By Tim Appelo
March 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton

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If you want to get a sense of what the President is really like, as opposed to what defensive partisans and rabid right-wing character assassins want him to be, check out First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton, by David Maraniss, the reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Washington Post dispatches on the 1992 presidential campaign. Seemingly evenhanded, Maraniss gives you the grand tour of his subject’s life right up to (but not beyond) the day he announced his presidential candidacy. Not astonishingly, Clinton comes across as a compulsively people-pleasing achiever, apt to bring the teacher an apple if he didn’t weaken and gobble it first on the way to school, core and all. Clinton’s appetites are large.

A few mysteries do get cleared up. Clinton was not lying when he claimed he ”didn’t inhale” at Oxford in 1969 — he was trying to smoke hashish rolled into a cigarette but failed miserably. ”We spent enormous amounts of time trying to teach him to inhale,” testifies classmate Sara Maitland. ”He absolutely could not inhale.” Republicans who charge Clinton with having been an antiwar radical are lying, Maraniss asserts. He was at least as moderate as his fellow Vietnam protesters in England, namely Oliver North’s future top assistant Robert Earl and George Bush’s future top adviser Michael Boskin.

Clinton lied about his draft status, but Maraniss’ story doesn’t make him look reprehensible. His alleged betrayals of allies as governor appear inept but understandable in their political context. And if he didn’t deliver on his promise to remake Arkansas education, consider that this was a state where teachers qualified for food stamps and were said to give lectures concerning ”World War Eleven.” (Roman numerals were Greek to them.)

Is Clinton a philanderer? Maraniss cites Clinton staffer Betsey Wright as saying he was, but the book is long on maybes and disappointingly short on specifics. The most titillating episode concerns his alleged premarital affair, during his first congressional election, with a college-student volunteer who had to be shooed out the back door of campaign headquarters whenever Hillary came in the front. But Maraniss makes the Clintons’ marriage sound solid, its noisy spats reminiscent of Father William in the Lewis Carroll poem: ”’In my youth,’ said his father, ‘I took to the law,/And argued each case with my wife;/And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw/Has lasted the rest of my life.”’

The Clintons are still at it, and this remarkably detailed book gives an inkling of what it might be like to be in on their debates. A-

First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton

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