Washington Post reporter John F. Harris, who covered the White House during Clinton’s last six years, has made the most ambitious effort thus far: to chronicle the Clinton years in the context of the era’s political trends and to connect the successes and failures of his presidency back to his character. It is a scrupulously fair-minded book, with plenty of ammunition for both Clinton’s admirers and detractors. And if you’re like me, you’ll put the book down with the sense that you have read a modern reworking of a tragedy with a special Clintonian twist: The hero’s flaws do not bring him down–he’s earning, and is loved by, millions–but instead help put the party he led in its most perilous state in decades.
Bill Clinton arrived on the national scene after the Democrats had suffered three consecutive presidential defeats–losses that came in large measure because, as the young Arkansas governor told the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in 1991, “too many of the people who used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we are talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline.” Much of The Survivor charts the serpentine course Clinton traveled in trying to pursue policies that reflected this conviction. Harris is particularly impressive in chronicling the fight between the liberal populist inclinations of some on the president’s team (Labor Secretary Robert Reich, political aides George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala) and the more centrist views of those aides who came from the financial establishment (Lloyd Bentsen, Clinton’s first treasury secretary, and Robert Rubin, the president’s chief economic advisor and later Bentsen’s successor). Years after his 1993 tax and budget proposals squeezed through Congress–by a margin of one vote in each house–the American economy was in the best shape in its history. The Republican warnings that the budget was “a one-way ticket to recession” (Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas) and “a job killer” (then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.) were proven spectacularly wrong.
(The centrality of this budget is so seared into the conservative mind that, to this date, you can induce group angina in the editorial board room of The Wall Street Journal by suggesting that Clinton’s 1993 proposals helped convince the financial markets that the United States was serious about deficit reduction, and thus helped set the table for the economic boom of the 1990s. “No! No! It was the GOP takeover of Congress!” they will insist, without mentioning that the post-1994 Republican majority didn’t repeal a single one of Clinton’s tax hikes on the affluent.)
Yet, probe deeper into the budget victory, and you see the groundwork and the conditions for political disaster. On one level, the new president knew full well that the country was deeply suspicious of politicians in general, and particularly fed up with partisanship. (Even so tone-deaf a politician as the first President Bush knew; during his 1989 inaugural address, he literally reached out his hand to Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright as he promised an effort at bipartisanship.) Nearly one-fifth of the electorate had given its presidential votes in 1992 to Ross Perot despite clear evidence that he had left the Earth’s gravitational pull. But before Clinton and his team had learned how to find the White House mess, the chances to claim the Perot vote and stake out the middle had been kicked effectively away.
Clinton’s accommodating, I-agree-with-whomever-I-just-talked-to personality–rooted, Harris suggests, in Clinton’s childhood struggles with his alcoholic stepfather–meant that he was not about to take on congressional Democrats by making reforms to the welfare and campaign finance systems his first orders of business. A disastrous transition, one of the worst in history, had made the deeply divisive battle over gays in the military the first issue his administration tackled. The dominant political influence of Hillary Rodham Clinton–a sign of the respect Bill Clinton accorded her judgment, and/or of the debt he owed her for “standing by her man” during the Gennifer Flowers affair–made the president determined to name a woman attorney general, which in turn led to Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood each withdrawing her name from consideration. And within days of his inauguration, Clinton had decided to make health care his key domestic goal and put Hillary in charge of it–a series of decisions which had even more disastrous results.
Part of the problem, Harris says, lay in stark political fundamentals: With the federal deficit ballooning, Clinton faced “a collision between the expansive promises he made in his dream days as candidate, and the cramped possibilities that awaited him as President.” But that dilemma was exacerbated by Clinton’s own faulty political judgment. In Harris’s words: “[Clinton believed that] by doing bold things and quickly, Clinton would build support even among people who did not support him or his agendaas it happened the most ambitious items on Clinton’s agenda, raising taxes and expanding health coverage, were the ones for which he had the hardest time garnering Republican backing in Congress. Thus a President who urgently needed to build support with independent voters instead set off on a course that stamped him as a hard-core Democrat.”
Reading The Survivor is to be reminded of the sheer chaos that at times seemed to swamp the White House, from the superficial (sloppy dress, “boxers or briefs?,” chronic tardiness, all-night pizza pig-outs) to the problematic (a $200 haircut on Air Force One, the Whitewater and travel office dustups) to the tragic (the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, one of Hillary Clinton’s closest friends). It is also to be reminded of the extraordinary skills that Clinton brought to the office: a supple mind that grasped both the gravity of arcane financial issues (the Mexican peso, the Russian ruble) and the need to act. Here, and even more dramatically in Robert Rubin’s In an Uncertain World, you see a Clinton who rebuts the notion that he moved only with the political winds and the polls. Moving to shore up foreign currencies had no political upside and carried with it huge political risks. But move he did, and the world’s economic health was the better for it.
Most significant for me is how Harris charts the darker side of the Clinton years. With no ideological axe to grind, and with full appreciation for Clinton’s skills and achievements, Harris recounts the events that made possible a Republican to challenge the Democrats’ claims on the White House even after eight years of peace and prosperity–events that, he sometimes says and sometimes suggests, are rooted in the man himself.
