- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2007

BILL CLINTON: MASTERING THE PRESIDENCY

By Nigel Hamilton

Public Affairs, $32, 766 pages

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL RICCARDS

Nigel Hamilton’s express desire is to be the definitive biographer of Bill Clinton, and he already has published a study of Mr. Clinton’s pre-presidential life. “Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency,” his new 700-page book, covers just the first term and is highly critical of the president, his administration and especially the first lady. There is no mean-spirited remark about Hillary Rodham Clinton that does not make its way into this work.



Mr. Hamilton has read everything on the Clintons, but if he is going to be the biographer of the president he must evaluate more closely his sources, since no couple in political life has been so subject to rumor, innuendo and character assassination than they have — even after many of those charges have not held up under scrutiny.

Mr. Hamilton’s theme is actually a familiar one: Mr. Clinton was an undisciplined but bright politician who was unable to put together an administration with a clear focus and priorities early in his first term. He owed his wife much for her personal loyalty, and so he let her run rampant over the White House, especially in the area of health care, where she knew very little. He was paying her off for her silence. There really is no evidence to support this accusation, which is frequently made or whispered.

Mrs. Clinton was unable to sell to Congress her vast health care package; therefore, she is shallow and incompetent. Yet even accomplished and skillful Democratic presidents have not been successful in establishing national health care: Not Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson.

In fairness to Mrs. Clinton, her husband knew it was a nearly impossible sell before she began. Universal health care will only pass when big business supports it because of escalating costs for them.

Mr. Hamilton cites a second cause of the failure of term one — a very weak, amiable chief of staff, Mack McLarty, a boyhood friend of the president. Again, Republican presidents going back to Dwight Eisenhower have recognized the need for a strong chief of staff to manage the executive branch. Ike leaned that rule from his years in the military, and it is a good lesson for any bureaucracy.

Democrats, however, for some reason continue to emulate FDR, who disliked a strong number-two person and preferred to be the hub of a wheel of spokes. And JFK, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter found the same problems that Clinton struggled with in his early years. But LBJ did not have to worry about priorities right away, while the others did.

So policy debates in the Clinton years looked at first like faculty meetings, words and egos. But the inability to chose priorities reflected the desires of a newly elected liberal president to accomplish much while faced with deficits.

Mr. Hamilton also does not delve deeply into the problems of dealing with congressional Democrats. In the 1980s they had grown puerile and irresponsible under Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Congressional Democrats, especially senators such as Bob Kerrey and David Boren, seemed to take personal delight in giving their Democrat president a difficult time. It was almost as if they wanted to show that he was no more ready for the presidency than they were. The only difference was that he had the foresight to run against George H.W. Bush, while they sat with people like Gov. Mario Cuomo and refused to challenge an incumbent. Those Democrats helped lay the groundwork for the failures of the first several years, which led to the GOP’s takeover in the midterm election.

In one way such a turnover of the House of Representatives was a mixed blessing for Mr. Clinton. He found a pumped-up Newt Gingrich who brought the national government to a shutdown, but the strategy of the neoconservatives backfired.

The people opposed such a radical action, and Mr. Clinton suddenly looked very good in comparison. And even more, Mr. Clinton received public acclaim in his speeches after the attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City, when he reassured the nation and, poignantly, children about the violence.

By the end of his first term, Mr. Clinton repositioned himself, running again as the comeback kid. His much-criticized economic package began to catch on, and his foreign policy, especially in Bosnia, seemed judicious if not hesitant. Suddenly he became a very formable candidate for re-election against a very confused campaign from Sen. Robert Dole.

Mr. Hamilton becomes an admirer as the term ends, except of poor Mrs. Clinton, who cannot buy a break in this book. Mr. Hamilton’s prose is short and pithy, despite the volume’s huge size for just four years.

The author has also completed only one part of a similar multi-volume biography of John Kennedy, but his rough and prurient treatment of that president has cut off access to many of the sources at the Kennedy Library and family. He has turned his attention to Mr. Clinton just when a real sense of nostalga is settling in for the former president. After seven years of Bush II, Bill looks refreshingly open, informed, cautious and bright, and leaves us much respected in the difficult world we live in.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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