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A man in charge

How Bill Clinton's remarkable change in course allowd him to remake his presidency

Once Clinton (shown in 1996) 'figured out the way to be president as a Democrat, he became unbeatable,' writes Hamilton. Once Clinton (shown in 1996) "figured out the way to be president as a Democrat, he became unbeatable," writes Hamilton. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency
By Nigel Hamilton
Public Affairs, 767 pp., $32

In 2003, biographer Nigel Hamilton published "Bill Clinton: An American Journey," the first volume of his biography of Bill Clinton, in which he examined what he called the "formation of Bill Clinton's character." Now comes a second installment on Clinton's life, this one covering the president's first term, from 1993 to 1997.

Hamilton, who has written books on British general Bernard Montgomery and John F. Kennedy's youth, attempts in this volume to minimize the focus on character and train the spotlight on Clinton's performance in office. He says he wants to explain how Clinton overcame a series of early missteps and regained his standing with the public in time to win re-election in 1996. He hopes to "penetrate the fog of political war" and explain Clinton's "disastrous" first months in office while also illuminating his "ultimately successful attempt to become a truly modern president."

Hamilton's book strikes several odd, discordant notes. It occasionally uses exclamation points when none are needed, the prose is overwrought, and Hamilton tends to treat serious topics in a whimsical fashion. For example, he describes one crisis moment for the Clintons as a "Black Saturday" that then "became Bleak Sunday . . . in Bleak House." Despite his stated desire to focus on Clinton's public life, Hamilton lingers over instances and allegations of the president's extramarital affairs. He quotes extensively from Arkansas attorney Cliff Jackson, who obsessively flayed Clinton as a scoundrel in the early '90s. He describes Monica Lewinsky as "a luscious fruit in the Garden of Eden, eager to be plucked." On the same page, he refers to her as an "ebullient, plump, and well-endowed" White House intern. The book totals 84 chapters, some of which are so short (four to five pages) that they carom from one issue to the next and fail to tackle complicated political and policy issues in much depth.

But Hamilton does raise a central question about Clinton's first term that future biographers and pundits will need to confront head-on: How do we account for Clinton's initial missteps and explain his remarkably agile comeback and 1996 re-election victory?

Clinton, Hamilton reminds us, was a lightning rod in his first months in office. He urged the military to permit gays to serve openly; appointed his wife, Hillary, head of a secretive, mismanaged White House health care task force; and engaged in chaotic policy deliberations. His White House summarily fired travel-office employees while refusing to release documents related to Whitewater, courting negative press. Clinton had trouble catching a break early on.

In the run-up to the 1994 Republican landslide and afterward, however, Clinton became more focused and self-confident. Hamilton attributes some of the president's success to pollster Dick Morris. But Clinton, Hamilton says, deserves the lion's share of the credit. For one thing, his 1993 economic plan began to bear fruit: The federal budget deficit shrank, interest rates fell, and the nation's economy rebounded. His assault-weapons ban became law and he put 100,000 police on the streets. He signed welfare-reform legislation that liberal Democrats loathed but in doing so he stole some of the GOP's thunder on a signature issue.

Additional steps helped ignite the turnaround in Clinton's fortunes. The president was both tough-minded and compassionate in responding to the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. At a memorial service for the dead, Clinton told mourners that "those who are lost now belong to God. Some day we will be with them. But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives." Clinton's response, Hamilton notes, became "his finest hours."

Clinton refused to sign a Republican budget enacting deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. Permitting the government to shut down in late 1995, he drew a line in the sand in his face-off with the Republican-led House. He portrayed Speaker Newt Gingrich as a loose cannon and established himself as a sensible defender of the nation's elderly and middle-class families.

Finally, Clinton proved his mettle on the world stage. He shored up the peso during Mexico's currency crisis. He led NATO's bombing campaign against the Serbs, who had been shelling Bosnian Muslims in Sarajevo, and he pushed for peace in Northern Ireland. Although Hamilton highlights these keys to Clinton's comeback, he provides one-dimensional portraits of people close to the president, casting Hillary Clinton as a nefarious first lady and a political albatross and staff chief Mack McLarty as weak and inept. He hyperbolically blames both for Clinton's early misfortunes. The book shortchanges serious debates about welfare, the budget, and affirmative action -- despite its prodigious 767 pages. And American politics is explained in these pages not as a contest among varying interests and conflicting ideologies, or in terms of demographic changes, but in salacious terms. Clinton was elected, Hamilton says, because he "touched the erotic nerve of many American women." Hamilton's book -- based largely on published news articles, White House memoirs, and some interviews with former Clinton aides -- includes little new information and is unlikely to reshape perceptions of the major debates in the Clinton White House.

Still, Hamilton suggests that Clinton "refashioned himself" after the 1994 defeat by learning from his mistakes, reforming his leadership style, and returning to his centrist New Democrat roots. Hamilton favorably contrasts Clinton's maturation in office to George W. Bush's inability to reflect and adapt and change course when necessary. In this regard, Hamilton's book is a sound rejoinder to critics who say Clinton had no fixed beliefs and dishonored the Oval Office.

Matthew Dallek, an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."