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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 24th, 2005


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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