Clinton, Newsom and their fathers


On Monday I found myself standing on a chair, peering over the baying pack of television crews to see Bill Clinton endorse Gavin Newsom for governor of California. For some odd reason (the PR handlers explained it to me, but it was too stupid to reproduce here) they chose the space between shelves in the library of a community college in Los Angeles for the occasion. My cheek was pressed into the sign 808.8, which seems to be children’s literature in the Dewey Decimal system. Go figure.

I have met Newsom several times before, and have experienced Clinton twice at conferences (TED and Google’s Zeitgeist). As I was observing these two men, I could not help but think of their fathers, as I will explain in a minute.

First, though, the reason my thoughts went that way: their (arguably endearing) vanity.

Bill Clinton, who was allegedly there to endorse (ie, make look good) Newsom, spoke for 22 minutes, mainly about green technology and so forth, before letting Newsom get in about 11 minutes of thanking and campaigning. This is par for the course. I remember somebody asking Clinton a purely rhetorical question at Zeitgeist, and Clinton dissecting the question into three parts, then delivering an exegesis worthy of a State of the Union on each. The man, God bless him, cannot help himself. He must hold forth.

So does Newsom. He admires Clinton and spent a good part of my first conversation with him, three years ago, talking about the political and rhetorical lessons he has drawn from Clinton.

Here is how that meeting, with my editor and myself and Newsom at a San Francisco cafe, went: Newsom came in and started talking about baseball. Realizing that neither my editor nor I seemed to have a clue about that sport, he switched effortlessly to … cricket. (The EconomistBrits…) Seeing that we knew nothing about that sport either and were geeky, wonky boffins, Newsom made another seamless transition and settled into … geeky, wonky politics arcana. He seemed liberated, as were we.

His eyes, I remember noticing, had bright circles of brown, yellow and green. He blushes very easily (as Clinton does). When there are women in the room, as there were when I met Newsom again a few months ago at the offices of Twitter, he preens very self-consciously, as if we were all at a high-school prom. The women notice this and like it.

In any case, both are very gifted and intelligent. Newsom, like many dyslexic people, has learned to overcompensate for his reading difficulties with other mental disciplines and is quick on his proverbial feet. He oozes Clintonian charm.

Their fathers made them

On to their fathers. Some of you may recall that, as part of my book research, I have been pondering the role of parents in the early stages of a young man’s (or woman’s) personality development. Obama and McCain both defined themselves against the (mostly abstract) idea of their fathers. Doug Wead, a presidential historian, has even put forth various theses that absenteeism by fathers somehow makes their sons more presidential.

Well, that’s what I was pondering as the 808.8 was jabbing into my cheek.

Clinton never knew his father, who died before Clinton was born. Clinton instead took the name of his stepfather, whom he recalls as an abusive drunk.

Newsom’s father separated from, and then divorced, Gavin’s mother when Gavin was a boy. His father was around, but the roles were apparently strained.

The quack psychologist in me would hypothesize that these father gaps left both men chronically insecure, permanently eager to win over and impress other people and to stay in their favor. In short, their fathers made them politicians.

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28 thoughts on “Clinton, Newsom and their fathers

  1. You eyes must have been deceiving you. 808.8?

    Your cheek (and in this case, I am sure it was the cheek below your belt) must have been pressed against 813.52 where you would find a copy of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat.


  2. My first thought after reading your piece was that it won’t likely find its way into the Economist.

    The more’s the pity, for it was the very opposite of the blandness (and dare I say, triteness?) which permeates some (but not all, I hasten to add!!) of the Economist’s erudite and worthy pages.

    My second thought was that nearly all which you said about Clinton and Newsom, might apply equally to Obama, who hardly knew his father, and who is – if I’m to believe the fulminations from those who are ever-so-slightly right of centre – vain.

    But then, you probably have to be vain to even run for president……..or governor.

    • “… it was the very opposite of the blandness (and dare I say, triteness?) which permeates some (but not all, I hasten to add!!) of the Economist’s erudite and worthy pages…”

      Isn’t that sad? I mean, that the above is true?

