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Assessing the 'supreme relativist'

Style, substance of Clinton's tenure

The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House
By John F. Harris
Random House, 504 pp., illustrated, $29.95

History is an ongoing argument, never more so than when it involves Bill and Hillary Clinton. Of the myriad books written about the former first couple, it is hard to find one that does not begin with a set of preconceived notions, including, of course, their respective autobiographies. ''The Survivor" has a point of view, but it is one that the author builds convincingly with evidence, anecdotes, and analysis. Of all the Clinton books to date, this is the best of breed.

John F. Harris was assigned to the White House by The Washington Post for most of President Clinton's eight years in the Oval Office. He traveled the world with the 42d president, observing the high times and the low. Harris has notebooks full of stories and sources, good ones, which he emptied into this book. Clinton will always be known as much for his enemies as for his friends, and for those journalists who covered him, his presidency was a walk on the wild side. Clinton remains America's most popular and glamorous living former president, but it is impossible to imagine any future candidate who seeks the office saying, ''I will govern in the Clinton style."

Harris writes a chronological narrative, essentially beginning with Clinton's election in 1992. It is not a psychological biography, not seeking root causes of the scattershot nature of the Clinton personality and presidency in his family, childhood, or even his lengthy governorship of Arkansas. The Clinton we find in these pages is the man who arrived in Washington formed by those influences, but eager to use the power of the presidency to remodel the Democratic Party, freeing it of its moorings to the special interests of the old Roosevelt coalition.

Clinton was as much shaped by the institutional forces he encountered -- both within his own party and from the Republican opposition -- as he was the shaper. His notable successes including deficit reduction and welfare reform often came because he was forced to accommodate the opposing point of view. Harris depicts Clinton as the ''supreme relativist," the ultimate accommodationist, with a highly calibrated political abacus, always ready to split the difference to achieve some measure of success and credit.

This governing style did not always go over well with his powerful, ambitious partner in politics and life. During the 1992 campaign, Clinton advertised Hillary and himself as ''Buy one, get one free." One of the most illuminating parts of this book -- especially as Senator Clinton herself lays groundwork for the Oval Office -- is Harris's depiction of Hillary's power within her husband's White House. Even before the inauguration, she insisted on a woman as attorney general, which led first to the Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood fiascoes and then to unknown Janet Reno, who nearly cleaned out Clinton's cabinet with independent counsel appointments. The health care initiative, probably the president's most ambitious policy undertaking and his most costly failure, was placed entirely in Hillary's hands. As an example of her certitude and bullheadedness, Harris recounts that when Bill suggested to the National Governors Association that moving from their demand of 100 percent coverage to 95 percent might break the deadlock, Hillary ordered him back to the White House and demanded a retraction. She got it.

Hillary dreamed of a deputy presidency, Harris writes, insisted on weekly meetings with the chief of staff, and steadfastly resisted the release of documents, which prolonged the Whitewater investigation. She adamantly refused to allow her husband to reach a settlement in the Paula Jones lawsuit. Prolonging that suit eventually allowed it to metastasize into the depositions and grand jury interrogation in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which, in turn, led to impeachment. As Harris puts it: ''In retrospect, it is plain that . . . no demand Paula Jones could have imposed . . . would have been an unreasonable price to pay from the vantage point of Clinton's self-interest."

If you want to get an idea what Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton might be like as president, read this book.

Coming to power as he did so close after the fall of world communism, the new president once attempted extemporaneously to describe the Clinton doctrine in foreign policy. The phrases he used were ''trial and error" and ''persistent experimentation." His years in power exhibited no stronger, more consistent formulation, as Harris reveals in his descriptions of the administration's dealings with the rolling crises in the Mideast, Haiti, Bosnia, North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, and China.

Perhaps the most despairing instance of dithering impotence was Rwanda. In 1994, when the Hutus' methodical rampage began, ultimately leading to the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis, the United States systematically avoided terming it genocide, which would have imposed a legal obligation to intervene. Clinton mentioned Rwanda only to say that there were a sizable number of Americans living there who would be evacuated.

Years later the first couple visited Rwanda and, during an airport layover, faced a crowd of scarred survivors, many with missing limbs, who recounted how they had lost entire families to the savagery of the Hutu machetes. The Clintons listened. Probably no other president had ever encountered the consequences of his failure to act on such intimate grounds, says Harris. Clinton called it the most emotionally searing moment of his presidency.

For his final assessments, Harris says that the Clinton presidency was largely a defensive project, with much of his time spent recovering from self-inflicted wounds. But he left office popular and remains so today. Part of Bill Clinton's legacy will be that he proved that the American people have a solid sense of relevance, that they sort the political wheat from the chaff. Citizens may not have admired his personal behavior or morality -- and the polls from the time indicate they did not. But constant majorities of Americans approved of the prosperity his policies produced and never favored his removal from office.

As columnist Mary McGrory once said, ''It's the Dow Jones, not Paula Jones, that determines his standing."

Ken Bode is the Distinguished Pulliam Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.

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