Nigel Hamilton: The resurrection of Bill Clinton in his first term





[Nigel Hamilton is a fellow of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies and author of "Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency," which was published this week.]

... How Clinton pulled himself -- and the country -- together in the aftermath of the 1994 meltdown is surely one of the great turnabouts in modern American political history. From his performance over the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in to the imposition of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended civil war in Bosnia; from the refusal to buckle over Gingrich's shutdown of the federal government to the tackling of the spiraling national deficit, Clinton reshaped his presidency in two short years to the verge of greatness -- raising America's stature abroad to the highest levels it has ever reached and unifying the country at home.

In researching for a book on Clinton, I wanted to discover who had truly been responsible. Was it the employment of the precursor to Karl Rove, the Republican pollster Dick Morris? Was it the setting up of a more effective White House spin machine, under Mike McCurry? How can historians explain the metamorphosis of a lame duck president into a triumphant chief executive and commander-in-chief, who brought peace to Southern Europe, kept Saddam Hussein in line, expanded NATO, supported Boris Yeltsin's transformation of the Russian Federation, steered the American economy into the longest sustained boom in its history -- and became the embodiment across the world of the "good American"?
One word: discipline.

Clinton's bipartisan vision of America in the modern world was broadly supported by the American people -- but his inability to prepare himself to assume the mantle and responsibility of the presidency in November 1992 doomed his presidency to a disastrous start. Hillary Rodham Clinton, unfortunately, added to this failure by imagining that, as an unelected "co-president," she could provide the missing steel in her husband's backbone. Without an effective chief of staff they bumbled from one misstep (Zoë Baird, gays in the military, Travelgate, Somalia, Troopergate, Bosnia, health care reform) to another like a rudderless ship, to the point where Republicans only had to morph Clinton's image onto a local Democrat's face to win an historic congressional victory.

So what was the turning point?

The turning point, I believe, was Clinton's visit to Europe in the summer of 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Aboard Air Force One, Clinton spoke with Leon Panetta, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, who had shepherded his great deficit-tackling economic bill successfully through Congress. As one of Clinton's key economic team members told me, there was widespread concern in the administration at the lack of order and prioritization in the White House. "There are three presidents," was the feeling -- "and two of them know what they want to do! The three being Bill, Al [Gore], and Hillary. Al had his agenda. And Hillary had her agenda. And Bill had every agenda!"

The president asked Panetta what was wrong, and was told in no uncertain terms about the lack of order in the White House....


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