The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton

by Joe Klein

Published by Doubleday

208 pages, 2002


Buy it online


 

Bill Clinton and Black America

by DeWayne Wickham

Published by Ballantine Books/One World

310 pages, 2002


Buy it online


 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hail to the Chief

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

 

It came as no surprise recently to learn that former U.S. President Bill Clinton is going to be late in finishing his memoirs, a book for which Alfred A. Knopf ponied up a record-setting $12 million advance. The New York Times reported that rather than hire a professional ghostwriter, the quondam commander in chief "is planning to write [the book] largely by himself," devoting one or two days a week to the project -- apparently all the time he has left around a busy post-presidential schedule filled with speeches, international aid conferences and fundraising events for Democratic candidates. Fortunately, Knopf is demonstrating extraordinary patience; a spokesman said, "If the book comes out in 2004, that is going to be terrific. If it comes out in 2005, that is going to be fine, too."

Anyone who watched this most ambitious, protean, tactically astute and, yes, brilliantly wonkish American politician during his eight tumultuous years in the White House knows that Clinton never let mere deadlines control him. He tinkered with his annual State of the Union speeches up to the very last nanosecond before he was to deliver them on television. He conducted all-night sessions with his aides in order to hammer out the nuances of legislation or strategize ways to get around an obstructionist, Republican-led Congress. And whenever he delivered a public address, he seemed more than willing to stick around long afterward, to shake hands with members of the audience and listen to average citizens spell out their problems, his willingness to dive into an appreciative crowd raising flop sweat on the brows of his Secret Service detail.

Clinton was that rarest of modern presidents: a man who, having been reared in humble circumstances, never lost sight of the fact that he was the advocate of average Americans, not just a tool of his nation's wealthiest 1 per cent. Although he was forced on occasion into uncomfortable compromises, seemingly betraying some constituencies in the short-term in order to achieve longer-term successes (his signing of welfare reform legislation provided a good example of this), his majority of supporters remained confident that he had their best wishes at heart. Even after the dramatic failure of his universal health-care proposal in 1994 (which led to Republicans taking control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years); even in the midst of incendiary partisan attacks on his character, as Clinton's GOP foes conspired to turn his brief, personal relationship with a White House intern into a career-ending scandal (a campaign well documented in The Hunting of the President, by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons), he continued to act as the public's most optimistic yet pragmatic champion. He crafted crime bills and education initiatives, fought to protect huge swaths of public land from commercial encroachment (Clinton's conservation record as president is second only to Theodore Roosevelt's), worked tirelessly to broker peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, and exhibited the fiscal discipline necessary to eliminate mammoth budget deficits left by the Reagan and first Bush administrations, to leave the United States with unprecedented surpluses.

Though scolded by the press for being too free with his presidential pardons at the last, Bill Clinton left office with the highest sustained job approval ratings of any U.S. president since John F. Kennedy.

Even a year and a half out of office (Is that all? It seems like much longer), the charismatic Clinton continues to make headlines, whether by speaking at a recent AIDS conference in Barcelona, analyzing the plague of corporate improprieties that have been driving down American stock market values or eschewing TV talk-show offers. Which is undoubtedly why Knopf forgives him his authorial dilatoriness. Turning just 56 years old later this month -- the youngest ex-president since, again, Theodore Roosevelt -- Bill Clinton is likely to be around, a newsmaking elder statesman, for much longer than he occupied the White House.

You can count me among those who'll stand in line to buy Clinton's memoirs, whenever they show up in bookstores. Not because I care to read his perspective on the Monica Lewinsky brouhaha, or because I want a rehashing of his rise as a "Third Way" leader, but because I'm curious to know what he thinks about all that has happened since he left office. As his Republican successor, George W. Bush, loses public trust and support -- his poll numbers slipping due to intensified scrutiny of his (and Vice President Dick Cheney's) business practices, Bush's dubious management of the U.S. economy and his unilateralist approach to foreign affairs -- it's only natural that voters should be interested in the perspectives to be offered by previous Oval Office-holders, particularly the skillful Clinton.

In the meantime, however, we'll have to make do with a growing array of books about the Clinton era, written by others. Two of these works, published over the last several months and taking quite different approaches to the last presidency, stand out: Joe Klein's The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton and Black America, by DeWayne Wickham.

