May 25, 2005


Up close and presidential: a review of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris (Ronald Brownstein, LA Times)

Harris' freshest insight challenges a cornerstone of accepted wisdom among both Clinton supporters and critics. Almost all portraits of Clinton focus on his hunger for ideas, information, people and sensation, and his desire to squeeze every opportunity and experience from each day. His admirers believe that this restless insatiability sparked his political and policy innovations, even if it fed the personal recklessness exemplified by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Many of his critics, conversely, believe he dissipated his presidency by failing to focus it; even some sympathetic analysts, like journalist Joe Klein, have argued that Clinton's personal failings and political setbacks were both marked by an inability to set limits or establish priorities.

A common theme for supporters and critics alike is that the essence of Clinton is his boundless energy — his curiosity, ambition and voracious appetites. Harris acknowledges all of that. (How could he not?) But mostly he turns the judgment on its head. Clinton's problem, he argues provocatively, wasn't too much activism but, on many occasions, too little.

"Beneath Clinton's constant whir of activity," he writes, "lay a passive streak." While Clinton was intellectually drawn to the toughest problems, Harris argues, he too often let decisions drift, unable or unwilling to settle disputes among his advisors or with Congress or other nations. Clinton's desire to synthesize alternatives and preserve his options sometimes produced brilliant improvisation — as when he outmaneuvered congressional Republicans, and revived his presidency, during the 1995 showdown over the federal budget. But especially in his first term, his failure to impose his will — or sometimes even to discern it — left him paralyzed on issues from campaign finance reform to turmoil in Haiti and atrocities in Bosnia. Later, Clinton's reluctance to confront resistance within the government's national security bureaucracy prevented him from producing a response to terrorism commensurate with his understanding of the problem.

The result, Harris astutely concludes, was a presidency that was most effective when Clinton's advisors offered him a clear direction. "He needed people of emphatic certitudes to help sharpen his own goals, and to give him the self-confidence to pursue them," Harris writes. Even during the most chaotic moments of the administration's first years, he notes, Clinton established a decisive course on economic policy that emphasized deficit reduction and free trade largely because confident advisors the president respected, like Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin, unwaveringly urged him in that direction. By contrast, Harris believes, Clinton's foreign policy drifted badly in his initial years partly because Warren Christopher, his first secretary of State, tried to "respond to his boss's wishes" rather than shape them. Christopher failed to recognize that what Clinton needed in a secretary of State "was someone who with his own certitude quieted Clinton's doubts."

The tragedy of Bill Clinton is that he could have been a great president, though not much of a man, had he simply governed as he ran. Had he, for instance, pursued a Third Way health care program with HSAs and the like, instead of an even more bureaucratized government plan. He also could have enacted sweeping SS reform, especially after 1994, far more easily than a Republican president can, because there wouldn't have been enough Democrats willing to filibuster their own president. His two great achievements, free trade and Welfare reform, came when he depended on Republican votes in Congress. Using that model he could have tackled a whole swathe of big issues and built a significant legacy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 25, 2005 10:05 AM

With Clinton, it always helps to remember the story about a difficult decision he had to make as governor - veto or sign? He dithered for 10 days, finally went one way, had second thoughts that night and went back to the State Capitol, retreived the document, changed his position, and dropped the paper back through the transom.

His entire presidency was conducted that way.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 25, 2005 3:29 PM

Is it not agreed that the essence of Clinton is his quest for affirmation, with a desperate need to be loved? He developed formidable skills at eliciting that love from voters as well as individuals around him, but in the end his legacy is nothing.

Posted by: b at May 25, 2005 3:29 PM

there was a lengthy article in Reason many moons ago that discussed at length clinton's cognitive dysfunction. basically their thesis was that he has a great memory but doesn't actually understand much -- making it almost impossible for him to make a decision.

Posted by: cjm at May 25, 2005 4:17 PM

hope its ok to post a link here

Posted by: cjm at May 25, 2005 4:20 PM

Clinton's failings were built in. He loved his organ more than he loved his country. Further he will be indicted in the court of history for the complete botch he made of the War on Terror, which avoided instead of pursuing. The GWoT should have been launched after the 1993 WTC attack, or Khobar Towers, or the African Embassies, or the Cole. Instead he was more concerned with his droit d'seignuer.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 25, 2005 4:48 PM

> built a significant legacy.

No doubt, but certainly one requirement for building a real legacy is caring for something more than just "building a legacy".

Posted by: at May 26, 2005 1:02 AM


I think it's OK to post a link here, but I gotta say I'm still having trouble, with Internet Explorer, defining and copying isolated segments of text on these comments pages. I.E. (no pun intended, though it's a nifty one), when I run my cursor over the link to try and copy it, not only is that line defined, but so is all the text above it.

Someone once mentioned that this is a Movable Type flaw. Whatever it is, I'm encountering it in more and more places. Anyone know a fix? (No, please don't tell me to get Firefox!!)

Posted by: SP at May 26, 2005 8:49 AM

SP: hold the ctrl key down and click on the link text (position the cursor on or near the first or second character). that "IE" pun was just too ripe to resist :)

also, Firefox is a snap to install and use, and billg dies a little for everyone who uses it :)

Posted by: cjm at May 26, 2005 10:13 AM

Ahh, thanks for the cool trick. It works!

(Still, why is this a problem here in the first place?)

As for Bill Gates... Why would I want him to "die a little"? I completely honor and respect his accomplishments. I like capitalism. And I've personally got nothing against Microsoft or its products.

Posted by: SP at May 26, 2005 1:24 PM

he is a huge impediment to real progress in the computing industry. he isn't a capitlaist, he is a monopolist. you say you enjoy his products, but i bet you wouldn't want to be flying in a plane that runs on ms s/w :)

fyi: by "die" i meant "diminshed"; i don't wish him any ill will, i just want his horrible company to go away.

Posted by: cjm at May 26, 2005 5:45 PM