Stanley Kutler: Review of John F. Harris's The Survivor (New York: Random House. 481 pp., notes, bibliography, index. $29.95)
Mr. Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate.
“Survivor” is John Harris’s apt characterization of William Jefferson Clinton’s presidency. He survived substantial assaults on his character, a newly-ordained Republican majority in Congress, and a Special Prosecutor, endowed with extraordinary powers, determined to render him powerless, and then drive him from office. But Clinton proved resilient, made shrewd political moves, and found himself blessed with over-the-top opponents. He retained his office and left the presidency at the peak of his popularity. He survived, to be sure, but with what kind of legacy?
Harris was an eyewitness to much of the turmoil of the Clinton presidency, and he was distinguished among the White House press corps both for his work and for his low-key presence in the public eye. While his book centers on Clinton’s character, he nicely reconstructs White House policy debates. He offers significant evidence of Robert Rubin’s enormous influence, and he is particularly informative in chronicling Lloyd Bentsen’s policy and political advice. He notes Hillary Rodham Clinton’s positive advice, as well as her damaging efforts. He provides a cool, sensible analysis of her health plan debacle and with it the dramatic collapse of Clinton’s vaunted political antennae. The health insurance companies totally triumphed, and their victory left Clinton a marked man, and a health delivery system in deepening disarray.
The election of 1992 seemed to offer a mandate -- for anyone, particularly Clinton -- to repair the health system. But the Clintons’ produced a largely incomprehensible health program, utterly bereft of any significant political support. Hillary Clinton’s fault? Of course, but Bill Clinton, Master Politician, allowed himself to be rolled, first by his wife, and then by their enemies. He was not a man “feared” in a conventional political sense. Harris provides Donna Shalala’s perceptive observation that the Clintons were the smartest people in Arkansas and assumed they were the smartest in Washington. “Anyone who had any different idea than they had was dismissed as part of the system, and part of the problem,” she noted. However we put it, Clinton overreached, got burned, and never again broached the issue, however much it demanded our national attention. Furthermore, the defeat had profound consequences for the rest of his presidency, and he retreated to his more comfortable sphere of what Harris calls “defensive politics.”
Harris is succinct and insightful on the enigmatic relationship between Clinton and Al Gore, especially in the 2000 election. Clinton’s very presence, he writes, “imposed a psychic burden on [Gore] ...,” and when he chose the sanctimonious Joe Lieberman as his running mate, the choice was nothing less than insulting. Clinton the political natural was mystified by Gore’s political clumsiness; Gore’s rejection baffled and hurt the President enormously. Harris leaves us with the simple and obvious fact that Gore did not approve of Clinton, especially the adventure with Monica Lewinsky.
Harris is familiar with Pieter Geyl’s dictum that “history is an argument without end.” The Clinton presidency is grist for that mill. But unlike other controversial (often our best) presidents, few arguments rage over Clinton’s policy endeavors. Personality and character remain at the center of debate. Any historical evaluation of Clinton’s record might well have to wait for later moments of reflection; for now, Clinton basically attracts journalists who witnessed his presidency, and often were very much part of it.
Clinton’s 1992 victory with 43 percent of the vote, cast doubts on its legitimacy that in subsequent years reinforced the misgivings of his cultural or ideological enemies. Clinton-haters firmly believed that only Ross Perot’s entry in the race enabled Clinton to snatch victory. Yet Richard Nixon’s same percentage of the vote in 1968 hardly raised any question of legitimacy. Nixon legally challenged John F. Kennedy’s razor-thin vote margin in 1960, but only a few embittered diehards such as Pat Buchanan ever seriously questioned Kennedy’s right to the office. George W. Bush’s selection by the Supreme Court in 2000 raised some doubts, but they waned after his 2004 victory. Clinton’s re-election curiously re-energized his enemies, to the point, as Harris notes, that newly-empowered Newt Gingrich brazenly told the president that he was going to run him out of town.
The cultural divide generated in the 1960s continues to haunt us. And Clinton’s presidency was a metaphor, for friend and foe alike, of that moment. He was a hero for those who saw the time as central to their coming of age; for the disaffected, Clinton only fueled their long-simmering politics of resentment. Clinton was a man who had avoided military service during the Vietnam War; whose presence almost caricatured the once-fashionable perception of a "hippie" (alas! the length of one’s hair cannot tell us much about a man’s politics these days, for pony tails abound as much at a NASCAR race as in Greenwich Village); who challenged conservatives’ views on a woman’s right to control her reproductive ability; who fed their dissatisfaction with his tolerance of blacks and homosexuals; and who had a wife bent on personal and professional achievement and even retained her maiden name. After 1992, Clinton’s widely-advertised sexual proclivities, his ambivalent public positions, his passivity, and his desperate desire to please, which Harris and others have traced to his childhood and alcoholic environment, became the “character issues” that dominated his presidency.
