Presidential Mothers: Bill Clinton’s mother’s life like that of a country song

Published 8:38 am Monday, June 26, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

The title of the chapter in Bonnie Angelo’s book, “First Mothers the Women Who Shaped the Presidents,” about the mother of the 42nd President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton, is titled, “My Life Is Like a Country Song.”

There could not be a more appropriate title for the chapter about Clinton’s mother because she has endured all the elements found in a country song – love, hate, disappointment, tragedy, joy, grief, and the list goes on. A writer of a country song once sent his song to another country artist and said, “I believe I have written the perfect country song.”  That country artist wrote back, “No you did not mention mama, trains, etc.” The story of President Clinton’s mother even includes a train and mama—so there you go.

Virginia Cassidy was born in Bodclaw, Ark., to James and Edith Grisham Cassidy in 1923. The family moved to Hope, Ark., where Virginia grew up.  She loved her father but had a more love/hate relationship with her mother.  The relationship between her parents was somewhat rocky, but Virginia endured it. After she graduated from high school, Virginia took training to became a registered nurse.

Early on, Virginia began to use make-up, a lot of make-up, and she loved it.    First, she put on her false eye-lashes and made her eye brows suit her mood that day.  Virginia then added layers of powder, rouge, lipstick, liners, and red fingernail polish.

In addition to all of that, Virginia had a white streak put in her dark brown hair, which was called “a racing stripe or a skunk stripe.”  Virginia is quoted as saying, “I like people to notice me.” She achieved that goal.

While she was working as a nurse, a man came into the hospital who somehow caught Virginia’s attention.  She also caught his attention because he left, then came back in; and asked her to go out to eat with him. She went after she finished her shift. That was the beginning of a short romance that resulted in the marriage of William Jefferson Blythe Jr. and Virginia Cassidy. Mr. Blythe worked out of town. At the end of his work week, he was on his way to Hope when a one-car accident occurred.  William Jefferson Blythe Jr. was found dead in an irrigation ditch by the highway.

Virginia, who was six months pregnant, was distraught. Three months later, she gave birth to a baby boy that she named William Jefferson Blythe. Virginia always said that even though she was married four more times, her first husband was her true love.

Virginia went back to work and left her son with her parents. She continued her flamboyant lifestyle, described by Angelo: “If there was a slot machine within reach, she was quick to pull the lever, if a roulette wheel was spinning, she wanted chips on the board. If there was a friendly guy around, she would flirt. If drinks were being poured, her glass was ready. If a party was going on, she would be the life of it. Oaklawn racetrack and Hot Springs nightclubs were her natural habitat and her heavy hand with makeup was a signal that she was a fun girl who liked to show off.”

Even though that was the lifestyle that Virginia liked, she knew that she needed to care for her son and to do so she needed a better job.  She went to New Orleans and studied to be a nurse anesthetist so she could get that better job. While she did that, she left her son with her parents.

Virginia’s mother took William, who was called Bill, on the train to New Orleans to visit his mother. As her mother and her son were leaving, Virginia sat by the train tracks and cried. (You see, there is mama and a train in this country song.)

Virginia came back, got a nurse anesthetist job at the Hope hospital, and she continued to live with her parents.

Virginia then met Roger Clinton, who had a car dealership. Roger and Virginia ended up getting married and had a son that they named Roger. When Roger started to school, Bill changed his name to Clinton so it would be the same as his brother’s, but he did not get it changed legally until he was in his late teens.

Virginia’s husband, Roger, turned out to be an alcoholic, who physically abused his wife. He was also irresponsible financially and lost his car dealership.

The family moved to Little Rock, and Clinton went to work for his brother. Living in Little Rock was great for Virginia; she loved everything about it—the clubs, racetrack, etc.

The situation got so bad with Roger Clinton that 14-year-old Bill finally stood up to him and told his that he was never to hurt his mother again.  Virginia finally left Roger and went her own way only to be talked into marrying him again because she said that she felt sorry for him. The second time she married him did not work any better so she divorced Roger Clinton again.

During all the turmoil while she was married to Roger Clinton, Virginia did not neglect her parenting duties. Her house was the one that Bill’s friends liked to come to so they could sit around the dining room table, and discuss all kinds of things. Virginia made sandwiches for the teenagers and then joined in their discussions. Some parts of Bill’s homelife were good but much of it was anything but stable.

In spite of all with which he had to deal; Bill excelled at school. He was popular with fellow students, made good grades, was elected to student offices, and was an outstanding band student.

This country song never seems to end.

Virginia then married her hairdresser, Jeff Dwire.  The marriage seemed to be a happy one, but Jeff got sick and died about five years after he and Virginia were married.

Several years later, Virginia married Dick Kelley, a stable former wholesale food salesman. Dick and Virginia lived together for the rest of Virginia’s life.

While Bill Clinton was still in high school, he was chosen as one of Arkansas’ two delegates to Boy’s Nation. The students went to Washington and studied the government of the United States. While there, the group was invited to the White House, and Bill Clinton got to shake the hand of President John Kennedy.  That did it.  Virginia said she knew after that experience that Bill would be a politician.

When it was time to go college, Bill chose Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. After graduating, Bill earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study at University College, Oxford, in England. After the year at Oxford, Bill entered Yale Law School from which he received his law degree.  Throughout the years from the time he started to school until he graduated from Yale Law School, Virginia was always the proud and supportive mother.

After graduating from Yale, Bill decided to go back to Arkansas.  He got a job teaching at the University of Arkansas.  A young lady he had met and spent time with at Yale followed him to Arkansas, much to Bill’s surprise. Hillary Rodham moved to Arkansas and finally ended up working at the prestigious Rose Law Firm.

Bill’s mother’s first meeting with Hillary, the girl who wore no make-up, who wore thick glasses, and who had mousy brown hair did not go well.  Although neither was impressed by the other, they had one thing in common, their love for Bill Clinton.  Virginia, who was really not nice when she first met Hillary, realized that she should apologize and she did.

Quoting Bonnie Angelo: “Virginia came to understand and love Hillary; she realized that they were products of different worlds.” She later said: “Hillary is the smartest woman I’ve ever encountered.” That really sums up the daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship between two women who could not have been more different.

Author Bonnie Angelo spends a good bit of time in her book analyzing why Bill Clinton grew up to be the kind of man that he was, but that will be left to the psychologists and psychiatrists. Because of or in spite of his DNA, William Jefferson Clinton became the Governor of Arkansas for 12 years and was President of the United States for eight years.

Virginia was the sixth mother to witness her son’s inauguration and the 13th to live to rejoice in her son’s election as President.  After her son’s election, Virginia and her husband moved in the White House and took possession of the Queen’s Suite for a few days. Virginia loved it. She later said, “I lay back on the bed. Even for an old girl who’s pretty much seen everything that goes on after dark, sleeping in the White House for the first time is quite a feeling.”

Virginia Kelley, President Clinton’s mother, had cancer and only lived about a years after her son became President. She died on Jan. 1, 1994, and was buried beside her first husband, William Jefferson Blythe Jr. in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Hope, Arkansas.

President Clinton missed his mother so much because they had always been so  close to each other.  He said what he missed most was not being able to pick up the telephone and calling her every Sunday.

At the drop of a hat, Clinton would sing or recite the following song which he associated with his mother:

One bright and shining


That helped know wrong

   from right

I found in my mother’s eyes

Those fairy tales she told

Those pathways filled with


I found in my mother’s eyes.