The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House
by John F Harris
A review by Benjamin Schwarz
Better accounts of the Clinton presidency will be written, but for now this is
the best. Historical assessments of presidential administrations follow a drearily
predictable pattern. First come the briefs for and against, then the partial,
padded, and self-serving memoirs (those concerning Clinton's reign, including
the ones written by the former president and First Lady, aren't better or worse
than the usual lot, but they're especially cringe-inducing). The reading public,
if it's particularly unlucky, will also be treated to a treacly quasi-official
history of the Sorensenian or Schlesingerian variety. All these products are,
of course, forms of special pleading, and all are therefore more or less dishonest.
And journalists' instant histories, for their part, either reflect the agendas
of their sources or read like an assemblage of old Newsweek stories.
Harris, who covered the Clinton White House for The Washington Post,
has larger ambitions. True, he obviously has nicely placed sources, and they've
dished him some B-plus dirt (meaning gossip that's contrary to the official story
and often embarrassing to the former president, although is now of merely historical
interest). But he judiciously uses that gossip to elucidate significant policy
or political decisions, or to show how that administration was hobbled by scandals
of its own making (or by cover-ups, stonewalling, or prevarications concerning
same). Harris, in short, has written a responsible, honest, tough, and -- best
of all -- considered assessment of Clinton's presidency that will endear him
to neither Clinton's enthusiastic supporters nor his vitriolic detractors. Undeniably,
the administration lurched from indignity to indignity, which meant that it was
usually operating defensively and that Clinton's governing was often marked by
passivity and drift. But Harris convincingly limns a defining and enduring (and
Wall Street-friendly) Clinton ideology: "a mild but innovative brand of liberalism
that favored economic growth over redistribution, insisted that government pay
its way rather than rely on budget deficits, and embraced free trade rather than
taking refuge in protectionism." To be sure, Harris demonstrates that Clinton
(almost certainly to a greater extent than his successor) appreciated the threat
posed by Islamist terrorism, but he also demonstrates that Clinton's anxiety
that his motives would be held suspect prevented him from adequately meeting
that threat. And indeed, "he had followed a pattern of limited disclosure, evasive
or false public explanations, and shabby personal conduct," so his "presumption
of suspicion was far from unreasonable." In this crucial way, Harris concludes,
Clinton failed to conduct a responsible presidency. And in this as in so many
other ways, Clinton proved himself, to borrow from Fitzgerald, a man of vast
carelessness, who ruinously made the personal political and left it to others
to clean up the mess he made.
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