The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton
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About the author
JOE KLEIN is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of the novels Primary Colors and The Running Mate and two non-fiction books–Woody Guthrie: A life and Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam.
From the Hardcover edition.
Joe Klein, best-selling author of Primary Colors and one of our most brilliant political analysts, now tackles the subject he knows best: Bill Clinton. Astute, even-handed, and keenly intelligent, The Natural is the only book to read if you want to understand exactly what happened–to the military, to the economy, to the American people, to the country–during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and how the decisions made during his tenure affect all of us today.
Much has been written about Clinton, but The Natural is the first work to cut through the gossip, scandals, media hype, and emotional turbulence that Clinton always engendered, to step back and rationally analyze the eight years of his tenure, a period during which America rose to unprecedented levels of prosperity. Joe Klein puts that record into perspective, showing us what worked and what didn’t, exactly what was accomplished and why, and who was responsible for the successes and the failures.
We see how the Clinton White House functioned on the inside, how it dealt with the maneuvers of Congress and the Gingrich revolution, and who held power and made the decisions during the endless crises that beset the administration. Klein’s access to the White House over the years as a journalist gave him a prime spot from which to view every crucial event–both political and personal–and he sets them forth in an insightful, readable, and completely engrossing manner.
The Natural is stern in its criticism and convincing with its praise. It will cause endless debate amongst friends and foes of the Clinton administration. It is a book that anyone interested in contemporary politics, in American history, or in the functioning of our democracy, should read.
From the Hardcover edition.
Beneath a khaki sky on a brisk, desolate weekday morning just after Christmas 1991, Bill Clinton's mother gave me a tour of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the town where she had raised her two boys through a succession of family melodramas. Virginia Kelley was an unlikely, but wonderfully American, candidate to be the mother of a President. She was the sort of woman whom proper folks tend to scorn, particularly in the South: a ton of makeup, almost comically applied; a white streak down the middle of her dyed black hair (some of the locals called her "skunk woman"); a passion for the racetrack, for nightlife--Hot Springs had been a notorious Bible Belt Gomorrah--and for the wrong sort of men. And yet, Mrs. Kelley was not at all pathetic; she was canny and formidable and charming; an entertaining guide who, in the course of our day together, managed to ask all the right political questions and also to make some very astute predictions. "I think the press is going to give Bill a lot of trouble." She sighed. "Don't you?"
At one point she startled me. "That's the church where I go to my A.A. meetings," she said, nodding toward a prim Protestant outpost of recent vintage.
"An alcoholic?" she interrupted me. "No, but I had one for a husband and a drug addict for a son--and I get a certain amount of comfort from the meetings."
This was not entirely convincing. She had the leathery look of a woman who knew her way around a cocktail lounge. But the attempted subterfuge wasn't nearly as important as the door opened by her admission: Mrs. Kelley lived in the twelve-step world. She was practiced in a stylized, jargon-buffered sort of candor. She proceeded to tell me horrific stories, all of which she had undoubtedly rehearsed sitting with her fellow fallen in a circle of metal folding chairs in the linoleum-and-cinderblock church basement (most of the stories had not been divulged to the press before, though). She told me about guns brandished about the house and accidentally fired by her alcoholic husband, Roger, who was Bill's stepfather. She told me about the time Bill had smashed through the bedroom door and stopped her drunken husband from abusing her. She told me that she and Bill and her younger son, Roger, had gone into family therapy together after Roger was busted for cocaine (while Bill was governor; the surveillance and arrest took place with Bill's prior approval).
The last was an admission that I didn't appreciate sufficiently at the time: Bill Clinton was the first American President to admit that he had participated in a form of psychotherapy. One imagines him totally cooperative, wildly eloquent, emotionally accessible, flagrantly remorseful . . . and completely in control of the situation, three steps ahead of the therapist--the analysand from hell.
Several days later, as I traveled with Clinton through New Hampshire--he was in the process of taking that first primary state by storm (a process snuffed a few weeks later by the twin revelations that he'd had an extramarital affair with a lounge singer and that he'd not quite told the truth about his efforts to avoid military service in Vietnam)--I asked Clinton what he'd learned in family therapy, and whether it had been odd growing up in a family where the two career paths turned out to be getting elected governor and becoming a cocaine addict.
"Well," he said without hesitation, "there are different sorts of addictions."
By which I assumed he meant--I was, quite frankly, too embarrassed to pursue this very aggressively--that his addiction was to fame and success and glory. Of course, even if I had pursued it, Clinton undoubtedly would have used some brilliant tactic to skitter away (at least, that's how I now rationalize my journalistic incompetence). But the conversation did establish an important subtext for Clinton's success as a politician in the 1990s: his thorough mastery of the therapeutic vocabulary and the trompe l'oeil sense of intimacy it provided. Certainly, I'd never met a politician like him before. I barely knew the man and we were talking, or seeming to talk, about the most ridiculously intimate things. This set a certain tone, and some rather strange parameters, for the relationship that evolved between us. I probably should say a few words about that.