Chalmers Roberts, the distinguished political reporter for the Washington Post, described journalism as the first draft of history. Contemporary judgments shape and often determine later historical judgments. Now “journalism” has morphed into the larger phenomenon of “the media,” which includes print and electronic work as well. Their power and influence gallops, while their reflections diminish. It has no ideology except perhaps the “bottom line” for owners and operators; it is an entity unto itself in pursuit of what it describes as “the story.”
Roberts and his colleagues reported on presidents, focusing on their policies, their politics, their relationships with Congress, the Cabinet, and the bureaucracy. They included precious little about the media, either by their own discerning choices or, to be charitable, because the media had not yet taken on such a central place. Now it often seems it operates under the dictum, “we are the story,” that signature line from the movie “Broadcast News.”
Clinton’s presidency powerfully refutes the myth of a liberal media. The truth is that the media did not like or trust him, as Harris amply documents. When Clinton at the outset disdained the formal press conference – a stylized, carefully choreographed ritual – he told the press he did not need them because he had Larry King and could reach the public unfiltered and at his own choosing. Harris makes it clear that the press was not amused that the president might seek out alternative ways of communicating. His book underlines the media’s cental role in Clinton’s presidency, sometime fulfilling a proper role of enlightening an “informed citizenry,” and yet all too often focusing on trivial, and sometimes exaggerated, stories.
The New York Times, the lodestone of the alleged liberal media, led the charge with its convoluted saga of Whitewater, determined never to be upstaged again by another potential Watergate. But Watergate had strong legs and immediately attracted the attention of properly-constituted investigative and prosecutorial institutions. The Times’s relentless efforts failed to prove the president’s (or his wife’s) involvement. The only tangible result was to feed bile to a Special Prosecutor determined to drive the president from office.
The Times and other early critics would have served us better if they had studied Clinton’s record and behavior as governor. Shortly after Clinton became president, Arkansas reporter John Brummmett published Highwire, an admiring account of the governor, but one that provided a substantial record of vacillation, equivocation, and passivity, as well as other character traits that were raised and questioned during Clinton’s presidency.
Make no mistake: Clinton and the media were deadly enemies. Harris describes it “as a low grade war ... between the Clinton White House and the veteran White House reporters who covered it, which became one of the great antagonisms to mark the Clinton years.” The press bridled at new rules of access, apparently assuming that existing forms were untouchable. The reporters sensed contempt and disdain; the administration found ample cause for both. Ruth Bader Ginzburg’s Supreme Court appointment in 1993 nicely encapsulates the situation. Harris concedes the nomination has been a success in historical results. But after Clinton announced the appointment and offered a particularly touching account of Ginzburg’s life and career, Harris lengthily described a reporter’s pointed question to Clinton on how politics determined her selection. Harris contends that Brit Hume’s question was politely asked. That’s in the eye of the beholder; certainly, it was woefully besides the point. Were reporters that uninformed? What Supreme Court nominee has not been the product of political consideration? Clinton, for his part, abruptly ended the ceremony with a blistering assault on the impropriety and motive of the question.
Looking back, given the plotting forces arrayed against Clinton, his impeachment appears inevitable – but only because his enemies could not succeed in forcing him to resign. They underestimated the man’s imperviousness to embarrassment. Richard Nixon could not publicly admit he had lied or had broken the law; his Quaker center was at war with his political posturing as an advocate of law and order. And so he resigned, rather than admit his wrongs. Such moral dilemmas, such personal humiliation, never were a problem for Clinton.
Enemies indeed were Clinton’s albatross; but their ineptness proved a blessing. Newt Gingrich led the charge, but his record of facile glibness, tactical blunders, mendacity, and ultimately his own sexual improprieties, gave Clinton a perfect foil. If Gingrich didn’t exist, he would have had to be invented.
Polls showed disappointment with Clinton, but more importantly, disdain for the Republicans and Kenneth Starr. Still, his enemies sought -- and in some measure, gained --- Clinton’s humiliation. They did not want a censure vote, which they could have had – they wanted him out, and impeachment was their desperate gamble. The Senate contemptuously dismissed their looney House colleagues, barely going through the motions of a “trial.” Still, impeachment is one of the few heated occasions in his memoirs, for Clinton knows that his impeachment, like Nixon’s resignation, will echo throughout history.
Harris is properly ambivalent about Clinton. It is difficult to quarrel with his assessment that Clinton does not belong in the top tier of presidents. Harris sees him as a man beset by his activist intentions and belief in his abundant potential, and a realist streak that led him to accommodation and the acceptance of political limits. But his passivity, such as in the Balkans in 1993 and 1994, in welfare reform, and dealing with Paula Jones, resulted in inordinate time spent on defensive politics – not the stuff of presidential greatness.
Passivity is Clinton’s burden, but Harris also rightly recognizes that the unprecedented personal assault on a president was futile, wrong, and distracting -- for him and the nation. Important matters required focused presidential attention and decisiveness, not easy commodities to come by given the partisan and media fury. Did all that diminish Clinton’s ability to deal more effectively with the terror threat? We will never know.
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