Huckleberry Finn and Bill Clinton had imperfect fathers. In the literature on such circumstances, the offspring are often said to become overachievers.
"Children of alcoholics often are pleasers," says Betty Glad, presidential scholar at the University of South Carolina. "They try to harmonize tension in the family, to bring father and mother together. They procrastinate because they are trying to please so many sides. Bill Clinton is a wonderful politician and a terrible administrator, someone who has a hard time making up his mind."
Ronald Reagan also had a troubled father, Glad notes. "But it's not enough to have a failed father; you have to have a competent mother," says Glad. For Clinton and Reagan, the mother picked up the pieces and went forward. "At one point Clinton did stand up to his father and said, 'You're not going to do that any more,'" Glad says.
Michael Rogin, University of California at Berkeley political scientist, observes that while both Reagan and Clinton showed a need to get along with everyone, "Reagan became a transforming figure, Clinton the opposite." Invited to compare Clinton and the fictional character Huck Finn, who runs away from an abusive father for the great raft journey down the Mississippi with the black runaway slave Jim, Rogin says: "Huck Finn develops an independent conscience. Huck Finn finds a place to stand. Clinton hasn't a place to stand."
This past week Random House published a new edition of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which includes variations found in the recently discovered handwritten manuscript. Over the eight years of its writing, the book changed: "It grew to have more emphasis on Jim's strong yearning for liberation and on Huck's gradually evolving moral integrity and his loyalty to Jim, in the face of the prevailing, socially constructed prejudices," the new edition's editor says.
Twain's social criticism can still be hard to take. But "Huck Finn" remains an American classic, implying continuing relevance. Huck eventually rejects his paternal "trash" style and, self-transformed, apologizes to Jim for indignities he'd inflicted.
For Twain the raft ride down the Mississippi (Jim proposed the raft to Huck's idea of a canoe) was a way to slice through America's psyche. It showed a sorry society, albeit rich in commerce and exhilarating.
The presidency is the Mississippi of American life today. It is the central artery of our social, political, and economic values.
Republican Bob Dole says he will campaign against Clinton on "character." References to "flip-flops" and "war record" play on observed Clinton traits. Clinton's current disciplined "presidential" mode, his better use of surrogates, may help him on the character front. But this is tactical, not transformational.
The low in Clinton's public standing came with his June 3, 1993 withdrawal of Lani Guinier, a minority woman lawyer, as his nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights. What did that say?
I see Clinton as learning from experience.
We have a dream in America of perfection one day. Failing, we get up and move toward the promise. We shift from coast to coast and back. We pull the barge upriver so we can float down again.
Boyhoods are no excuse. We're committed to a perpetual river-running until we transform what needs transforming. Maybe our imperfect fathers left us with abusive ways - Vietnam yesterday, prisons for minorities today. (Perfect fathers, it can be argued, also leave us much to overcome.) Great leaders transform in themselves what we all need to transform. That's a lot to ask even of a president. But we'll run another one down the river every four years until we all get it right.