* * *

Klein, you may remember, is the former Newsweek staffer and current New Yorker scribe who, under the literary cover of "Anonymous," penned that 1996 bildungsroman, Primary Colors, which many Clinton critics saw as an attack on the president. (Instead, the author insists in a Salon interview, his novel was born more out of a sense of conflicted affection.) His opinions of the 42nd U.S. president have yawed from adoring to admonishing. An early supporter of then-Arkansas Governor Clinton's 1992 race for the White House, Klein saw in the young centrist Democrat a disillusionment with big government and an impatience with liberal pieties that matched his own. He subsequently marveled at Clinton's ability to weather accusations of adultery and "draft dodging," and go on to secure the highest elected office in the United States. "That Bill Clinton survived, won his party's nomination and then defeated a sitting president who'd once enjoyed record levels of public support," Klein wrote in Newsweek in 1993, "must rank as one of the most extraordinary political stories in American history."

However, the journalist's disillusionment with Clinton began soon afterward, as the new president was sidetracked by the issue of gays in the military, let his call for health-care reform be turned into a big-government fiasco and seemed unable to escape sexual scandal. In a widely quoted 1994 Newsweek piece, Klein contended that Clinton's reported lack of personal discipline was reflected in his sloppy policy-making.

The Natural falls somewhere between the giddy Klein and the grumpy one. It's more a mediation on Clinton's legacy than a blow-by-blow account of his triumphs and triangulations. At the same time as Klein chides the president for his early foreign-policy blunders (in Somalia and Haiti), and wonders wistfully what greater goals Clinton might have reached had he not handed his enemies the cudgel of his Lewinsky liaison, the author observes:

Bill Clinton conducted a serious, substantive presidency; his domestic policy achievements were not inconsiderable and were accomplished against great odds. He had rescued the Democratic Party from irrelevance and pursued a new philosophy of governance that made private-sector activism plausible once more, even in a time of national apathy and skepticism. Moreover, he performed the most important service that a leader can provide: He saw the world clearly and reacted prudently to the challenges he faced; he explained a complicated economic transformation to the American people and brought them to the edge of a new era.

Despite griping among conservatives that Clinton could be swayed too readily by the winds of public opinion (a charge just as easily leveled against the poll-watching Bush fils), Klein explains that some of the former president's most consequential acts were gut-driven ones. Like his fight to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), over the objections of many fellow Democrats, or his quick response in January 1995 to the collapse of the Mexican peso. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a former investment banker, told the president that if the United States didn't help bail out the peso, there was every possibility of a global economic collapse. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that by a margin of more than five-to-one, Americans opposed extending an economic lifeline to their southern neighbors, and congressional Republicans -- led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- were absolutely unwilling to assist in any such undertaking, convinced that Mexico was a bad loan risk. Yet Clinton, assured by Rubin that the money could be advanced without congressional approval, did what he thought best:

"We pointed out to him that there was no guarantee the support program would work," Rubin recalled. "And if it didn't work, it might be very damaging to his reelection prospects. But it didn't take ten minutes for him to make the decision. He just said: 'Let's do it.'"

"I was so blown away by that," [Clinton adviser George] Stephanopoulos recalled. "I went home that night and wrote the President a fan letter." (The Mexicans, to the surprise of almost everyone, paid back the loan ahead of schedule.)

Although the GOP takeover of Congress in that same year looked like an unmitigated disaster for Democrats, Klein reiterates the case (made best in Elizabeth Drew's 1996 book, Showdown, but presented more succinctly here) that it was actually beneficial in focusing the president's mind and agenda. Gingrich and his fellow Republicans misinterpreted the 1994 mid-term election results as a mandate to reverse President Clinton's course for the country, and wound up arrogantly overplaying their hands. A late-1995 congressional budget battle gave the White House a chance to turn the tables. Clinton's top advisers recommended that he use his bully pulpit to denounce the GOP's version of a fiscal 1996 balanced budget plan (which included deep, unpopular cuts in Medicare and Medicaid) -- essentially, "do unto the Republicans what they had done to him on health care in 1994: Let them suffocate under the weight of their own proposal," Klein writes. But Clinton took a more aggressive, more presidential tack. He put his own, less onerous budget-balancing blueprint on the table, which allowed him to argue terms of an agreement, rather than be perceived as opposing fiscal restraint. Convinced that Clinton had been neutered by their rise to power, Gingrich & Co. refused to compromise, precipitating two government shutdowns at the end of that year, for which the public overwhelmingly blamed Republicans. Klein raises the intriguing question here of whether Gingrich was merely being ideologically intransigent in this contest of wills, or whether he'd been deliberately misinformed that Clinton's resolve would crumble under sufficient pressure. Either way, the GOP lost, contributing to the humiliating defeat of their presidential candidate, Senator Bob Dole, in the following autumn.

