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HE WAS BORN TO RUN The consummate politician, Clinton always defied limits

LITTLE ROCK, ARK — LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- He was born without a father or a family fortune, in a town where modest expectations were good enough for most boys.

But growing up in Hope and later in Hot Springs, Bill Clinton never recognized the limits that circumscribed the lives of others. From an early age, he was fired by ambition and a larger sense of himself.

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Biographers seeking to identify the time he started on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination tonight might settle on 1962. That's when he met President Kennedy, as a 16-year-old delegate to the Boys Nation leadership program.

"When he came back from Washington and showed me the picture of his shaking the hand of John Kennedy and I saw the expression on his face, I knew that politics, government, would be his career," says his mother and first fan, Virginia Kelley.

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It has been an impressive career: elected state attorney general in 1976, governor in 1978. He has lost only two races, and at the age of 45 he has been governor for 11 years.

And yet, even as he prepares for a triumphal entry into Madison Square Garden tomorrow, Mr. Clinton's prospects for the White House are clouded by questions about his character. Allegations of marital infidelity and draft dodging and general evasiveness have made him suspect in the eyes of many s voters.

Critics who have labeled him "Slick Willie" and "pander bear" see in him an inclination to shade the truth and an excessive desire to please everybody.

But Mr. Clinton says he should be judged by the fuller picture people have of him in Arkansas. Scores of journalists have tried ++ to do that, exhaustively investigating his background and political record.

So far, they have turned up nothing more damaging than the accusations he has already encountered during the campaign, and much that commends him. Which doesn't surprise his mother, who is always ready to set voters straight about her son.

Growing Up

Mrs. Kelley often greets interviewers while wearing "Bill Clinton for President" earrings. Her house on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, which she shares with her fourth husband (she was widowed three times), is decorated with photographs chronicling Clinton's childhood and career. Outside, there's a doghouse painted with the words, "Bill Clinton for Governor."

"I'm going to tell you this right now, so you won't forget it," she says after getting a visitor a glass of water. "You're going to find there's not a more honest, compassionate man alive than Bill Clinton."

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Mrs. Kelley's defensiveness about her son owes something to his defense of her as a youth. Her husband and his father, William Jefferson Blythe 3rd, a traveling salesman, died in a car accident four months before Mr. Clinton was born on Aug. 19, 1946, in Hope, Ark. The baby was named William Jefferson Blythe 4th.

Four years later, she married Roger Clinton, a car dealer who moved the family to Hot Springs. He abused alcohol and his wife, forcing young Bill to play peacemaker and protector. Though they divorced, the couple later remarried. Bill, who took his stepfather's last name, also reconciled with him, visiting him regularly when his stepfather was dying of cancer.

Forgive and forget the bad is a family trait, Mrs. Kelley suggests. For his part, Mr. Clinton believes that the experience with his stepfather helped shape his political personality.

"I learned to be a peacemaker in my home, both forcibly and in non-forcible ways," he told an interviewer on MTV. "The good news is that I'm always trying to make things better. But the bad news is sometimes I try too hard to make peace when you just have to cut it and recognize that conflict is inevitable."

Mr. Clinton says his experiences with an alcoholic stepfather made him older than his years. That's how he struck Virgil Spurlin, who was his band director at Hot Springs High School. "To me he acted like an adult."

He stood out academically and in music. He mastered the tenor saxophone, became a leader in school clubs. Judging by the numerous inscriptions in his 1964 high school yearbook, which his mother proudly shows to visitors, he had many admiring friends.

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There was hardly anything Mr. Clinton didn't excel at in school, except sports -- though tall, he was inclined to pudginess, his mother says. No one who has watched his weight shoot up on the campaign trail is surprised by that.

His drama teacher termed him "a natural" and in his senior year cast him in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Preparing for Politics

With graduation approaching at Hot Springs High, Mr. Clinton decided that his growing interest in public service would best be served at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He was accepted and quickly made a mark there.

According to one oft-told story, he read 300 books one year. He won a Rhodes Scholarship and went to Oxford University in England to study. Later he received a law degree from Yale University.