Some of the most fascinating sections of the book deal with the Clintons’s one-time political Svengali, Dick Morris, after the 1994 mid-term debacle gave Congress to the Republicans and threatened Clinton’s political future. Morris–whose identity was hidden from most White House staffers and whose advice and memos bore the name “Charlie”–is here portrayed as the man who accurately calculated that Clinton “was masterful at tactical maneuvers, but only average as a strategic thinker.” It was Morris who advised Clinton to “triangulate, create a third position, not just in between the old positions of the two parties, but above them as well. Identify a new course that accommodates the needs the Republicans address, but does it in a way that is uniquely yours.” That, says Harris, armed Clinton with the confidence to face down the Republicans over the 1995 government shutdown and begin his successful fight for a second term.
We also see Clinton (wretched clich approaching) “growing” in office, particularly in his role as commander-in-chief. When faced with the Serbian aggression in Bosnia in 1993, he dispatched Secretary of State Warren Christopher on a feckless mission to “persuade” the NATO partners to do… something. It took the pleadings of General Shalikashvili, Richard Holbrooke, and Anthony Lake to push Clinton into acting. By the time Kosovo threatened to explode in 1995, it was Clinton who was shoring up his wavering staff by telling them, “Folks, let’s remember what the plan is and why we did this.”
Throughout the book, Harris attempts to explain Clinton’s presidency in terms of his character–its strengths and weaknesses. His instinct to wait as long as possible before making a decision and his hunger to establish all sides of an argument served him well in his economic decisions. But that same instinct, what Harris calls his “passivity,” repeatedly deflected him from settling the Paula Jones case–which would have nullified Ken Starr’s efforts.
This line of inquiry begs several other questions. Why did Clinton throw the White House open to so many disreputable characters in pursuit of needless gobs of campaign finance–especially when it was clear by early 1996 that Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) was not going to pose a real risk to reelection? Maybe because back in 1980, then-Gov. Clinton, confident of reelection, coasted through the final days and was unseated, almost ending his political life at age 34. Even before the country learned the name Monica Lewinsky, the fund-raising stories had cast a cloud over the White House that would grievously damage Al Gore’s campaign (aided, of course, by Gore’s unerring capacity to inflict even more grievous wounds on himself).
And why would a man whose presidential campaign had almost imploded in a sex scandal risk everything for a few furtive moments with a woman young enough to be his daughter? For one thing, Harris more than implies, it was not the first time in his presidency that he had run such a risk.
“An abundance of other rumors echoed,” he writes, noting that several aides took it upon themselves to keep him from temptation. “When Clinton gravitated toward an attractive woman in a crowd, or vice versa, [one aide] would try to angle his way close to make sure he was in the line of sight of any cameras.” Maybe, Harris suggests, it was the isolation that the White House imposes on any president, one felt particularly by an individual who loved nothing more than to join old friends on the spur of the moment for a late night supper. Or maybe someone who spent his whole life believing he was smarter and shrewder than anyone around him, and who had survived all threats, believed himself invulnerable.
While it is not an explicit part of Harris’s theme, I came away from his account more convinced than ever that–whatever the case for or against impeachment–it is impossible to regard Clinton’s behavior as a “private matter” in any reasonable sense.
Put aside the legalities, and Clinton’s comic manipulation of language to argue, in essence, that while Monica Lewinsky was having sexual relations with him, he was not having sexual relations with her. (Note to married men everywhere: Do not try this argument at home.)
Apart from making the Oval Office the punch-line of countless dirty jokes, the scandal threw the White House into a struggle for political survival at a time when the dangers from a growing international terror network were rising? Harris shows that the Clinton White House was very aware of Osama bin Laden–but he also shows that Clinton’s famed ability to “compartmentalize” was substantially mythical. He and his top aides were consumed by scandal and impeachment; at what cost we may never know.
Beyond these points, Clinton needed a united Democratic Party to survive impeachment, and that meant relying on the congressional Democrats whose appetite for, say, entitlement reform was non-existent. That meant that any attempt to shape long-term solutions to Social Security and Medicare with centrist approaches that challenged both parties–became politically untenable.
You can’t come way from this book without a renewed sense of wonder at how one person could fuse sheer cognitive intelligence with unparalleled political skills. Had he been able to run for a third term, Clinton would very likely have won. Had Gore possessed half the political skills of his senior partner, he might have won decisively. Four years after that bizarre election, high-ranking Democrats were still wondering “what if–?” What if a few thousand voters in Palm Beach had marked their ballots accurately? What if Gore had been in the White House on September 11, 2001, defining his administration–and his party–as the protectors of a shaken populace? Yet some facts point clearly to the political consequences of Clinton’s behavior and his inability to redefine his party in a broad political sense.
By the end of 2004, Republicans had won absolute majorities in two successive elections (after six elections when neither party had done so); they had remained in control of both houses of Congress for more than a decade (if we discount the temporary effects of Jim Jeffords’s defection); they controlled a majority of state legislatures, the governorships of the four most populous states (for the first time ever), and as many voters called themselves Republicans as Democrats.
Could it have been different? A prominent therapist once recalled the words of her mother after a long and unhappy marriage: “We could have had such a wonderful life–if only your father had been a completely different person.”
Jeff Greenfield is CNN senior analyst. His books include The People’s Choice (a novel) and Oh Waiter One Order of Crow which covers the 2000 presidential election.