Telling the Story of the Clinton Presidency

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"The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton"
Doubleday; 230 pages; $22.95

In the early 1990s, Bill Clinton had no bigger cheerleader in the press than Joe Klein. Like a schoolgirl with a crush on the captain of the football team, Klein felt that Clinton could do no wrong, claiming that he had "a virtuosity that seems almost bionic," and the Arkansas governor did all he could to make him feel special (including, as Klein notes in his new book, a little friendly frottage in a bowling alley on the eve of the New Hampshire primary: "Clinton bowled in his stocking feet, his white shirttail hanging out. At times, as we stood there, waiting for our balls to return down the alley, he'd lean up against me — a strange feline sensation; he needed the physical contact."). However, as with seemingly all of Clinton's casual seductions, something went sour, leaving Klein (as Maureen Dowd would astutely point out in a 1996 New York Times Op-Ed piece) feeling used and bitter, a bitterness to which he gave copious vent, both in his 1994 Newsweek article "The Politics of Promiscuity" and his anonymous roman clef, "Primary Colors" (Klein now contends that the latter "was considered, incorrectly to my mind, an attack on the president" — and if you believe that, you might want to consider making a bid on the bridge spanning Brooklyn and Manhattan that I'm currently auctioning off on eBay).

But now, as the Clinton Administration begins to recede into history, Klein has taken another, slightly more nuanced look at the priapic policy wonk from Arkansas and, much like a former girlfriend at a college reunion who's dropped thirty pounds for the occasion, Clinton's starting to look pretty good after all, as Klein attempts to demonstrate in his potted history of the Clinton years, "The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton" (Doubleday;230 pages; $22.95).

It's generally acknowledged that Bill Clinton's presidency got off to one of the worst starts in history (only William Henry Harrison can be said to have done worse, primarily because he dropped dead after a month in office), but Klein makes a persuasive case that the disastrous mid-term election of 1994, which swept away the Democratic congressional gerontocracy, replacing it with Newt Gingrich's Republican ideologues, was the real making of his administration. Calling in desperation for the services of his own personal Mephistopheles, pollster Dick Morris, Clinton began to, in Klein's words, move "quietly, patiently and very, very deftly to rebuild his presidency and win reelection. It was an astonishing, if subtle, display of political virtuosity." With Newt Gingrich, the newly elected Speaker of the House, drunk on his own perceived power and fancying himself as the leader of a "Wesleyan revolution" in America, Clinton knew that, as Klein puts it, "the culture of the federal capital was essentially conservative: It was far easier to oppose than to propose, the status quo was nearly as impregnable from the right as it was from the left. So he would lay low, let the Republicans try to enact the tough medicine they promised in order to cut taxes while balancing the budget, and then he would pick them apart... The strategy was known within the White House as 'Smoke Them Out.' Over time, it would work better than anyone expected."

This section of the book, detailing how Clinton's new-found incrementalism allowed him to nickel-and-dime a recalcitrant Republican Congress into allocating more for social programs than they might have otherwise provided, makes for surprisingly gripping reading. Although he takes a far more roseate view of Clinton's attempt at welfare reform, for example, than many traditional liberals, that's part of his point — that Bill Clinton's enduring legacy is to have moved the Democratic Party permanently away from the traditional entitlement shibboleths of the1970s towards a more centrist approach that would enable it to be competitive on the national level.

On the nuts and bolts of this, still underrated accomplishment, Klein is outstanding. But when he's forced to descend into the trough of scandal, investigation, extra-marital dalliances and the impeachment that both traumatized and trivialized Clinton's final years in office, his prose tends to emit a somewhat refried quality — not only because the adolescent irrationality behind much of Clinton's behavior has him totally flummoxed, but also because Klein, unlike most of the press, can only get prurient about policy. Comprehending the drives of a man who could get sexually involved with a barely legal, indiscreet intern in the Oval Office, is completely beyond him.

Even with the perspective afforded us after the events of September 11th finally rang down the curtain on the navel-gazing nineties (for which period Bill Clinton was perhaps the perfect avatar, as its endless self-absorption nearly matched his own), it is still far too soon to write a balanced account of the tumultuous but, in retrospect, trivial Clinton years. Whether Bill Clinton will go down in history as a man who, as Klein believes, "conducted a serious, substantive presidency" or, as seems likely at the moment, he will be regarded as the Calvin Coolidge of the nineties, the man who presided over a frivolous interregnum of peace and prosperity bookmarked by the end of the Cold War on the one hand and the start of the War on Terrorism on the other, is unclear. But Joe Klein's slight but intermittently incisive book is a useful and concise first step towards that eventual assessment.