Bill Clinton's Mannerisms and Traits
December 16, 2010 8:58 AM   Subscribe

What were/are Bill Clinton's "class markers" that caused people to highlight his working class background when he was president or running for president?

I've been reading a number of articles about the U.S. working class over the last few days, and the theme of Bill Clinton appealing to working class voters (and annoying the elite) because of the working class traits and mannerisms he sometimes displayed in spite of his good education keeps popping up.

I must be missing something. I have never spent much time in the USA, but he basically presented like a "generic American" (problematic label but work with me) to me.. Can anybody fill me in on the working class traits and mannerisms that Bill Clinton displayed? Really all I can come up with is that he had some tendency to put on weight.
posted by Deep Dish to Human Relations (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't so much a "trait," but the fact that he was raised by a single mom played a role in this view.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 9:04 AM on December 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'd guess his Arkansas accent had something to do with it.
posted by something something at 9:06 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Accent, and word choice (though these are pretty voluntary, when he wants to he sounds very educated). He talks like a country boy, although he doesn't lay it on so thick that you'd immediately think that.
posted by bluejayk at 9:07 AM on December 16, 2010

His accent, his ability to accentuate his accent when it suited him, eating frequently at McDonald's, giving interviews to MTV, playing the saxophone on TV.
posted by proj at 9:08 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

The eating of McDonalds, fried chicken, potato salad, BBQ, etc. was mentioned fairly often.
posted by salvia at 9:13 AM on December 16, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - just answer the question or move on please.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:14 AM on December 16, 2010

He was a Good Ole Boy. Aw shucks and that stuff.
posted by spicynuts at 9:15 AM on December 16, 2010

Oh and I have this memory of some caricature portraying him as talking with his mouth full while wagging a half-eaten drumstick at the listener.
posted by salvia at 9:15 AM on December 16, 2010

Using the name Bill instead of William. Playing the saxophone. Appearing on David Letterman talk show (and playing the saxophone on that show). Had an embarrassing family member.

Also, I heard a joke during the Obama campaign: If Obama is elected, he wouldn't be the first black president; that was Bill Clinton.
(Here's an article)
posted by CathyG at 9:16 AM on December 16, 2010

(and annoying the elite)

Clinton didn't annoy the (national) elite because of his working class mannerisms as much as he annoyed conservatives because he could essentially "be a Democrat" and "get away with it."

Clinton did kind of annoy a lot of "DC society" because he wasn't much part of the DC dinner party crowd, but rather had a core social group of people he worked with back in Arkansas.

But the things that would identify Bill Clinton as coming from a southern middle class/working class background were: his accent, his physique (not obese but definitely "tubby"), his love for McDonald's food, and the kinds of women he was associated with (Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky).

The saxophone is sort of a classmarker among those who are concerned about those things: definitely more of a middle class/middle America sort of instrument to play (you can't picture George H. W. Bush playing the saxophone, can you?).

I think it's hard to understand a lot of this looking at it from 2010-- Bill Clinton is now definitely part and parcel of America's elite society, but when Bill Clinton ran for president almost 20 years ago, one couldn't help but wonder, "what is this guy from Arkansas doing running for president?"
posted by deanc at 9:25 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

When they had the interview (with Barbara Walters? before the election?) of Bill and Hillary together and she defended his alleged affairs by saying "I'm not all Tammy Wynette Stand by Your Man" (referring to a classic country song). That sealed it for me.
posted by cda at 9:29 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

At the time, his southern accent was seen as sort of redneck-ish. Though of course his successor's affected/phony southern accent was seen as making him a Man Of The People.

I remember Saturday Night Live making a lot of jokes about his weight and love of simple food (especially burgers and fries and the like).

I'm pretty sure the nation's obsession with his sex life has something to do with class markers, as well (it was also the era of Jerry Springer), though I can't think of any obvious proof of that.

That said, I will also say that I'm not sure the former two were really the "problem" people had with Clinton. I grew up in the deepest part of the deep south, where people are proud to talk like Clinton does, eat humble and objectively unhealthy foods, etc. And yet most of them HATED Bill Clinton with a vitriol not seen till they discovered Barack Obama. As a teenager in a "Red State", I was honestly shocked when Clinton was re-elected. It was taken as True Facts that The Great War Hero Bob Dole was going to whup him.
posted by Sara C. at 9:29 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

In his youth he had a pickup truck with Astroturf in the bed.
posted by newmoistness at 9:33 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I grew up in the deepest part of the deep south, where people are proud to talk like Clinton does, eat humble and objectively unhealthy foods, etc. And yet most of them HATED Bill Clinton with a vitriol not seen till they discovered Barack Obama.

