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Bill Clinton Turned 70 Last Week. Here Are 5 Moments That Defined His Career

J. Scott Applewhite

Bill Clinton turned 70 on Friday. From his small town beginnings in Arkansas to the Oval Office in Washington, Clinton's career has been anything but a smooth ride. It could be tested again if his wife, Hillary Clinton, is elected president — becoming the first presidential spouse to be elected president in their own right.

Nothing has represented Clinton's legacy more than the Clinton foundation, but questions about potential conflicts of interest — as well as Clinton's use of a private email server — have been a nagging thorn in the side of Clinton's presidential run.

Here's a look back at the highlights — and lowlights — of Bill Clinton's career.

1. The 'Comeback Kid'

At just 27, Bill Clinton decided to challenge an incumbent Republican congressman in Arkansas. He lost that race but he learned a lot of tricks of the trade when it came to fundraising. He ended up bringing in $20,000 more than his experienced opponent. This is where the Clintons laid the groundwork for a fundraising network that would assist them for the next 40 years.

In 1976, Clinton ran for state attorney general and won by a landslide, taking 56 percent of the vote against his two other candidates — Clarence Cash and George Jernigan Jr.

Two years later, Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas. He would be tested again when he lost re-election in 1980. He had take a hard look in the mirror to resurrect his political career and did so in 1982 by winning another term at the governorship. It is what might have been the most critical moment in propelling his political career. Clinton, of course, would win the moniker "Comeback Kid" during the 1992 presidential primary 10 years later. He lost the Iowa caucuses badly, but came in a close second in New Hampshire, earning him the nickname.

2. The 'First Black President'

Seventeen years after Clinton won his first office, he was elected president. Known for his charm and charisma, Clinton was a popular president even with the scandals of the '90s (more on that below). And he's been particularly popular among African-Americans. As Danielle Kurtzleben reported:

"What drove that popularity? In part, it was regionalism. Clinton did particularly well among Southern African-Americans, and the fact that he was from Arkansas probably helped him.

"Because of his Southern heritage, he appeared to be very, very comfortable in African-American communities," says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. That ease, Gillespie said, ranges from his famous sax-playing appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show to his ease on the campaign trail in interacting with black voters — it 'sort of hinted at a certain type of cultural fluency that was welcome to African-American voters,' she added."

Clinton got the moniker "first black president" from a New Yorker article written by famed author Toni Morrison. It is often misinterpreted, however, as The Atlantic noted. "People misunderstood that phrase," Morrison has said. "I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp."

As president, Clinton supported affirmative action and appointed several African-Americans to high-profile positions, including seven members of his cabinet. But he also supported welfare reform — working with a Republican Congress — and critics during this campaign have looked negatively on the 1994 crime bill that Clinton signed into law.

3. The crime bill

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was championed for reducing crime in a time of high murder rates and a sprawling crack epidemic. The bill was intended to reduce the number of African-Americans who were being killed in drug related incidents, and some black leaders and legislators were in favor of it. It included, though, a three-strike offender mandatory life prison sentence, providing money to hire more police officers and expand funding for prisons.

Scholars and researchers have cast some doubt on its achievements, arguing that crime rates were on the decline before the crime bill went into effect. And some 20 years later, African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated. They were six times as likely to be incarcerated than white men in 2010, for example, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

It has come back to haunt Hillary Clinton, too. She championed the bill in the '90s during a 1996 campaign speech in New Hampshire. "[W]e also have to have an organized effort against gangs just as in a previous generation we had an organized effort against the mob," Clinton said. "We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels. They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super predators. No conscious, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel and the president has asked the FBI to launch a very concerted effort against gangs everywhere."

Last year, during a private fundraiser in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton was confronted by Black Lives Matter activists over her use of the term "super predator."

4. The Lewinsky scandal and impeachment

Nothing seemed to threaten Bill Clinton's political career more than allegations of sexual assault and adultery. The most infamous was with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, who then 22. The affair was unearthed when former Arkansas employee Paula Jones sued Bill Clinton in 1994 alleging that he propositioned her in a hotel room several years earlier. Jones's legal team named several other women with whom they alleged Clinton had intimate relationships with, including Gennifer Flowers, and charged that he'd had a non-consensual one with Juanita Broaddrick. Broaddrick didn't file any suits against Clinton for the incident that she says occurred in the 1970s, but did share her story in 1999.

Both Bill and Hillary Clinton said the allegations were false. During a White House event discussing child-care initiatives, Bill Clinton addressed the allegations against him.

"I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman — Ms. Lewinsky," Clinton said. "I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never. These allegations are false, and I need to go back to work for the American people."

Two days following that event, Hillary Clinton appeared on ABC's Good Morning America. She, too, doubled down that the allegations were false.

"I guess my attitude about all of this is, because I have seen so many false accusations against not just my husband, but myself-- I really just want everybody to take a deep breath and relax and just sit back, because here they come again," she said. "We're going to have to just ride though this as we have so many of these other false accusations."

Clinton was impeached, but not ousted from office. His popularity recovered, leaving office with an approval rating over 60 percent.

5. Potential 'First Gentleman'

Despite doubts of Clinton's ability to aid in his wife's presidential campaign, Bill Clinton proved to be a benefit during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. His speech helped to paint Clinton in a different fashion — as a fighter who never gives up.

"You could drop her in any trouble spot, pick one, come back in a month and, somehow, ... she will have made it better," he said. "That is just who she is."

Hillary Clinton would not only be the first female president of the United States if elected, her husband would also be the first man married to a U.S. president as a former president.

But what would he be called? Hillary Clinton gave a few suggestions while on Jimmy Kimmel Live back in February. "So I have to really work on this," Clinton said, "but First Dude, First Mate, First Gentleman, I'm just not sure."

As for the former president's birthday, former Rep. John Dingell had this irreverent birthday wish:

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Young