Our series on famous protégés and their mentors serves to illustrate two things: to show you how a good mentoring relationship can work, and to remind you that “great” people were not born fully formed. They had to learn and develop just like the rest of us, and they needed good mentors to help them find the right path. One of those great people was the 42nd President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton.
When Bill Clinton was still a student at Georgetown University in the 1960s, Arkansas Senator William Fulbright hired him as a clerk for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It was a junior position, involving little more than carrying documents and messages between offices, but Clinton took the opportunity to get to know the Senator and immerse himself in the politics and issues of the day. Fulbright was happy to tutor an interested, knowledgeable young man from his own state, and became Clinton’s mentor.
A former staffer who observed them working together in those years believes Fulbright had a big influence on his protégé’s later political style.
Fulbright, for example, took a principled stand in opposing the Vietnam War at a time when most other people were in favor. But he took a more pragmatic approach to civil rights, voting against it to appease his Arkansas constituents. Clinton would adopt the same approach in office, adapting his tactics according to the situation at hand, sometimes leading and at other times appeasing or “triangulating.”
In foreign policy, too, Clinton learned from his mentor. Fulbright believed in internationalism, as exemplified in the educational exchange program that bears his name. He opposed the demonization of communist countries in the Cold War and advocated a multilateral approach: ideal preparation for his protégé, who would become the first post-Cold War President.
Clinton was sometimes criticized for his connections to the “segregationist” Senator Fulbright, but he still always acknowledged his influence. Clinton awarded his mentor the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993, and then when Fulbright died two years later, it was his protégé who delivered the eulogy at his funeral. “We owe a lot to Bill Fulbright, some of us more than others,” Clinton said. “Let us all remember the life he lived and the example he set.”
Although Clinton always described Fulbright as his mentor, he also mentioned other people as mentors and role models in his life. In this article, for example, he talks of his high school band di
rector as a mentor. And in this one, he cites the influence of Nelson Mandela, whom he met later in life. Clinton was on a lifelong course of growth and i
mprovement, and relied on different mentors at different stages of his life.
Lessons from Clinton and Fulbright
- You can find mentors even in unpromising situations. Clinton didn’t let his junior position stop him from developing an important mentoring relationship with a senior U.S. Senator.
- Protégés can learn skills and strategies from their mentors that still prove useful decades later.
- The relationship between a protégé and a mentor should always be strong enough to survive criticism from others.
- Protégés often have multiple mentors. Successful people are willing to learn from many different sources.
- It’s great for protégés to show their appreciation for the mentors when they get the chance. We can’t all award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but there are other options!
Interested in being a mentor to the next Bill Clinton? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.