I don't want to make this too chatfilter-y, but I think Deep Dish might be helped if we explain a bit of American class dynamics that were in play, here-- George W. Bush clearly wasn't "southern working class," but the reason he was loved was that he adopted/imitated a lot of southern "class markers," (evangelical Christianity, clearing brush, buying a pickup truck) which "showed respect" to the voters-- he was a rich, powerful person (like they wanted) willing to act like them for votes. Clinton, on the other hand, came from this background but had the audacity to become successful and run for president, which to many southern voters was considered being disrespectful, by acting like he was "better than they were." The "appropriate" class destiny for Bill Clinton was to become a Alberto Gonzales/Tom Hagen-type loyal servant to someone like George W. Bush, not someone who actually leads the opposition to Bush's faction.
posted by deanc at 9:42 AM on December 16, 2010 [17 favorites]

Being called Bubba?
posted by MuffinMan at 9:42 AM on December 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

An El Camino, even more of a marker.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:44 AM on December 16, 2010

His ability to connect with working class people.
He didnt come across as a politician making the rounds, he came across as a friend and a peer.
posted by Flood at 10:25 AM on December 16, 2010

I agree that his accent, his choice of foods (McDonalds, BBQ, etc.), and "life story" (raised by a single mother from a working class family) are all important in regards to Clinton being identified as working class.

I think two other factors were important:

1. When he ran in the 1992 election, the U.S. was in a recession, and Clinton did a much better job of connecting to voters on that issue. "It's the economy, stupid", etc.

I recall that someone asked George H.W. Bush if he knew how much a gallon of milk cost, and he had trouble coming up with that number. That helped to paint him as out of touch.

2. Clinton has a lot of charisma - which allows him to relate to pretty much anybody. Compare the wooden or awkward delivery of pretty much any politician (think Mitt Romney) and you can see that relating to people comes naturally to Clinton. In that link, there is a video of a 1992 debate where George H.W. Bush looked at his watch on stage, showing that he doesn't actually care what people are saying (or something), contrast that with Clinton's follow - intense connection with someone he didn't even know.

That may or may not make him appear "working class", but it makes him appear like he can relate to the working class, and their concerns.

(On preview, what Flood just said)
posted by baxter_ilion at 10:28 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

When they had the interview (with Barbara Walters? before the election?) of Bill and Hillary together and she defended his alleged affairs ...

The Clinton's 60 Minutes interview (1992) regarding his adultery.
posted by ericb at 10:38 AM on December 16, 2010

Deep Dish, you might like to watch the movie Primary Colors (or read the book, but I've always preferred the movie). It's not explicitly about Bill Clinton but it is pretty widely accepted to be a "Bill Clinton" character. It calls out a lot of these "working class markers" a little more starkly than you might have remembered them from the general press at the time.
posted by telegraph at 10:41 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, God yes, the HAIR on the women he allegedly had affairs with. (And Hilary, despite her "stand by your man" comment, is midwestern upper middle class all the way. Hilary had trouble from time to time when she tried to "fake it" as a Southerner. I find Hilary soothing to listen to on the radio because she sounds like The Moms of Everyone I Grew Up With. She grew up two suburbs over from where I grew up, even.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:17 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ultimately, yes, you're right, when you look at his life it doesn't come across as "working class" compared to the Americans you've read about; I would argue that this is because of another Americanism, the prevalence of branding and marketing. It's not that "people" saw certain traits and latched on to them, it's more that Clinton and his staff successfully marketed certain aspects of himself to the American populace.

Many "regular" Americans, like Bill Clinton, can "spin" their lives either direction: we've seen the it with the two presidents following him, both of whom are simultaneously criticized/lauded as regular guys and the privileged elite.

For example, Bill Clinton on MTV in itself could have come across as a lame attempt to "connect with the kids". But, he was great at marketing himself as the "type of guy" who could be asked -- and would answer -- an "unpresedential" question like "boxers or briefs?" That's a question you might not ask a "regular" guy, and you certainly wouldn't ask a president. But some "hick" on tv? Sure, why not!

Also (in addition to the great answers in this thread) I would argue that his "embarrassment" brother was a huge help -- I cynically think they could have kept him further out of the spotlight, but kept him in just enough to attach a "related to trailer trash" label to Bill Clinton. In particular, I remember stories of him peeing in public, getting in fights, and, later, having the secret service codename "headache".

(Also, I think this article in Slate may help as far as background info in getting to the heart of your question - it explains how a populist/anti-elitist bias has been on the rise in the US, and how therefore marketing oneself as a lower social class has become "necessary".)
posted by lesli212 at 11:33 AM on December 16, 2010

In the mass media, which is how we "know" national figures, calling these characteristics class markers is almost too generous, as it implies a level of nuance and discernment that's just not there. Being from Arkansas and raised by a single mom is enough, the rest of it is lazy media filling in the spaces, emphasizing what fits the narrative (physique, lack of self-discipline) and downplaying what doesn't (Yale Law/Oxford/university professor).