We had met a few years earlier. He was immediately impressive. He seemed to know everything there was to know about domestic social policy. "Just remarkable," David Osborne, the author of Laboratories of Democracy, a book about some of the more successful state governors in the 1980s, once told me. "You call him up and ask, 'Who's doing interesting things in housing?' And he can tell you what everyone is doing--every last housing experiment in every state."
I had similar conversations with Clinton early on--about education and welfare reform and the impact of globalization on the national economy. As a result, our relationship was quite good at first. It turned chillier during the course of his campaign for the presidency in 1992, and then it became very cold indeed during his first two years as President, as he appeared to abandon the moderate path he had set for himself in the campaign; finally, toward the end of his years in office, we had a rapprochement. Our differences--or rather, my criticisms (he never complained directly to me about anything I said or wrote)--were often harsh and sometimes inappropriate, but almost always over matters of substance.
We were, in fact, from the same part of the ideological jungle: a rather obscure, eclectic tribe known as the "New Democrats"--the vagueness of that designation made my attempts to enforce a philosophical rigor on him all the more ridiculous--but neither of us was very comfortable there. The conventions of journalism prevented me from ever fitting too neatly into any political niche (although, as a columnist for New York magazine, Newsweek, and The New Yorker, my predilections were obvious to most readers). As for Clinton, he was too good a politician to be confined: He expanded the definition of a New Democrat to include anyone who might at some point vote for him. Over time, this infuriated almost everyone involved in the Democratic Party's perpetual internecine wars.
So I'd written favorably about him, with a few notable exceptions--most involving his shameless fudging and jiving on the campaign trail--when he'd run for President in 1992. I was more critical when he seemed to slouch leftward during the first few years of his presidency: away from welfare reform and education reform, toward a clumsy, anachronistic health insurance scheme and, not least, by surrounding himself with some very high-profile Old Democrats in both the cabinet and the West Wing--during the first few years of his presidency. And then, in 1996, my anonymous novel called Primary Colors was published. It caused something of a sensation and was considered, incorrectly to my mind, an attack on the President. Actually, I had come to a more benign point of view while writing the book: I saw it as a defense of larger-than-life politicians--who, inevitably, have mythic weaknesses entangled with their obvious strengths. In the end, it seemed obvious that a larger-than-life leader was preferable to one who was smaller than life. It also was becoming clear--sadly so, I thought--that "larger than life" was a difficult personality type for a politician in the Information Age: The media's perpetual, uninflected and cynical puritanism exaggerated the flaws and neutered the strengths. (Primary Colors was intended to be as much about the witless intensity of life in the spotlight, and the velocity of modern politics, as it was about the nature of the people who succeed in the arena.)
Happily, Clinton seemed to be able to float above the barrage--he was the world's biggest, fattest target, but somehow managed to keep himself impervious to assault. As a public performer, he was mesmerizing, maddening, transcendent. He dominated a brutal political landscape so completely as to make my ideological quibbles appear foolish; and his more serious political opponents were continually frustrated by his buoyancy and appalled by his effulgent appetites--perhaps I should put "appalled" in quotation marks, given the hypocrisy of their dismay (especially when it came to adultery, which, during the Clinton years, proved a pastime that merrily transcended partisan boundaries). To judge from Clinton's consistently high approval ratings in the polls, the public was more tolerant--and, perhaps, secretly enjoyed--these unruly passions.
I'D FIRST MET BILL CLINTON at a meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council in Philadelphia, in 1989. We were introduced by Al From, the president of the DLC, who hooked a thumb in Clinton's direction and said, "This guy delivers our message better than any other politician."
The Democratic Leadership Council had been formed in 1985, as a moderate, mostly Southern response to the leftward rush--and attendant electoral failures--of the Democratic Party since the 1960s. There was a fair amount of skepticism among mainstream (read: liberal) Democrats about the DLC, whose early meetings were notable mostly for the number of corporate lobbyists in attendance. The group was derided as the "Southern White Boys," or, in Jesse Jackson's phrase, "Democrats for the Leisure Class." The inference was that these were Democrats who were uncomfortable with the politically inconvenient, but profoundly moral, decision their party had made to embrace the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s, a time when the Republicans had successfully--and not very subtly--launched a "Southern strategy" designed to cultivate the region's white majority. (As a result, the Democrats had lost the South in every presidential election since 1964--except for Jimmy Carter's 1976 victory--and, with the advent of Ronald Reagan, they had begun to lose the white, blue-collar vote in the rest of the country as well.)
