WASHINGTON -- Those closest to President Clinton took pains to mark the life, not the death, of Virginia Kelley yesterday, but the sudden loss of the president's mother underscored the personal tragedy that has shadowed the Clintons' first year in the White House.
Mrs. Kelley, who had been fighting a recurrence of breast cancer, died in her sleep early yesterday morning at her home in Hot Springs, Ark. She was 70.
Mr. Clinton learned the news some time before 2:30 a.m. from his mother's husband, Richard Kelley, White House officials said. The president immediately called his boyhood friend and chief of staff, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty.
The White House dispatched Vice President Al Gore to Milwaukee in the president's place to deliver an address outlining Mr. Clinton's goals for his European trip next week, which will take place as scheduled. While the vice president was speaking, Mr. Clinton walked slowly from the White House to Marine One for his trip home to Arkansas -- and the funeral tomorrow.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and 13-year-old Chelsea walked with him. When they arrived at the stairs leading to the helicopter bay door, Mrs. Clinton kissed her husband and hugged him tight, patting him comfortingly on the shoulder. Then he climbed aboard.
Mrs. Clinton faced the death of a parent less than a year ago herself. On March 19, just 58 days after Inauguration Day, her father, Hugh Rodham, suffered a stroke. He died April 7.
Then, on July 20, Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster, a man who had been Mrs. Clinton's mentor in their Little Rock law firm and who had served as the Clintons' family attorney, committed suicide.
"That week was just terrible," recalled White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. "We all felt badly for [the Clintons]. We feel especially bad for them now. Many of us knew Virginia and loved her. She embodied the soul of the campaign. If you stumbled, get up and get going again. Don't be bitter, but don't give up."
At a senior staff meeting yesterday morning, Mr. McLarty, who first met Mrs. Kelley in Hope, Ark., when he was 5, tried to buck up the staff by dwelling on the inspirational aspects of Mrs. Kelley's life.
Mrs. Kelley's first husband -- William Jefferson Blythe, the president's father -- was killed in a car wreck four months before the future president was born. Faced with raising her son alone, his mother went back to nursing school in New Orleans for more than two years, leaving her baby in the care of his grandparents and coming up to Hope on weekends to see him.
Twice more in her life, Mrs. Kelley would attend a husband's funeral. One of those men, Roger Clinton, would struggle with alcohol abuse. Their son, the president's half-brother, would struggle with drug addiction -- and with prison.
She herself, late in life, was forced to fight one last battle, this one with cancer.
"I have this knack of putting bad things in the back of my head. Forget about them," she once said when asked about her travails. "I just get up every day and figure out how I can make it the best day of my life."
On the face of it, Mrs. Kelley and her oldest son seemed so different.
She loved the good life, a stiff drink and the racetrack, where she bet enthusiastically on the horses. And yet, friends say, Mr. Clinton shared her fierce determination to overcome any obstacle while remaining chipper and upbeat.
"The president likes to say he's a 'congenital optimist,' " said Ms. Myers. "Well, he comes by it honestly -- his mother was just the same way."
The lessons of his mother's life seemed never far from Mr. Clinton's mind, and he didn't hesitate to draw on them publicly.
At the most precarious time of his 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton was in New Hampshire, fighting a sinus infection and fierce winter cold while allegations of draft dodging and womanizing were breaking all around him.
At a trade school in Stratham, one of the students asked Mr.
Clinton who his "hero and heroine" were. For his hero, he named Abraham Lincoln; for his heroine, he paused and said, "My
mother. . . ."
"Many of you don't know this," the candidate continued, "but my father died before I was born. And my mother decided that with the skills she had, she couldn't give me the opportunities she wanted me to have. So she went back to school, to get more training -- just like you are doing now!"
The room got suddenly silent, the only sound being the quiet crying of two single mothers in the audience.
'He deserved the best'
Later, when asked about this, Mrs. Kelley said simply: "He deserved the best. I wanted to be able to give him the best."
Mrs. Kelley was born Virginia Cassidy in Bodcaw, Ark., a small community about 12 miles from Hope. Her parents ran a grocery in Hope.
After high school, she went to nursing school in Shreveport, La., where she met and married Mr. Blythe, a salesman, who left for Germany to fight in World War II shortly after their 1943 wedding. He died in 1946.
Four years later, the widow married Roger Clinton, a car dealer from Hot Springs who died of cancer in 1967. Her third husband, Jeff Dwire, died of complications from diabetes after about six years of marriage.
In 1982, she married Mr. Kelley, a retired food broker. They lived in a small lakeside home in Hot Springs, where the president visited the week after Christmas.
After spending Christmas with the Clintons at the White House, she went had gone to Las Vegas with her husband to attend Barbra Streisand's New Year's Eve concert.
On Tuesday night, Mrs. Kelley watched her beloved Arkansas Razorbacks play basketball on television and then retired to her bed.
"Mr. Kelley went in to check on her and realized that something terrible had happened," Clay Farrar, Mr. Kelley's son-in-law, said. "He tried to rouse her, realized he had a bad situation and called 911."
"Apparently, she went peacefully," said Ms. Myers. "In a way, she did it like she did everything else: kind of on her own terms."