Not saying he doesn't come from good ol' boy roots, but "class markers" exist more in the realm of interpersonal relations, imo, not in the collective media-driven culture.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:44 AM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Bear in mind the competition in the 1992 presidential. Clinton was running against George H. W. Bush, who was the current president, former vice president, member of Congress, director of intelligence, ambassador, son of a former senator, etc. This is not at all to slam GHWB (and GHWB did not do himself many favors in trying to look like an average American) but just to point out that in comparison, the son of a single mother from Arkansas (despite having gone to Yale and Harvard Law and having been a Rhodes Scholar) could easily claim the mantle of blue collar, working class type. Also, the country was in a recession so there was as much a need for someone who could get us out of a mess as there was someone who could tell you with some credibility that it was all going to be okay and by that point, GHWB had lost his credibility ("read my lips: no new taxes").

And as someone else pointed out above, he is incredibly charismatic. He can adapt easily to different situations - some consider this a sign of him being inauthentic but that's how he is. He can sweet-talk the steel workers just as easily as the business community (and that's one thing about him that drove the Republicans nuts). I remember hearing some story about him being invited to speak to a group of cancer surgeons. As far as I know, he is not an expert on cancer surgery, but he gave an amazing speech that had some people in tears. That's just how he rolls.
posted by kat518 at 11:57 AM on December 16, 2010

Yeah, Arkansas, family, food, accent, all play a role. A big part of this is who he was running against in 1992, also.

You should in any case ignore your general impressions of American society and instead focus on the major party nominees of the previous forty years or so. Compare his demeanor to Mondale, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Reagan, Carter, Bush, etc. There was a certain presidentialness standard that Clinton's team deliberately played against.
posted by SMPA at 12:03 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Appearing on David Letterman talk show (and playing the saxophone on that show).

It wasn't Letterman, it was Arsenio Hall. The correction is relevant because I doubt highly that it was an accident he did it on Arsenio's show and not, say, Leno.
posted by Justinian at 12:26 PM on December 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

To all this, I would add his command of Evangelical, particularly Southern Baptist, rhetorical styles. Watch video of him speaking to a church group- he has a lot of the techniques down. This played very well both with White, conservative Christian audiences and Southern Black audiences. One of the reasons the Republicans attacked his personal life to such a degree was to alienate both these audiences from him.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:48 PM on December 16, 2010

You can also contrast him with other politicians - think John Edwards with his $400 haircuts even though he was trying to appeal to the same sensibility. He is kind of a pretty boy, while Clinton doesn't come across as caring about such things.

I had a hunch that John Kerry would not win the election when he had the following exchange with Jon Stewart:
JON STEWART: One final question 'cause I really do wanna know this. And, again, you-- you don't have to answer it if-- if you don't want to, if it's too personal. Is it true that every time I use ketchup your wife gets a nickel? (LAUGHTER) Tell me the truth! I want the truth!
JOHN KERRY: Would that it were. Would that it were. But use the ketchup a lot anyway.

The words "would that it were" stuck out to me at the time - and I found the quote by googling them. He just sounds so pompous! Clinton would never say it that way. He speaks much plainer.
posted by valeries at 12:57 PM on December 16, 2010

One look at his mother made it absolutely clear he was middle-America. (Not making fun or criticizing- but she was the lady who hung out at the diner, not at the church.)

I disagree that it was marketing. I honestly think he IS the poor white boy from the south who could grow up to be president if he worked hard enough. Same with Obama. Brilliant people who had to work hard from the beginning to overcome the lack of resources they were born into.

It also seemed pretty clear to me that he was driving the bus regarding his political career- he hired people to help him with what he wanted to do. He was ambitious about the goal, rather than about the title. There are a lot of other politicians that give the appearance of hiring people to get him elected.

(To use a crime-heist analogy: he wants to break in to Fort Knox. He has a plan and hires legmen to help him with it. The other kind says "I want to break into Fort Knox" and hires guys to figure out how to do it.)

As others have said, his language is simple. But not dumbed down- he almost never condescended to anyone. He never used language that he wasn't comfortable with. He also looked like the kind of guy who would yell at you if you pissed him off. People respect that a lot more than the weird, tightly wound, "what do I have to do to get you to vote for me today" smiling politician.

And yes, a lot of the South HATED him. Mostly because of Hillary, and her Tammy Wynette comment didn't help matters any.
posted by gjc at 6:23 PM on December 16, 2010

As a specific example of Clinton's "down home" linguistic quirks that were picked apart by the "elites", I remember reading an entire article in a major mainstream media publication about his usage of the ungrammatical phrase "believe you me". (Maybe it was William Safire in the New York Times?)
posted by Asparagirl at 7:46 PM on December 16, 2010

Having a sense of humor and a twinkly smile, rather than being dry and wooden.

Though he now has a pretty impeccably tailored wardrobe, and looks like a movie star version of an elder statesman, back when he was president, he used to go jogging in baggy, ill-fitting T-shirts and shorts.

And the accent.
posted by Ellemeno at 2:09 PM on December 17, 2010

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