By the mid-1980s, the Democrats seemed permanently boggled. The moderates in the party were held hostage by a cornucopia of special interest groups (feminists, minorities, environmentalists, trade unionists) who seemed more concerned with the purity of their causes than with winning elections. There was an intellectual sclerosis as well. The most vocal activists on the left tended to blame "society"--which really meant the free market system--for the rapidly rising crime rate and for a relatively new, stubbornly persistent form of intergenerational poverty, which was marked by out-of-wedlock births and welfare dependency. Indeed, many liberal Democrats refused to acknowledge--or worse, dismissed as "racist"--the tidal wave of sociological research that proved, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan had first observed in 1965, that the disintegration of the two-parent family in poor African-American neighborhoods was having vast social consequences: that children born to single mothers were far more likely to drop out of school, to use drugs, to commit crimes, and to become single parents themselves than were children born into households where a father and mother were both present. Anyone who suggested that poor people might have a better chance to succeed if they behaved more responsibly was said to be "blaming the victim." At its worst, this witless, reflexive, and utterly condescending tendency held the poor to a lower standard of morality than the rest of society and expanded the definition of "victimhood" to include most criminals.
The Democrats also suffered from a near-absolute belief in the immorality of almost every sort of American military activity abroad in the post-Vietnam era, from the placing of Pershing missiles in Europe to various (in fairness, almost always dubious and very often criminal) crusades against indigenous villains in Latin America to the prosecution of the Gulf War. And finally, at a time when government had lost credibility and was beset by enormous budget deficits, the Democrats were, proudly, the party of government. The largest, most powerful factions in the party were the public employees unions, particularly the teachers unions (who had come to represent the single largest bloc of delegates at the quadrennial Democratic Party nominating convention). "We're the party of teachers," a frustrated Al From said at the end of the futile Dukakis campaign for the presidency in 1988, "when we should be the party of education."
And so, there came to be a yearning among many Democrats, even non-Southerners, for a less precious party. Traditional liberalism seemed stale, elitist, and, in many of its social and foreign policy nostrums, just plain wrong. The conservatives, who had built vast think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, were quicker, fresher, and more confident in debate; often, they seemed more interested in new ideas than the Democrats did (the Heritage Foundation, for example, had developed an ideologically counterintuitive proposal for universal health insurance--a voucher plan funded by a progressive tax on wealthier Americans) Al From was jealous. He believed that the only way to reinvigorate the Democratic Party was to reinvent liberalism; he was very much in the market for new ideas and new leaders. He longed for a Heritage-style operation and, in 1989, the Democratic Leadership Council launched a small think tank called the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). This turned out to be From's second most important initiative that year: The first was to recruit Bill Clinton to become the chairman of the DLC.
In April 1989, From went to Little Rock and offered Clinton the job. There followed a halting, anguished mating ritual of the sort that has now become Bill Clinton's signature in both life and politics. The governor seemed to love the idea, but . . . he didn't quite accept the post. Months passed and From grew impatient. He saw Clinton again in the autumn and then again at the National Governors Conference in February 1990. There was still no firm commitment. "What's going on?" From fumed. "You said you were going to do it. Well, are you or aren't you?"
"I've got a big decision to make," Clinton told him. "I've got to decide whether I'm going to run for governor again. If I don't do it, I'm going to have to figure out some way to make $100,000 a year to support my family."
"I said to him, 'You stupid son-of-a-bitch, I'll pay you $100,000 right now to be chairman of the DLC,' " From later recalled, with a laugh. "That's why I never believed he was money-corrupt during the Whitewater business--the guy had no sense of his own worth."
In time, Clinton chose to do both: He ran for reelection as governor and became chairman of the DLC (without pay). But one sensed a reluctance on Clinton's part to identify himself so closely with one wing of the Democratic Party; his ties to the liberals were older, and just as deep--he'd run Texas for George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972 and he included old friends like the liberal political scientist, Robert Reich, then of Harvard, and Marion Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, among his closest advisors. McGovern himself went so far, early in the 1992 campaign, as to describe the Clinton's New Democratic project as a liberal "Trojan horse."
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“Joe Klein knew Bill Clinton before the rest of us did. Now he reminds us what we forgot–and what history will remember. The best book yet on an astonishing presidency.” -H.W. Brands, author of The First American and T.R.: The Last Romantic
“Any one of Joe Klein’s skills–dogged reporting, a thorough, subtle grasp of issues, and a clear-eyed, compelling style–would make him the envy of most political journalists. By putting all of these skills to work on such a rich subject as Bill Clinton, Klein has produced the first indispensable book on the Clinton Presidency. He has performed the almost impossible task of fighting past the melodramas and sex farces to ask–and answer–the question so often obscured by the larger-than-life Clinton persona: ‘What kind of President was this?’ Friend or foe of the forty-second President, you will find your judgments challenged by this book.”
-Jeff Greenfield, host of CNN’s Greenfield at Large and author of Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow
“When they talk about the first draft of history, this is the epitome of what they mean.”
-Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and American Sphinx
From the Hardcover edition.