That budget battle, Klein opines, "would prove a significant turning point in the history of the Clinton presidency: the first sign that he had figured out Washington's legislative process." It gave him the confidence -- and public backing -- to win passage of myriad progressive plans, even though some took effect incrementally and without the fanfare they deserved. For instance, while Clinton was defeated on universal health care, he presided over a dramatic expansion of programs targeted at the middle class and working poor, including: a health-care initiative covering 3.3 million needy children; a doubling of Head Start and school aid for disadvantaged youngsters; and an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit for millions of poor families. He made revisions in the welfare reform legislation, restoring support to legal immigrants and increasing funds to assist single mothers. His 1997 college tax credit plan, effectively making the first two years of college a middle-class entitlement, "was larger than the GI Bill of Rights, which only applied to returning World War II veterans," Klein points out. (By 1999, 10 million of the 14 million Americans eligible for the credit had taken advantage of it.) In spite of right-wing blustering about how Clinton favored expanding the federal government, he created only one new bureaucracy -- AmeriCorps, his national service program, modeled on Kennedy's thriving Peace Corps -- and that was semi-private, run principally through the states. Looking back, it's clear that Clinton was able to deliver on most of his campaign promises by being patient and persistent; if one plan failed to gain funding from the GOP-controlled Congress, he tried another and another after that, until he succeeded. Klein quotes Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, as saying, "[Clinton] was more effective than any other President, by far, in using the budget process to get what he wanted. Of course, the Republicans -- who were totally inept -- gave him a lot of help."

Atop his domestic accomplishments were Clinton's foreign-policy victories. He advanced democracy and the growth of free markets in Russia through his association with the often-erratic Boris Yeltsin (a friendship well analyzed in Strobe Talbott's new book, The Russia Hand); helped to build the long-elusive foundations of peace in Northern Ireland; eased tensions on the Korean Peninsula (though those tensions have escalated again since Bush entered the White House); launched the bombing campaign on Kosovo, which expanded NATO's role in combating ethnic and genocidal conflicts in Europe; and, perhaps most importantly, showed that economic power could be wielded as beneficially as military might on the world stage.

Don't get the wrong impression: Klein neither ignores nor apologizes for the downsides of his subject's record. The Natural is all to ready to trot out the heedless horsemen of Clinton's near-apocalypse: Lewinsky, Paula Jones, independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the rest (the same gang so pungently portrayed in James Carville's ...And the Horse He Rode In On: The People v. Kenneth Starr). He doesn't blame the former president's failings exclusively on America's scandal-obsessed media, naïve young women or right-wing hatemongers, but lays much of the responsibility correctly at Clinton's feet; so bright in many ways, the tall Arkansan could be downright reckless in his behavior toward women. Klein traces Clinton's troubles, as well, to Washington, D.C.'s three-decades-old culture of political inquisition (born during the Watergate epoch) and the ambivalence Baby Boomers felt toward one of their own at the nation's helm: "Bill Clinton often seemed the apotheosis of his generation's alleged sins: the moral relativism, the tendency to pay more attention to marketing than to substance, the solipsistic callowness."

Still, Klein seems to miss the 42nd president, especially in the wake of the September 11 outrages, when the U.S. ship of state demands a steady hand at its helm. He acknowledges the irony here: Clinton had survived press abuse and political lynch-mob tactics unknown to most of his 40 predecessors, had finally grown comfortable with his role as commander in chief of the armed forces, and was unquestionably "the most compelling politician of his generation." But just when his leadership experience was most needed, 11 months ago, he found himself frustratingly sidelined, replaced by a "profoundly unprepared" Texan.

