Honey, I Shrunk My Presidency

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Early in The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton, Joe Klein delivers a factoid that proves the title. Three statements of the former President were deemed worthy of being cited in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: "I didn't inhale," "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," and "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

Clinton spoke millions of words — must he go three for three with quotes that trite? If anyone could right the score, Klein would be the guy. Sure, there was the slippery, glib Southern pol inside Bill Clinton, but there was also the thoughtful, work-till-the-last-dog-dies wunderkind. As the first reporter to swoon over the Governor from Arkansas (no one fell harder, save perhaps the New Yorker's Sidney Blumenthal, who fell so hard he ended up inside the Administration), Klein seemed the most famously disappointed whenever the good Clinton gave way to the bad. Klein expressed it best in Primary Colors, the novel about a larger-than-life good ole boy with appetites as expansive as his brain. Fiction allowed Klein (writing as "Anonymous") to fill in the blanks about Clinton with things he knew to be true but no reporter could document. After reading the book, you just knew that Clinton stuffed his face with doughnuts till sugar spilled out of his mouth and that he would cheat on his wife and do anything to cover it up.

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In taking on the task of reconciling Clinton the Scalawag with Clinton the Brilliant Policymaker, Klein walks us briskly through the White House years, showing us a President who balanced the budget, reformed welfare, passed NAFTA, bailed out Mexico; who brought stability to Bosnia and instability to Newt Gingrich. Like everyone else, Klein is critical of Clinton's handing the health-care brief to Hillary and leaving decisions unmade so long it looked as if he could be rolled. But Klein argues that Clinton was never as inept in diplomatic matters as his critics charged and that he was a good negotiator-schmoozer. Not doing more than ineffectively going after Osama bin Laden's training camps by air looks "downright embarrassing," but Klein points out how difficult it is for any President to "rouse a happy, peaceful populace" to war against an abstraction; it takes an attack like 9/11.

But just as the reader thinks hey, maybe Clinton wasn't so bad after all, Monica raises her beret-clad head. For a moment, Klein indulges Clinton's blame shifting, pointing to the capital's investigatory madness and scandal-mongering press. (As Anonymous, he could empathize.) But quickly he shows that Monica was the vehicle for bringing forth Clinton's pre-existing conditions, his flabby, self-pitying side, the one that thought he deserved to take his pleasure where he could find it and could talk his way out of it if caught.

Klein brings no information of the forehead-slapping sort about what went on between the Clintons during the Monica debacle. Several days before special prosecutor Ken Starr was due at the White House to take the testimony that would give Bartlett's one of its quotes, Hillary still didn't know that Starr had the goods on her husband. Did Clinton ever own up to her face-to-face, admit there was a stained blue dress? Klein raises the question whether Hillary's coldness was faked to make people think she was normal or whether she is normal and actually wanted to break his neck.

Klein recalls Hillary's late friend Diane Blair telling him about an intense argument the Clintons had in the White House, after which the President covered Hillary's face with kisses, murmuring, "God, what would I do without you!" But Klein concedes that "the Clinton marriage remains the great abiding mystery of his presidency." Maybe one of the spouses can illuminate it for us in his or her memoirs.

One of Clinton's biggest mistakes, Klein writes, was the "angry, unapologetic, ungracious" speech to the nation after his grand-jury testimony. At one time, Klein garnered headlines for his own lack of apology after he lied about Anonymous all the way to the top of the best-seller list. He tries to correct that — at least with his former editor at Newsweek, the late Maynard Parker. "I will always be grateful to Maynard for keeping the secret of Primary Colors, and will always regret that I did not understand the pain it would cause us both when I allowed it go on so long."

Ah, if only Clinton could see his way to such an admission. Clinton was not the only President who could have defeated the deficit, but he may be the only one who would drag the country through one of the most tawdry sex scandals ever and then argue with a straight face that he had saved the Constitution by fighting impeachment for lying about it. Until he says he's sorry about that, no book can make him less misunderstood.