Bill Clinton
Credit: Lance Cheung/Flickr

At this moment in early 2017, Bill and Hillary are taking a no doubt much-needed hiatus from the political limelight. But as the 2016 campaign showed, Bill Clinton’s legacy as president still shapes our politics. Along with Barack Obama’s presidency—which was, in domestic policy, essentially an extension of Clinton’s—it will be a reference point in the Democrats’ debates about how to regroup and go forward. Michael Tomasky’s Bill Clinton, the latest volume in the American Presidents Series of Times Books biographies, deserves to be widely read, for its insights about the recent past—and the near future.

Tomasky’s is the best short biography of the forty-second president we have. Clinton’s rich life and momentous presidency would seem to defy encapsulation in 150 pages—the typical length of books in this series—but with his economy of prose, Tomasky manages to hit most of the big moments and air most of the key debates. He moves chronologically through Clinton’s life (the pre-presidential years deftly shoehorned into one chapter, the 1992 campaign into another), covering foreign policy and domestic policy, scandal and pseudo scandal. He does so with a literary style that is fluid, engaging, judicious, often witty, sometimes barbed, and above all deeply informed.

Bill Clinton: The 42nd President, 1993–2001
American Presidents
by Michael Tomasky
Times Books, 208 pp. Credit:

The only significant objection I have to this book is that it’s too short. Like other entries in this series (to which I contributed a biography of Calvin Coolidge), it’s a wonderful introduction to a subject with whom you want to familiarize yourself but don’t want to read 500 pages about, like Martin Van Buren (or Calvin Coolidge). Yet I’d love to read a Ron Chernow–sized Clinton biography by Tomasky. A book this short necessarily requires cursory treatments of some subjects that, given the continuing interest in Clinton, cry out for more depth. On the other hand, I can assign it to my undergraduates—and count on them to read it.

The prolific Tomasky—who also edits Democracy, writes a column for the Daily Beast, and contributes long essays to the New York Review of Books—has been a reporter and leading journalistic voice of left-liberalism for more than two decades. His own politics probably fall to the left of Clinton’s, but he shares with the former president an appreciation of the pragmatism necessary for politicians to succeed, especially in our times. Tomasky isn’t the type to prod or provoke liberal orthodoxy from a self-consciously centrist position, but neither does he wax indignant about politicians’ betrayals of their principles or carry a torch for a lost ’60s liberalism. It’s a sensibility well suited for offering clear-eyed evaluations of a figure like Clinton.

In Bill Clinton, Tomasky doesn’t advance any penetrating new thesis about his subject. But his clear-headed judgments, his ability to assess Clinton critically, even at times harshly, but always fairly, is itself something of a novelty in a literature dominated by shrill polemics and wagon-circling defensiveness. Tomasky opens and closes with the theme that Bill Clinton was a survivor. He was subjected to a battering that was close to unprecedented in the annals of the American presidency, yet he was reelected handily in 1996 and left office in 2001 with the highest public approval ratings of any departing president since polling began. The survivor theme is basically a framing device for Tomasky’s narrative that doesn’t entirely do justice to Clinton’s historic achievements, even though as a substantive matter, Tomasky doesn’t neglect those attainments.

That said, Tomasky salts his book with important and profound insights that can be understood as key themes of the book, even if he doesn’t flag them as such. One of them, floated toward the book’s end, is that “Bill Clinton rescued the party from permanent minority status.” From 1972 to 1988, the Democrats had lost every presidential election—in landslides—save one: the victory eked out in 1976 by Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. And that occurred immediately after Watergate, when the Republican Party was at a historic nadir. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, on the other hand, the Democrats were, if not the majority party again, at least on parity with the GOP. Issues that had been liabilities—economic management, fiscal responsibility, foreign policy, crime, welfare, cultural issues—Clinton had neutralized or turned into Democratic advantages. In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush was the first Republican in forty years not to run on a program mainly of scaling back government.

Tomasky explores the rocky road Clinton traveled to implementing a “Third Way” agenda that, though progressive and pragmatic, was also heterodox and on occasion upsetting to traditional liberal groups. Tomasky re-situates some of Clinton’s most controversial enterprises in their proper context, reminding readers that the final bills signed weren’t pure expressions of Clinton’s own philosophy but reflected compromises he was forced to make with a hostile Congress led by Newt Gingrich.