* * *

A good part of the reason why Clinton wasn't driven out of office earlier, why he survived partisan assaults that ultimately led instead to the downfall of his adversaries (including Newt Gingrich), can be attributed to his fervent support among African Americans, according to DeWayne Wickham. "More than any other person who has occupied the Oval Office, Bill Clinton has a special bond with blacks, a relationship that fueled his decision to move his postpresidential office to Harlem," Wickham, a USA Today columnist, writes in Bill Clinton and Black America. "When his presidency ended in January 2001, Clinton's approval rating among whites was in free fall, but his standing among blacks was sky-high. Eight-seven percent of African Americans and just 45 percent of whites viewed Clinton favorably in the weeks before his second term ended ..."

Why this "special bond"? Wickham tries to answer that question through extended interviews with leaders and other notables in the African-American community, including NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, actor Tim Reid and former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. The responses are varied and revealing of the different ways in which white and black Americans see events and behavior.

Part of Clinton's backing by African Americans has to do with the fact that, though he was reared in the still-often-racist South, some of his most prominent friends are black. He also benefited by filling the senior ranks of his administration with black officials, by standing up in favor of affirmative-action programs (when Republicans sought to dismantle them), by discussing racial issues repeatedly and publicly, and, interestingly, by demonstrating his prodigious intellect. This last fact was not lost on Tennessee author Alice Randall, who's quoted here as saying:

I think this intelligence, this raw intelligence, is very attractive to African Americans. I actually think that there is a tremendous prejudice in the African-American community toward very bright people, which I would distinguish from very well educated people. I'm talking about innately bright people. George W. Bush, I think is the exact opposite of this. He is clearly not very bright. I mean, on an objective level he's a man who had every privilege and managed to be a C student at Yale -- and is proud of it. If my daughter, an African-American girl, went to Yale and was a C student, she wouldn't have much of a future in front of her. This is one of those truths about black life that Clinton understands so well. Black people can identify with the very hardworking, very bright person, who makes something of himself from nothing. And that's Bill Clinton.

Clinton may not have deserved author Toni Morrison's description as "our first black President," but to African Americans, he was definitely a kindred soul, far more than his predecessors. During the previous 40 years, Wickham writes, only President Lyndon Johnson -- who won passage of the far-reaching Civil Rights Act of 1965 -- produced many gains for African Americans. Ronald Reagan's "appeal to voters that the media labeled 'Reagan Democrats' was actually an outreach to the white opponents of civil rights," the author remarks, "an effort that caused the Ku Klux Klan to take to the streets of southern cities to campaign for Reagan in full regalia." But, contends Wickham, "as bad as Ronald Reagan was, George Bush was worse ..." Not only did the elder Bush's 1988 campaign sink to new lows in political advertising, producing a racially polarizing ad that featured the frightening image of black murderer-rapist Willie Horton, but Bush went on to nominate Clarence Thomas, "a darling of right-wing conservatives" who opposed affirmative action, to take the place of retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, "an icon of the Civil Rights movement." (George W. Bush hasn't fared much better with blacks than his father did. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held its annual convention in July of this year, speaker after speaker denounced W.'s ignorance of and contempt for African-American issues. )

But what really cemented the close relationship between the 42nd president and black America may have been the Republicans' ugly 1998 scheme to oust Clinton -- for whom blacks had twice voted overwhelmingly -- from the White House. Ronald Waters, a history professor at the University of Maryland, sums up this turn nicely:

Now there's a strong factor here that I think gets into why Clinton's approval rating among black people went up during his impeachment. That was the old saying that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' We cannot discount the very strong sort of political context of this era where blacks have been battling conservative politics that have been defined as Republican. And so I argue that especially during the impeachment era, when after the 1994 elections you had this tremendous upsurge in what I call 'white nationalism,' it scared the hell out of black people and pushed them further into the arms of Bill Clinton than they would have been.

