- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

By Joe Klein
Doubleday, $22.95, 230 pages

Joe Klein has written a new book arguing that Bill Clinton's presidency was "misunderstood" and blaming this on a superficial press and "radical Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich." The central problem with "The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton," however, is that Mr. Klein often agrees with the president's critics. His book is a study in self-contradictions.
Mr. Klein starts off by making the case that Mr. Clinton was a better president than most Americans remember. "He had run a serious, disciplined, responsible presidency," the author writes. "He never received credit for the essential coherence of his vision."
Mr. Klein blames this on "the ideological extremism of the Republican opposition and the media's persistent, often niggling campaign to prove the president corrupt." He dismisses the president's scandals as "miniscule imbroglios" and shrugs off Mr. Clinton's tendency to "occasionally lie."
"Even the most responsible newspapers and networks appeared obsessed with the president's personal failings," writes Mr. Klein, denouncing the media's "cynical puritanism." The public, by contrast, was "bemused by his personal indulgences" and even "secretly enjoyed these unruly passions."
"The Clinton era is likely to be remembered more for the ferocity of its prosecutions than for the severity of its crimes," argues Mr. Klein, who likens these prosecutions to the Salem witch trials. "And if there was one politician who personified that ferocity more than any other politician, it was Newt Gingrich." Mr. Klein devotes a significant portion of his book to blaming the former House Speaker for "the demolition of public civility that deformed the Clinton era." At times, he goes after the Georgia Republican with the same ferocity that he denounces in the Clinton critics.
And then, as if to undermine his own thesis, Mr. Klein switches course and piles on the former president. He rues the squandered potential of this "mesmerizing, maddening, transcendant" politician, who brought the scandals on himself through "gaudy personal failings." In the next breath, however, the author again shifts course, pooh-poohing the significance of Mr. Clinton's scandals and excoriating the press and the Republicans for their prosecutorial zeal. The author is reduced to apologist and the cycle of self-contradictory arguments begins all over again.
Readers will be disappointed if they are looking for a sequel to "Primary Colors," Mr. Klein's thinly veiled fictionalization of the 1992 Clinton campaign. "The Natural" is "Primary Colors" without all the fun of that anonymously written yarn. Instead, the reader is subjected to lots of Mr. Klein's personal history with Mr. Clinton.
The two first met in 1989 at a Democratic Leadership Council gathering in Philadelphia. Mr. Klein recalls that the Arkansas governor approached him, "unbidden," to gush over his magazine article on public employee unions undermining the Democratic Party. Mr. Klein was suitably flattered. Two years later, during a "cattle call" of prospective Democratic presidential candidates in Cleveland, the author declared Mr. Clinton the best of the lot. It didn't hurt that they shared each other's politics.
"We were, in fact, from the same part of the ideological jungle: a rather obscure, eclectic tribe known as the 'New Democrats,'" the author allows.
So much for journalistic objectivity. Mr. Klein was so far in the tank for Mr. Clinton that the candidate told George Stephanopoulos to "find out what Joe thinks" about his early campaign speeches, according to Mr. Stephanopolous' own kiss-and-tell book, "All Too Human." Joe though the speeches were great, especially one in South Carolina.
"Joe Klein and I took it all in from the back of the room with tears in our eyes," Mr. Stephanopoulos wrote. "Reporters are paid to be dispassionate, but Joe was either smitten with Clinton or doing a smooth job of spinning me."
"The Natural" settles the question, once and for all, of whether Mr. Klein is smitten with Mr. Clinton. In one scene the author recalls bowling with the candidate in New Hampshire the night before the state's Democratic primary in 1992. "As we stood there, waiting for our balls to return down the alley, he'd lean up against me a strange feline sensation; he needed the physical contact," Mr. Klein writes without embarrassment. Having established his personal and political sympathies for Mr. Clinton, the author attempts to discredit anyone who doesn't share their views. This turns out to be quite a large universe.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey is "a loud-mouthed libertarian from Texas." Former President Bush is "Clinton's tone-deaf predecessor." The current President Bush is "gratuitously arrogant and potentially dangerous."
Mr. Klein even goes after Bob Woodward of The Washington Post for writing "The Agenda," an account of Mr. Clinton's decision to raise taxes after taking office. Mr. Woodward's book "was skewed toward melodrama and underestimated the resolute quality of the operation," Mr. Klein writes.
Most Americans are perfectly capable of understanding the Clinton presidency. Those seeking a detached analysis can do better than "The Natural."

Bill Sammon is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times.

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