- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005


By John F. Harris

Random House, $29.95, 544 pages, illus.


Running in one of the presidential primaries before his nomination, Bill Clinton characterized himself as “The Comeback Kid.” From that time to this volume on survivorship, the young president has been featured as a superb tactician who bobbed up and down like a cork in the sea. In the process though, this emphasis has denied him what he wanted more than anything else — to be a true historical figure, to be a great American president.

John F. Harris understands that tension in Mr. Clinton, between the pragmatist who needed just to hold on and the romantic who wished to transform our life and republic. He regards Bill Clinton’s first two years as a near political disaster, characterized by miscalculation, drift and liberal daydreaming. He portrays Mr. Clinton as an often ill-informed about policy issues, even though many of his contemporaries said he was simply the most able governor in the nation at the time.

Mr. Harris argues again and again that Mr. Clinton was often a passive president, fixated because of his childhood on the need to compromise and promote harmony. And Mr. Harris seems to never have seen a regional conflict that he does not think Mr. Clinton needed to intervene in — whether it was Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, the Mideast or Ireland. It is odd that so many critics of Bush II are themselves neo-Wilsonians who insist that America has a special civilizing mission in the world’s most intractable conflicts. Mr. Clinton’s hesitations are seen as weaknesses, not as wisdom.

In this account, Mr. Clinton only became a smart president after he brings in Dick Morris, who teaches him how to abandon the Democratic legacy and talk Republican. Mr. Clinton can only liberate himself by freeing his administration from his political base, moving to the proverbial center. The problem with that prescription is that George Bush II has shown repeatedly that one can govern from the ideological extreme, if you appear to the American people to be strong and consistent. Mr. Harris understates the American people, and he in some ways underestimates Bill Clinton.

As an experienced Washington Post reporter, Mr. Harris knows the story of the Clinton years. He has supplemented the usual written narratives with a host of interviews, but at times he seems a bit naive in judging their veracity. For example, he portrays Louis Freeh of the FBI, Donna Shalala of HHS, and Erskine Bowles, his chief as staff, as people shocked at Mr. Clinton’s proverbial womanizing. Like the captain in “Casablanca,” he is “shocked… shocked” to find out that there was gambling in Rick’s place.

These Clinton appointments criticized him long after the Monica affair. But now, they want us to believe how sanctimonious they really were at the time? Somehow one ends up feeling sympathy for Mr. Clinton, despite his personal peccadilloes, for not being able to garner the loyalty that FDR, Reagan or JFK did years after their terms ended. Also in Mr. Harris’ accounting, Hillary Clinton is a remarkably shadowy figure who is barely present, at least in proportion to her importance in the president’s life. Still, their relationship is a romance, often misunderstood, he decides.

Mr. Clinton’s foreign policy became bolder and bolder in the second term, and he even tried to deal with the difficult Mideast and the conflicts in Northern Ireland. The president had a mastery in understanding power and responsibility, more than many of the people surrounding him. Indeed at times, Mr. Clinton seems head and shoulders above his advisers on foreign policy, with almost a Nixononian sense of command at the end of his tenure in office.

As with Bush II, the president finds out the real limitations of U.N. and NATO cooperation. It seems that even before the Iraqi war, it was Tony Blair who had a clearer sense of what is to be done in the world. The styles of Mr. Clinton and Bush II are surely different, but they seem to face the same sort of European uncertainties about action. As Mr. Clinton graciously realized, their leaders had to deal with their own domestic problems.

Mr. Clinton faced a very different set of realities than other post war liberal presidents. He realized it, but some of the bitterest critics of his first term came from the liberal media opinion leaders who were disappointed in him. The liberals have often sacrificed the better for the best.

By taking Mr. Harris’ view, we cannot understand the demise of the Democratic party in the last two decades. Mr. Clinton never put the resources and time into trying to build the party institutionally, in creating a new class of political advisers and staff, and in supporting left wing think tanks spinning off ideals and proposals. Raising money is not simply enough. Dick Morris’ triangulation was not a philosophy, or even a strategy, but a collection of tactics designed to outflank some rather inept Republicans. Mr. Clinton, the ultimate policy wonk, left little policy legacy. That is the fate of being just a “survivor.” Terribly bright, Bill Clinton knew all this. One night he stopped talking to Dick Morris about tactics and asked, “How can I be a great president.” Mr. Harris’ book shows that he may have been a much better president than even he realized, or than Morris acknowledged.

Great presidents are beleaguered presidents. In 186l and 1862, Lincoln barely could ride the tiger of the Civil War, and nearly lost re-election. He went on from being a survivor to become the Great Emancipator. In 1938, even Franklin D. Roosevelt entered a period of depression and passivity as the New Deal floundered and the war clouds gathered. He went on to a new period of assertiveness as a global commander in chief.

In some ways, Mr. Clinton faced many of the same staff problems and periodic hesitations many modern presidents confront. Mr. Harris’ book seems to make Americans feel that all one needs is a propensity to move to the vague center of public opinion and a strong chief of staff to manage the White House. The presidency is a great and majestic office, but it is also a tough meat grinder of a job, and there is no training ground except to do its tasks day after day.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two volume history of the American Presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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