Monday, June 13, 2005

True Survivor

Alan Ehrenhalt has a review of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris in the New York Times. It sounds like a fascinating book about the most interesting American political figure since Nixon; perhaps since FDR.

Millions of Americans despise Bill Clinton. They have done so since he became a presence in national politics in the early 1990’s, and they continue to do so today, more than four years after his retirement from public office.

The passion of the Clinton haters is a phenomenon without equal in recent American politics. It is not based on any specific policies that Clinton promoted or implemented during his years in office. It is almost entirely personal. In its persistence and intensity, it goes far beyond anything that comparable numbers of people have felt about Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or either of the presidents Bush. It surpasses even the liberals’ longstanding detestation of Richard Nixon. The only political obsession comparable to it in the past century is the hatred that a significant minority of Americans felt for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In this respect the phenomenon is all the more puzzling. Roosevelt made enormous and sometimes reckless changes in the American government and economy, and when his critics loathed him for it, he loathed them back. “They are unanimous in their hate for me” he said of them in his 1936 re-election campaign, “and I welcome their hatred.” Clinton, on the other hand, was a centrist who undertook no dramatic transformations of society or government and, what was more, showed himself to be an instinctive conciliator who believed in compromise almost to a fault.


Most presidents — most public leaders — are complex human beings, and that is certainly true in Clinton’s case. But as Harris makes clear, he was more than that: he was a man who appreciated complexities and pondered them endlessly; who saw the ambiguity in nearly any policy situation; who loved to tease out the subtleties and distinctions that lesser minds found uninteresting. Occasionally during the Clinton presidency, writers dredged up Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence: that of someone who could hold two opposed ideas in his head at the same time and still function. No one in the past century of American politics met that test better than Clinton.

Sometimes it brought him serious trouble, as when he labored to tell the literal but not the contextual truth to prosecutors in the Lewinsky case, and left much of the public angry at him. Sometimes it made him maddeningly slow to make up his mind. Erskine Bowles once marveled at Clinton’s ability to ”analyze all the factors, all the risks and opportunities, and weigh them brilliantly.” On those occasions, Bowles said, all the president needed was someone who could make sure he wasn’t influenced to change his mind by the last old friend whom he happened to talk to on the phone. Such is the hazardous life of any politician blessed — or cursed — by the ability to see all sides of a difficult question.

But if Clinton was indecisive, he was also supremely resilient. This is the quality that seems most to impress Harris, and the one the title of his book emphasizes. Clinton may have been a man plagued by uncertainties, but he was also a man who never gave up. Not when the Republicans humiliated him in the 1994 election; not when they seemed to have him cornered in budget negotiations the following year; not when the Lewinsky case seemed as if it would force him out of office in disgrace. “I’m the big rubber clown you had as a kid,” he told Newt Gingrich, his Republican nemesis, in 1995. “The harder you hit me, the faster I come back up.” That very trait — documented by Harris in situation after situation — portrays a strength of character seldom acknowledged by Clinton’s many critics.


The debate about Bill Clinton, about his character and achievements and moral worth, will go on long after the subject himself has departed from the scene. Clinton “was too vital and too vexing a character to be easily forgotten or dismissed,” Harris writes. This is a complex, interesting and subtle book about a complex, interesting and subtle man.

I look forward to reading it…and hearing once again from the wing-nuts who will make millions by demonizing him again. Bill will just keep laughing at them.