Clinton Agonistes

For critics across the political spectrum, Joe Klein’s character’s assessment of the fictional governor of a small Southern state (who, in the film version of Primary Colors, did go on to win the White House) summed up the Clinton presidency even before Monica Lewinsky.

Liberals thought he was faithless for his stances on deficit reduction, trade, and welfare reform. New Democrats thought he was, at the very least, undisciplined (and feared he was faithless), as his obsession with a cabinet that “looked like America,” focus on gays in the military, and health-care fiasco defined his first two years in office. And conservatives never once doubted Klein’s evaluation, taking exception only with the contention that Bill Clinton could ever be a “great man.”

Klein, a longtime Clinton-watcher and often Clinton fan, now offers a reassessment in his first nonfiction book about the Arkansas enigma, The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. A half-dozen years after Primary Colors—after a second Clinton term, an impeachment, the failure of his vice president to succeed him, the last-minute pardons, and the attacks of September 11—Klein now argues that, despite his personal failings, Clinton “had run a serious, disciplined, responsible presidency.” He had a coherent political vision, real policy accomplishments, and put the country in place to weather and master the transformation to the Information Age.

Yet the disappointment lingers, but of a different kind. Even those close to the former president would admit to wondering what might have been if Clinton had been able to keep his libido in check. But in the aftermath of September 11, Klein gives voice to another regret: that this immense talent—this “natural”—“had the misfortune to serve at a time when greatness wasn’t required.” It’s as if Michael Jordan was stuck playing in the CBA.

The Natural is no dense account of Clinton’s eight years in office. Rather, Klein offers a superbly written, smart, and concise meditation on the Clinton era. For those who lived through those years, Klein’s book is a welcome first volley in the battle to explain the Clinton legacy.

Klein reminds skeptics that Clinton was at the vanguard of a Democratic political and policy renaissance that not only revived the party’s electoral fortunes, but also rejuvenated American progressivism. The New Democratic public philosophy and its mantra of “opportunity, responsibility, and community” may now seem stale. But in 1991, it was not only fresh, it was controversial.

Indeed, only a politician of Clinton’s immense talents and equally unique political pedigree (Southern bubba, Rhodes Scholar McGovernik, New Democratic policy wonk) may have been able to run and win the party’s presidential nomination as a New Democrat. And despite some very obvious wavering, Klein argues, Clinton was remarkably persistent in executing his vision.

Contrary to the account in Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, Clinton was not tortured over which way to take his economic policy in 1993. If you look at who composed his economic team, it’s clear that Clinton was a deficit hawk, and, throughout a difficult budget process, remained one.

He was also remarkably consistent—and dare I say principled—in his bailout of the Mexican peso, his resolve during the government shutdown, his promotion of tolerance and diversity; and in establishing AmeriCorps, expanding access to higher education, and signing a welfare reform bill. To reinforce this well-known list, Klein rescues an overlooked part of the Clinton legacy: his monumental efforts to improve the lives of the working poor through the massive expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit; increases to Head Start, child care, after-school care; and the CHIP program that brought healthcare to the children of the working poor.

Despite these accomplishments and his unmatched political talents, Clinton was the right man for the wrong time. One of Klein’s most useful and insightful chapters is not about Clinton at all, but an excellent explanation of the institutional changes and forces that produced the highly charged, inquisitorial politics of the past three decades. The Clinton scandals were but another battle in these ethics wars, and the conflict escalated as each apparent scandal fed the First Couple’s mistrust of the media, eventually climaxing with impeachment.

But Klein is no knee-jerk apologist for Clinton, blaming his bouts with scandal on the media or the Republican Party. Instead, Klein sees the visceral hatred and tortured ambivalence that parts of the country felt toward Clinton as rooted in Baby Boomer self-loathing: “Bill Clinton often seemed the apotheosis of his generation’s alleged sins: the moral relativism, the tendency to pay more attention to marketing than to substance, the solipsistic callowness.”

Clinton and the Baby Boomers wanted to be great, yet they were cursed with never being tested. (Klein ignores the courage so many of his cohorts showed in the streets of Selma and the rice paddies of Vietnam.) In passages undoubtedly written after September 11, Klein waxes elegiac about the sins of postwar opulence and the cruel irony that the one Boomer confronted with the challenge to lead the nation at a time of crisis pales in comparison to the larger-than-life Clinton.

And perhaps that is what has led Klein to this reassessment. In the end, he realized it’s nothing but a twist of fate that Bill Clinton—like Jack Stanton—may never be a great man.

Kenneth S. Baer, former senior speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, is the author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton.

Kenneth S. Baer, former senior speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, is the author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton.

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