Many of the things that made African Americans believe they had a friend in the Oval Office during the Clinton years, though, weren't so politically charged. Wickham's interviewees admire the former president's speaking abilities, which they liken to those of black preachers. They talk about how Clinton always seemed comfortable at black get-togethers, like he genuinely belonged; how he promoted books by black authors, such as Walter Mosley (Bad Boy Brawly Brown); and how he could belt out the Negro National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," without having the sheet music in front of him. "A lot of black people don't know the first verse ...," says April Ryan, a White House correspondent for the American Urban Radio Network, "but he sang all three verses. I saw him do this on Capitol Hill when Rosa Parks was being honored with the Congressional Medal of Freedom. ... It was amazing." As author Wickham told Salon, "What makes Clinton special is that he found a way to connect with us that was personal and up close. He convinced us in words and in deeds that this relationship was at least partly in his heart, as well as in his head."

Wickham presents a great quantity of Clinton's words in the back half of this volume. Included are three different interviews with the ex-president, along with a selection of Clinton's race-related speeches, among them a powerful address he delivered at the National Archives in 1995, defending the value of affirmative-action programs. Curiously, though, this may be the least intriguing section of Bill Clinton and Black America, because it is the most controlled: Clinton knows how to work an interview to his advantage. It's the earlier interviews -- full of scattershot memories and emotions -- that give this book its life, its heart.

* * *

How Bill Clinton will be remembered by history cannot yet be judged. There are still too many strong partisan opinions floating about to determine whether his reputation will be enhanced by the passage of time (as happened to Harry Truman) or called into question (as was the case with Warren G. Harding and, to a lesser extent, Reagan).

Part of Clinton's standing may depend on the relative performance of his successors, particularly George W. Bush. W.'s recent performance makes many voters nostalgic for Clinton's leadership. Although he continues to ride a wave of personal popularity, stemming from his forceful response to last September's terrorist attacks, polls show that Americans are more skeptical of Bush when it comes to his handling of specific international and domestic priorities. News that huge Clinton-era budget surpluses have turned into enormous deficits under the former Texas governor, coupled with questions about Bush's own corporate past and increasing calls for the repeal of future tax cuts (targeted primarily at wealthy Americans) that he backed in 2001 have all damaged the current chief executive's credibility on economic matters. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that nearly six out of 10 respondents believe the U.S. economy is worse off now than it was two years ago, and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 46 per cent disapproval of Bush's handling of "the problems of the financial markets and major corporations." Americans are also troubled by Bush's runaway-train determination to start a war with Iraq, his poor record on environmental protection and dismissive attitude toward global-warming dangers, his administration's penchant for secrecy and failure (according to Time magazine) to follow up quickly on a Clinton plan to "roll back" Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, and W.'s continuing drive to partially privatize Social Security, even in the face of recent proof that individual accounts would be vulnerable to stock-market fluctuations. An Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report poll, conducted in mid-July -- after the U.S. corporate scandals were in full cry -- found only 42 per cent of respondents ready to re-elect Bush. (As frustrating as that result may be to the junior Bush, it's consistent with historical precedent. No president who was elected to two successive terms has been followed by another president elected to two successive terms since James Monroe, who served from 1817 to 1825).

However, most of the responsibility for Clinton's legacy rests with him alone. The stigma of his impeachment, even if it was engineered by a lopsidedly Republican House of Representatives and failed (by a substantial margin) to convince the Senate that he should be removed from office, will dog him for the rest of his days. But he can balance out that blotch on his record with achievements as an ex-president. Look at what Jimmy Carter, who was widely denigrated after his loss to Reagan in 1980, has managed to do since, building a reputation for humanitarian good deeds that has made him the most popular living former president today. Clinton isn't likely to take the same path, but his activist nature militates against his following Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford into a golfing retirement, and his youth may provide him many years in which to overcome negative impressions of his character. Chances are that future Democratic administrations will find ample opportunities for Clinton to demonstrate his prodigious talents, much as Herbert Hoover -- who lived for 32 years after serving as president at the start of the Great Depression -- was able to rehabilitate his standing by chairing wartime relief programs.

The process of re-evaluating Bill Clinton's "misunderstood presidency" may begin in earnest after the publication of his own first autobiography. Joe Klein, DeWayne Wickham and others can tease the public's appetite for more insight into the heady Clinton years, but it will be up the subject himself to write the final chapters in "one of the most extraordinary political stories in American history." | August 2002

 

J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.