The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House
by John F Harris
No. 42: the image and the flip sides
A review by Linda Feldmann
It is called The Survivor, but this history of the Clinton presidency
by Washington Post political reporter John F. Harris could just as easily have
been called "The Roller Coaster." If it had seemed improbable at the time that
the governor of Arkansas could become a two-term president of the United States,
it seems equally improbable in the retelling. In vivid detail, Harris leads us
through the ups and downs of a presidency that seemed to end soon after it began,
only to adapt and at times soar in the face of adversity.
For every negative characterization of Clinton's management style -- see "tardiness,
tantrums, turmoil among his staff" -- Harris offers the flip side: a president
bursting with restless energy, generous of spirit, and entertaining to watch,
"always loading his plate a little higher at life's buffet." Harris also presents
plenty of evidence to belie the notion that the president slavishly followed
the lead of opinion polls. When Clinton pushed for deficit reduction, propped
up the Mexican peso, and intervened in the Kosovo crisis, he did so despite
a wary public.
At the same time, Harris recounts, Clinton seemed especially adept at taking
divisive social issues, such as school prayer and affirmative action, and threading
the proverbial needle, so as to give most Americans a feeling that he understood
their point of view -- even if he wasn't doing exactly what they wanted.
Behind the scenes, of course, Clinton flirted with self-destruction as he carried
on a sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and nearly lost it all,
both office and family. Overcoming the shame and public mendacity that episode
brought -- culminating in impeachment but not conviction -- represents the ultimate
example of Clinton as survivor.
Harris took on a gargantuan task -- assessing a presidency that has already
been analyzed from many perspectives, including those of Bill and Hillary Clinton
in their memoirs. Harris covered the Clinton White House from 1995 to 2001,
and then interviewed many key players again for this book, though apparently
not the Clintons themselves. He presents a balanced picture, at times giving
Clinton the benefit of the doubt, but with enough facts to let readers draw
their own conclusions. In a few places, he includes some questionable points
Most compelling is Harris's analysis of the relationships and behind-the-scenes
details that add flesh and nuance -- or even contradiction -- to real-time news
Most important is Mrs. Clinton, now a potential presidential candidate. After Harris's early assessments of Hillary, her eventual emergence as a major Democratic figure in her own right would seem improbable. She is portrayed as peevish and imperious, demanding, for example, that Madeleine Albright be named secretary of State and leading her husband to costly political failure with her plan for healthcare reform. By the end of the book, she gets credit for learning a thing or two: "After eight years in Washington, she had become ever alert to the perils of overreach."
Al Gore fares less well. Harris seems to agree with the Clintons' view that Vice President Gore has no one but himself to blame for losing the 2000 election, given the time of peace and prosperity.
Back in the larger-than-life column sits Dick Morris, the political guru credited
with rescuing Clinton in time for him to win reelection easily -- but a man
so divisive that his role sat hidden for months. "Their collaboration carried
an aroma of prostitution -- a relationship that was thoroughly transactional,
at once intimate and impersonal, driven by mutual need with an overlay of shame,"
Harris writes artfully.
In these highly partisan times, Clinton-haters will likely find Harris's even-toned take unsatisfying. But as the jockeying begins for the 2008 presidential race, there's much to be learned from the story of a man who won the presidency twice, even if he never quite cracked the 50 percent mark at the ballot box.
is a staff writer in Washington.
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