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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