The 1994 crime bill, for instance, was far from an act of capitulation to the right. It was a flawed but effective package of reforms that contributed to a spectacular drop in violent crime. That drop saved tens of thousands of lives, greatly enhanced the quality of life for citizens of all races and backgrounds, and made possible a rejuvenation of American cities that was unimaginable just a decade of earlier. It also continued (but did not create) a trend toward greater incarceration of criminals that is now widely seen as excessive. But at a time when, as Tomasky reminds us, there were 23,000 murders a year, failing to address the issue would have been derelict.

Moreover, the bill, which had broad bipartisan support, included lots of liberal solutions that Clinton pushed. These included an assault weapons ban, support for community policing, and the Violence Against Women Act. The more punitive measures, to which Clinton (and other Democrats, like Bernie Sanders) acquiesced, were insisted upon by Republicans. Ironically, it was Clinton’s resolve to include the assault weapons ban—coming as it did after the passage of the Brady Bill—that, among other factors, cost Democrats control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections.

Tomasky similarly provides needed context to the welfare reform compromise of 1996. He notes that Clinton had already twice vetoed more austere legislation and was hard-pressed to veto a third version in an election year, even though the new bill still fell short of what the president wanted. He also reminds readers that “the direst liberal predictions did not come true.” The reforms did help reduce poverty, even though some conservative legislatures took the opportunity to slash benefits in their states. In the end, the booming prosperity over which Clinton presided, combined with his progressive tax and distribution policies, meant that for the first time since the 1960s, the lowest quintile of earners saw their lot improve during his presidency.

Oddly, Tomasky doesn’t discuss another highly controversial policy of Clinton’s, banking deregulation, except very briefly at the end, when he notes that Bernie Sanders attacked Hillary Clinton over the issue in 2016. Here, the left’s criticisms of Clinton (Bill, not Hillary) are partly justified, since the repeal of the 1935 Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment banking from commercial banking, allowed some firms, like Citibank, to metastasize and become “too big to fail” (though in truth they were already). Contrary to popular belief, however, the repeal itself didn’t cause the mortgage crisis that sent the economy into free fall in 2008. Most of the institutions that issued or held the toxic mortgages and their derivatives weren’t covered by the old law in any case. It was the failure of oversight during the Bush administration, when the crisis was visibly worsening, that allowed the crash to occur.

Tomasky also might have done more to illuminate how annual budget negotiations became the playing field on which Clinton fought—and usually vanquished—his Republican foes. He does, however, show that a key turning point in Clinton’s presidency was the prolonged government shutdown in 1995. The president simultaneously began to benefit from the rapidly shrinking budget deficits achieved by the decade’s tech boom, productivity gains across the economy, and, not least, his farsighted 1993 budget bill—which passed without a single Republican vote. The robust growth and the public’s newfound trust in Clinton as an economic manager allowed him in the ensuing years to bolster all kinds of liberal programs—the very kinds of programs that many of his critics on the left still think he neglected. A fair-minded analysis shows that Clinton’s overall record can only be described as consistently advancing the goals that liberals have traditionally cared about, if not always going as far as some would have liked.

Finally, Bill Clinton oversaw the most successful foreign policy since John F. Kennedy (one can argue about Ronald Reagan’s, remembered for both the end of the Cold War and the Iran-contra scandal). After a disastrous beginning with the rout of U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu and passivity in the face of mass slaughters in Rwanda and Bosnia, Clinton found his footing late in his first term. By the end of his second, he had achieved major diplomatic achievements—sometimes with the aid of military force—in Bosnia and Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Israel and the Palestinian territories. For those inclined today to despair about the prospects of a two-state solution in the Middle East, Tomasky’s account evokes the hopefulness that reigned under Clinton; we see him traveling to Gaza, even as impeachment proceedings unfolded, “to watch in person as the Palestinians voted to end their formal call for the destruction of Israel”—itself a historic accomplishment. As a result of all this, Democrats by 2000 were every bit as credible on foreign policy and economic policy as Republicans, which could never have been said about the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.

