Love him? Hate him? But you can't ignore Bill Clinton!
Former President Bill Clinton remains one of the most maddening and brilliant politicians of his time, so it's no surprise that histories of his administration already are popping up.
There will be more and better ones to come. But "The Survivor" by Washington Post reporter John Harris sounds interesting, even if I am highly skeptical about one of the major points (Clinton's reason for signing the welfare reform bill) raised in a recent New York Times review of Harris' book. But since I've read only the review and not the book itself, I'll keep my complaint to myself.
Books like "The Survivor" and Lou Cannon's chronicles of the Reagan administration are, of necessity, not the kind of in-depth histories that provide a definitive review of a president's tenure. They are the first review of history before presidential papers and the candid memoirs of administration veterans have been released or published. Nonetheless, Clinton had a wild eight years in office, combining serious policy challenges with a sort of Perils-of-Pauline political death wish that undermined his capacity to govern. That should provide some good reading, if you like politics and history.
For the definitive word on Clinton's early life, read "First in his Class" by David Maraniss. It's the story of Clinton's life and times right up to his announcement that he would run for president in 1992. It's a terrific and complete account of a brilliant, energetic and highly flawed president to be.
Following is the NYT review of Harris' new boos.
'The Survivor': Measuring His Success
By ALAN EHRENHALT
MILLIONS of Americans despise Bill Clinton. They have done so since he became a presence in national politics in the early 1990's, and they continue to do so today, more than four years after his retirement from public office.
The passion of the Clinton haters is a phenomenon without equal in recent American politics. It is not based on any specific policies that Clinton promoted or implemented during his years in office. It is almost entirely personal. In its persistence and intensity, it goes far beyond anything that comparable numbers of people have felt about Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or either of the presidents Bush. It surpasses even the liberals' longstanding detestation of Richard Nixon. The only political obsession comparable to it in the past century is the hatred that a significant minority of Americans felt for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In this respect the phenomenon is all the more puzzling. Roosevelt made enormous and sometimes reckless changes in the American government and economy, and when his critics loathed him for it, he loathed them back. 'They are unanimous in their hate for me' he said of them in his 1936 re-election campaign, 'and I welcome their hatred.' Clinton, on the other hand, was a centrist who undertook no dramatic transformations of society or government and, what was more, showed himself to be an instinctive conciliator who believed in compromise almost to a fault.
Viewed in historical perspective, Clinton-hatred is not easy to explain. Certainly the Monica Lewinsky affair does not explain it. The people who detested the president after that dalliance became public were essentially the same ones who had detested him in 1992. They merely grew louder.
There is, of course, a simpler argument that some Clinton haters use to explain the persistence of their passion. They say that he was, to put it bluntly, a very bad president -- immature, self-absorbed, indecisive in domestic affairs and disastrously weak when it came to representing America in the affairs of the world.
It is this argument that John F. Harris utterly demolishes in 'The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House,' his thorough, readable and scrupulously honest account of the Clinton years. Harris, who was The Washington Post's White House correspondent from 1995 through 2000, is no Clinton apologist. His portraits of the decision-making process he witnessed reveal a president who indeed lacked discipline in his daily routine; examined and re-examined policy choices endlessly, to the frustration of his advisers; and was fearful about the use of military force abroad, even in behalf of the most defensible causes.
But over the course of 500 pages, Harris also documents the history of a president who, however frustrating he may have been in style and method, usually made the right choices in the end -- even when he felt that he was hurting himself politically. The 1993 spending cuts and tax increases, over which he agonized for months, ultimately reduced the federal deficit, reassured financial markets and set in motion the prosperity that marked the second half of the decade. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which Clinton signed against the advice of his closest Democratic allies, turned out to be the most successful domestic policy initiative of the 1990's.
On Bosnia in the early years and then on Kosovo in 1999, the president did shrink from military action while hostilities continued and innocent people died. But the war in Bosnia was settled at an administration-sponsored peace conference in Ohio in 1995, and a few weeks of American bombing persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to give up his assault on Kosovo in 1999. By the time Clinton left office, Bosnia was in the midst of a peaceful recovery, and Milosevic had been deposed from power and was awaiting trial as a war criminal.
