Bill Clinton: Childhood, Education & Rhodes Scholarship

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

How did Bill Clinton become such an inspirational, dynamic presence in politics? In this lesson, learn about how his family and school life shaped his political ambitions and leadership.

Bill Clinton: The Rise of a Charismatic Leader

By knowing the experiences that mold charismatic people, you can learn something about what makes them so influential. You often find that the best leaders had to overcome both private and professional hurdles before reaching their pinnacles. Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, is a prime example of a leader whose personal background helped to make him successful.

William Jefferson Clinton

Childhood Experiences

On August 19, 1946, Virginia Cassidy gave birth to her son, William 'Bill' Jefferson Blythe III in Hope, Arkansas, a small town with a population of about 8,000 people. His father, William Jefferson Blythe II, was a traveling salesman who died in a car crash three months before his son's birth. Bill was raised in the home of his grandparents, Edith and Eldridge Cassidy, while his mother attended nursing classes in New Orleans so she could provide for her son. His grandmother was a firm disciplinarian who encouraged Bill to become an avid reader. Likewise, his mother fostered his academic interests at an early age, declaring he would one day grow up to be President of the United States.

By 1950, Virginia returned to Hope with her nursing degree, and months later, she wed Roger Clinton, an automobile dealer from Hot Springs, Arkansas. Soon, the family relocated to Hot Springs, a bustling resort town an hour from Hope.

In 1956, Bill's brother, Roger Clinton, Jr. was born; yet, family life began to suffer. Roger Sr. was an alcoholic who frequently abused his wife and young son. The strife of this situation had a profound effect on Bill as he entered Hot Springs High, a segregated, all-white school.

During this time, he became steadfast in his Baptist faith, walking miles to church on Sundays to hear gospel music. Although his family was not very religious, he found comfort in going to church regularly as a young man.

Education: Grade School to High School

In his early high school years, Bill took Roger Clinton's last name as a kind gesture. Nonetheless, standing 6 feet tall, he began to confront his stepfather about his abusive behavior, warning him not to strike anyone in his family again. In 1962, Roger Clinton and Virginia Cassidy divorced, but they would reunite soon thereafter.

Bill began to channel his energies toward school work and extracurricular activities. He became heavily involved in band, where he played the saxophone. He also pursued leadership roles in student government. Under the tutelage of his principal, Johnnie Mae Mackey, he focused on his leadership abilities and political ambitions, eventually being elected to Boys' State where he excelled as a positive role model.

Then, in July 1963, when he was 17 years old, Bill was chosen to attend Boys' Nation, a program sponsored by the American Legion. In a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., he met and shook hands with President John F. Kennedy. This event would change Bill Clinton's life, as he was deeply moved by this meeting. He decided right then to pursue a career in public service.

College Years

Bill Clinton began honing his political acumen early in his college career, being elected to the office of student government president his freshman and sophomore years at Georgetown University. During his junior year, he worked as a clerk for Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who served on the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. Clinton's relationship with the senator was important to his growth and development as a scholar. Senator Fulbright, a former Rhodes Scholar, mentored and guided Clinton, helping him to cultivate his political dreams.

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