation, called the Whitewater investigation. His team interviewed many people to find out what happened. During those interviews, he discovered that the president might have had an inappropriate relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
That was not illegal. But in 1998, Starr accused Clinton of lying under oath and using illegal means to cover up the relationship. The House of Representatives considered Starr’s charges and voted to impeach Clinton, or recommend that he be tried by the Senate and removed from office. Senate Democrats and some Republicans rejected the House charges during Clinton’s 1999 trial and he was acquitted, or forgiven, of the charges. He became the second president, after Andrew Johnson, to be impeached and tried by Congress.
Despite the impeachment, Clinton’s approval rating among the public remained high. He lived up to his image as the “Comeback Kid” during a second term that was challenged by personal scandal.
After leaving the White House in 2001, Clinton moved to New York, where his wife, Hillary Clinton, was serving as a member of the U.S. Senate. In the years following, he spent much of his time supporting her political goals. Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully ran for president in 2008 and 2016 and served as secretary of state for President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013.
In retirement, Clinton formed the Clinton Foundation, a charity that aimed to bring government, businesses, and social groups together to tackle problems like global health, climate change, and unequal treatment of women worldwide. Clinton also teamed up with former president and onetime political rival George H.W. Bush to raise funds for disaster relief after a major earthquake devastated the island of Haiti in 2010.
Historians have applauded Clinton for being a smart president, but his legacy has been overshadowed by his in-office scandals. He’ll likely be most remembered for helping the country’s economy recover during the 1990s, as well as for his impeachment during his second term.
- Clinton’s favorite catchphrase as a kid was “Hot dog!”
- In high school, Clinton played the saxophone in a jazz trio called Three Blind Mice.
- When Clinton eats an apple, he eats the whole thing—core, seeds, and stem. (His favorite college professor insisted the minerals were in the core.)
From the Nat Geo Kids book Our Country's Presidents by Ann Bausum, revised for digital by Avery Hurt