The second important insight Tomasky offers, one that could be taken as a core argument of the book, comes during his discussion of the culture wars—the ongoing clashes, flowing from the upheavals of the 1960s, over race, sexuality, campus speech, and dozens of kindred issues. “As the first ‘first couple’ to come from the Woodstock generation and not the Depression–World War II generation,” Tomasky writes, “the Clintons themselves constituted a front in these wars.” This formulation perfectly explains the hatred that so many Republican politicians felt toward Clinton and that led them to hound him relentlessly throughout his presidency.

From 1972 to 1988, the Democrats had lost every presidential election—in landslides—save one. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, on the other hand, the Democrats were, if not the majority party again, at least on parity with the GOP.

It also explains the Clinton impeachment. Tomasky recounts the sordid episode at considerable length, coming down hard on Clinton’s rationalizations for misleading investigators about his affair with Monica Lewinsky—elaborately wrought parsings that “might hold sway in men’s locker rooms but wouldn’t do for a president.” But he’s even harsher toward the journalists who relentlessly hyped the story. Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post and Jackie Judd of ABC News will be remembered primarily as mindless “conduits” for the leaks of the independent counsel, Ken Starr; the New York Times’s embarrassingly puritanical coverage on its editorial pages, run by the now-discredited Howell Raines, comes under due scrutiny. The media’s performance was poor. “Every day brought new revelations,” Tomasky writes tersely, “most of them false.”

Clinton won the impeachment fight. The Washington press and pundit corps, which had long since lost the confidence of conservative voters, now fell into disrepute among liberals as well—never to fully recover. The GOP was thrown into disarray, and many of Clinton’s leading persecutors would become embroiled in their own sex scandals: Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, Robert Livingston, Dennis Hastert, and others. To a large degree, Clinton and the Democrats won the culture wars, too. This wasn’t evident to many of us at the time, when the Christian right, led by George W. Bush,  still seemed ascendant. But the public’s willingness to cut Clinton slack—in marked contrast to the media’s and the Republicans’ misplaced and hypocritical moralism—indicated newly tolerant attitudes about sexuality that would, a decade later, turn an issue like gay marriage from a cudgel for the Republicans into a liability. The forces of cultural reaction remain strong, as Donald Trump’s election victory shows, but they are emboldened today precisely because they are losing.

In the end, Clinton did much more than survive. He made the Democratic Party viable again in presidential elections. He reoriented liberalism, retaining its core commitments to a mixed economy, a welfare state, civil rights, civil liberties, and an internationalist foreign policy—while also acknowledging where its past policies on welfare, crime, and other issues had lost the confidence of the American people. He recognized the coming of globalization and sought new policies to deal with its challenges. His programs contributed—how much, exactly, is impossible to say—to peace and shared prosperity, declines in violent crime and out-of-wedlock births, and a liberalizing national temper on culture war issues. Race relations improved steadily, according to both whites and blacks.

To achieve all this, Clinton had to make concessions to conservatives. Sometimes this meant shameful opportunism (calling for public school kids to wear uniforms) or dubious compromises (giving the GOP a capital gains tax cut) or the articulation of traditional moral positions that rankled liberals (support for the death penalty). Yet without these gestures, Clinton would never have gained support from Republicans in government. As important, he wouldn’t have gained the immense support from the people, including many conservatives, that he enjoyed.

At the end of 2016, Michael Tomasky wrote an incisive column in the Daily Beast in which he pointed out that to regain power again, Democrats will once more have to attract the votes of those who left their party, in this case for Trump. Once called “Reagan Democrats,” these generally white, modestly educated, working-class voters were wooed back to the fold by Bill Clinton’s Third Way liberalism. In 2008, after the disastrous Bush presidency, some flocked to Obama’s uplifting themes, but over the next eight years they slid steadily back into the GOP column. “I know lots of these people,” wrote Tomasky, who grew up in West Virginia—a Democratic stronghold until 2000, and one of the states where Hillary performed the worst in 2016. “My dear mom was one, and virtually all her friends from church. Loads of old high-school classmates…Millions are in fact liberals, to some degree or another, and many millions more may not be liberals but sure aren’t conservatives…They are, in fact or in potential, part of our team, and we need to treat them that way. The Democratic Party needs to identify leaders who can connect with these folks.” Bill Clinton was one such leader, and the Democrats are going to need to find more like him.

David Greenberg

David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author, most recently, of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. He is a contributing editor to Politico and tweets at @republicofspin.