While studying in England in 1969, Mr. Clinton wrote a revealing letter about his values and future to an Army officer overseeing the Reserve Officers Training Corps program in Arkansas. When the letter publicly surfaced last February, it triggered a storm of questions about whether Mr. Clinton had deceived the officer to avoid the draft.

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In the letter, he thanks Col. Eugene Holmes for "saving me from the draft" and apologizes for misleading him about his anti-war feelings. Apparently unaware of Mr. Clinton's feelings, Colonel Holmes had had him removed from draft eligibility on the promise that he would enroll in the University of Arkansas Law School and join the ROTC. But Mr. Clinton never did so.

Mr. Clinton's promise to join the program kept him out of the

draft during a time when he would have been likeliest to be called.

Eventually, when Mr. Clinton told Colonel Holmes that he wouldn't attend the Arkansas law school, he was reclassified and made eligible. But soon after, President Nixon instituted a draft lottery in which Mr. Clinton received a high number, 311. He was never called.

The letter and the colonel's comments this year that Mr. Clinton "was able to manipulate things so that he didn't have to go in" overwhelmed Mr. Clinton's fumbling explanation that he didn't do anything dishonest.

Coming on the heels of allegations of an affair with singer Gennifer Flowers, which Mr. Clinton had denied, the draft controversy deepened doubts about his integrity.

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But the letter to Colonel Holmes, written after Mr. Clinton had been reclassified eligible for the draft, also shows much about Mr. Clinton at a pivotal point in his life.

On the one hand, he was helping organize demonstrations against a war he "despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America." But he was also thinking about a career in politics. Pragmatism won out.

He told Colonel Holmes that he didn't become a draft resister, the ultimate act of opposition, in order "to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress."

The Record

To a significant degree, Mr. Clinton has followed the vision he outlined for himself. After a false start -- a close, but unsuccessful campaign against a veteran Republican congressman -- he was elected state attorney general. For two years he made a name as a consumer advocate, then ran for governor at the age of 32 and won.

Heady with success, he launched a reform-oriented administration that may have been a step ahead of the electorate. He tried to finance road-building programs by raising license-plate fees, which antagonized voters, and came under fire when Cuban refugees housed by the federal government at Fort Chaffee, Ark., rebelled.

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Nor did it help that his independent-minded wife, Hillary, who wasn't from Arkansas, didn't use his last name.

His two-year term ended in 1980 in a stunning re-election defeat. But in 1982, he was elected again, after apologizing to voters on television for past failings and signaling a more conservative approach.

"I think he learned a real lesson both in terms of compassion and political maturity in that process," says Mahlon A. Martin, who was Mr. Clinton's chief budget officer for several years and was the first black to hold that job. He now heads the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in Little Rock.

Mr. Clinton has been governor ever since. More cautious than he was in his first term, he nevertheless has fought repeated battles for education reform, which belies criticism from primary-campaign opponents that he doesn't stand up to special interests.

But the record isn't so clear when it comes to his "Slick Willie" image, which formed in Arkansas.

Part of Mr. Clinton's problem is characteristic of many politicians. "He's been a clever lawyer; he gives you a lawyer's answer on everything," says Ernie Dumas, a longtime Arkansas journalist.

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More bothersome is Mr. Clinton's "great need to please people," Mr. Dumas says. "His impulse is to settle things. He doesn't want to upset people, especially face to face."

Sometimes after meeting with the governor, people leave thinking that his sympathetic and conciliatory comments signify support, only to find out later that that wasn't the case. They feel deceived. "I've been in a couple of meetings where it happened," Mr. Martin says.

Friends say this characteristic may take Pollyannish form. Says John Miller, a Clinton ally in the state legislature: "I want to do good for everybody. And Bill Clinton is a person who sees good in almost anything that comes down the pike."

But in sizing up the man as a whole, there are few critics who damn him. Mr. Dumas, who has criticized Mr. Clinton often in print, says, "I don't think he has great character flaws. I think he's just a politician."


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