Harris tells all the important stories of the Clinton years in detached, workmanlike prose that not only tracks the events and decisions but offers perceptive judgments of the figures who were close to the president as they unfolded. The national security adviser, Sandy Berger, was 'a shrewdly political man' who, when Clinton barked at him, 'was comfortable barking right back.' The chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, was a natural organizer who, as Harris saw him, protested a little too often about his preference for business over politics. The treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, had 'an appreciation for shades of gray and a disdain for absolutes that were very much like Clinton's.'
Most impressive is Harris's balance and fairness. All of Clinton's conspicuous personal failings are detailed, including the sexual obsessions that ultimately cost him much of his reputation. But his warmth, optimism and sense of larger purpose come through equally well. 'However heedless he could sometimes be in his personal life,' Harris writes in the closing pages, 'Clinton brought a dutiful sensibility to his public life.' Having tangled with the president numerous times over eight years of reporting on him -- and having chronicled some of those conflicts openly in the pages of his newspaper -- Harris sounds at the end very much as if he would enjoy having a few dinners with Clinton in years to come. In this, he is similar to so many of the people, from all walks of life, who have come to know Bill Clinton well -- including a large number of his political enemies. If it were only Clinton's admirers who enjoyed his company, he would not be the social celebrity he has become since 2001.
Most presidents -- most public leaders -- are complex human beings, and that is certainly true in Clinton's case. But as Harris makes clear, he was more than that: he was a man who appreciated complexities and pondered them endlessly; who saw the ambiguity in nearly any policy situation; who loved to tease out the subtleties and distinctions that lesser minds found uninteresting. Occasionally during the Clinton presidency, writers dredged up Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first-rate intelligence: that of someone who could hold two opposed ideas in his head at the same time and still function. No one in the past century of American politics met that test better than Clinton.
Sometimes it brought him serious trouble, as when he labored to tell the literal but not the contextual truth to prosecutors in the Lewinsky case, and left much of the public angry at him. Sometimes it made him maddeningly slow to make up his mind. Erskine Bowles once marveled at Clinton's ability to 'analyze all the factors, all the risks and opportunities, and weigh them brilliantly.' On those occasions, Bowles said, all the president needed was someone who could make sure he wasn't influenced to change his mind by the last old friend whom he happened to talk to on the phone. Such is the hazardous life of any politician blessed -- or cursed -- by the ability to see all sides of a difficult question.
But if Clinton was indecisive, he was also supremely resilient. This is the quality that seems most to impress Harris, and the one the title of his book emphasizes. Clinton may have been a man plagued by uncertainties, but he was also a man who never gave up. Not when the Republicans humiliated him in the 1994 election; not when they seemed to have him cornered in budget negotiations the following year; not when the Lewinsky case seemed as if it would force him out of office in disgrace. 'I'm the big rubber clown you had as a kid,' he told Newt Gingrich, his Republican nemesis, in 1995. 'The harder you hit me, the faster I come back up.' That very trait -- documented by Harris in situation after situation -- portrays a strength of character seldom acknowledged by Clinton's many critics.
If, as Harris believes, Clinton was in the most important ways a competent president -- and certainly not a combative or ideological one -- then the conundrum of Clinton-hatred remains essentially unsolved. Harris does try to explain it. He suggests -- as others have -- that Clinton, not entirely through his own doing, suffered as the embodiment of a generation and a set of values that much of the country had never understood or been willing to accept. He was the tangible symbol of the Baby Boom, its conceits, its self-absorption, its lack of discipline and failures of responsibility. He was a child of the 1960's preaching to millions of people who had never come to terms with the 1960's and didn't want to be reminded of them.
Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary and close friend since their Oxford days together, told Harris that Clinton's personal history of youthful rebellion and conventional adult success, all achieved without significant personal sacrifice, was threatening to many Americans, even if they themselves did not entirely understand why. And so they despised him. And they despised his wife. Whether Hillary Clinton manages in the end to overcome this generational taint may be one of the more significant political questions of the next few years.
The generational issue is surely not the only explanation of Clinton hatred, but it may be the most persuasive one anybody has presented so far. Ultimately there will be others. The debate about Bill Clinton, about his character and achievements and moral worth, will go on long after the subject himself has departed from the scene. Clinton 'was too vital and too vexing a character to be easily forgotten or dismissed,' Harris writes. This is a complex, interesting and subtle book about a complex, interesting and subtle man.
Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing magazine and author of 'The United States of Ambition' and 'The Lost City.'