      I was thinking of opining on this explicitly on the HB.

  3. Thanks to insights from Canadian Senator Roméo Dallaire, I can’t say I like President Clinton.

    Now, I hope the PR handlers’ stupid reasons are fit to reproduce here in the comment. I need a laugh very much.

    • Oh, it was something about teh building right NEXT to the library being LEED certified–ie, “green”–and the library being full of people learning and bettering themselves, and so forth.

      What did this Canadian senator say?

    • In this short March 16, 2008 video I shot in Calgary, Senator Dallaire asked and talked about the following.
      “Are all humans – Humans? Or some more humans than others? The legacy of Bill Clinton’s decision.” (From the start or Time code 00:25)

      To tell you a bit about Senator Dallaire, he “served as Force Commander of UNAMIR, the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda between 1993 and 1994, and for trying to stop the genocide that was being waged by Hutu extremists against Tutsis and Hutu moderates.” (source Wikipedia)

      More videos of the March 16, 2008 Engineers Without Border Dallaire presentation can be found here,

    • My pleasure, I hope you enjoy the videos Andreas.

      To be fair to President Clinton, he has done many good since he left the White House. But it is dangerous for us to forget and ignore his mistakes during his presidency and his indirect responsibility in the Rwanda genocide.

      P.S. During the Rwanda genocide, General Dallaire did what he could to save as many people as he could. If my memory serves me, I think the Canadian government, like other world powers, could have done more but didn’t. And as citizens of these “world powers”, we collectively failed the people of Rwanda. And we let another genocide happened under our watch.

      Sorry for getting into some heavy stuff.

    • As it happens, I saw Clinton at the TED conference, where he was one of three people to receive the “TED prize” that year. the other two were E.O. Wilson and James Nachtwey, the photographer. Nachtwey had gone to Ruanda, among other hells, and documented the genocide. He gave his talk as Clinton, who was up next, sat right in front of him:

    • Thanks for sharing this James Nachtwey talk that I missed somehow. I watched E.O. Wilson’s and Clinton’s talks that year but I missed Nachtwey’s. I wonder what Clinton was thinking when Nachtwey talked about the Rwanda genocide.

      P.S. Incidentally E.O. Wilson was an insightful guest on Charlie Rose but Wilson’s TED talk, unfortunately, did not showcase his interests and insights (to be blunt, boring). He was a totally different man when chatting with Charlie Rose.

  4. Your comment on fathers reminds me of a job interview with an insurance exec who asked me questions about my childhood and about my parents – as if his psychotherapeutic method would provide an insight to my psyche, character, moral code, etc. I was at first shocked and then amused on how this “sidewalk psychologist” made inferences about me based on my comments about my parents. This approach is a stretch to think that leaders or anyone for that matter are defined by the presence or the lack or presence of a father, maternal, biological or otherwise. Let’s recognize people for who they are rather than how the lack of their fathers (or mothers) may have influenced them.

    • Well, I sympathize and would find that interviewer annoying as well. But parents do influence people, so I’m permitting myself to muse on the subject on my little personal blog….

  5. I don’t know if the lack of a father changes a child so significantly. It might just as well be that their mothers were poor role models. Usually, when parents get divorced it says a lot about them: immature, unrealistic, perhaps superficial. They did not understand the ramifications of marriage. And most likely, they did not understand love. Maybe Newsom and Clinton’s mothers had such characteristics and as a result were unable to teach them how to have healthy human relationships. Or it may be genetic. In any case, the mothers might be as responsible, or even more, than the fathers for their children’s anxieties and insecurities.

  6. I feel kids who go to school are predominantly influenced by their peers rather than parents… What is the % time a kid spends with busy parents working 5 days a week ? My guess is way lesser than the time a kid spends in school, and then after-school hours with his peers. Parents contribute with their DNA, while peers contribute to a child’s personality. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to kids who are home schooled).

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