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The Tragedy of Bill Clinton

My Life

by Bill Clinton
Knopf, 957 pp., $35.00

So far, most readers of President Clinton’s book seem to like the opening pages best, and no wonder. Scenes of childhood glow from many memoirs—by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry Adams, John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, and others. It is hard to dislike people when they are still vulnerable, before they have put on the armor of whatever career or catastrophe lies before them as adults. In fact, Gilbert Chesterton advised those who would love their enemies to imagine them as children. The soundness of this tactic is proved by its reverse, when people become irate at attempts to imagine the childhood or the youth of Hitler—as in protests at the Menno Meyjez film Max. So it is hard, even for his foes, to find Clinton objectionable as a child. Yet the roots of the trouble he later had lie there, in the very appeal of his youth.

Another reason we respond to narratives of childhood is that first sensations are widely shared by everyone—the ways we became aware of the world around us, of family, of school, of early friends. One might expect Clinton’s pineywood world to be remote from people who did not grow up in the South. But since he experienced neither grinding poverty nor notable privilege, there is an everyman quality to what he is writing about. His relatives were not blue-collar laborers but service providers—as nurse (mother and grandmother), heavy equipment salesman (father), car dealer (first stepfather), hairdresser (second stepfather), food broker (third stepfather). This was no Dogpatch, as one can tell from the number of Clinton’s childhood friends who went on to distinguished careers. (The daughters of one of his ministers became, respectively, the president of Wellesley and the ombudsman of The Washington Post.)

Admittedly, Clinton’s family was notably fissiparous, with a litter of half-relatives filling the landscape—but even that is familiar to us in this time of frequent divorce and divided custodies. It may seem out of the ordinary for Clinton’s father to have been married four times by the age of twenty-six, his first stepfather to have been married three times (twice to Clinton’s mother), his second stepfather to have been married twice (with twenty-nine months in jail for fraud bridging the two). His mother, because of the mortality rate of her husbands, was married five times (though two of the times were to the same man). Clinton, who has had the gift of empathy throughout his life, remained astonishingly close to all the smashed elements of this marital kaleidoscope—even to his stepfather, whose abuse of his mother Clinton had to stop with physical interventions and calls to the police. He took time from college to give his stepfather loving care at the end of his life. The most recurrent refrain in this book is “I liked him,” and it began at home.

Clinton usually looked at the bright side. What the jumble of marriages gave him as a boy was just more relatives to charm and be cosseted by. Later the same people would be a political asset. The first time he ran for office, “I had relatives in five of the district’s twenty-one counties.” Later still, he could rely on “a big vote in south Arkansas, where I had lots of relatives.” One might think he was already preparing for a political career when he got along so well with all his scattered families. But he was, even then, a natural charmer, with an immediate gratification in being liked, not looking (yet) for remoter returns from politics. Clinton won others’ affection for a reason Aristotle famously gave—we enjoy doing things that we do well.1

Clinton claims that his sunny adaptability as a child was a front, that he lived a secret “parallel life” imposed on a “fat band boy” by his father’s violence and alcoholism. He is preparing his explanation of the Monica Lewinsky affair as a product of this secret life. It is true that we all have a public self and several private ones. It is also true that childhood and adolescence prompt dark or lonely moments in most people. But the India-rubber-man resiliency of Clinton makes it hard to believe his explanation-excuse for later aberrations. “Slick Willie,” the nickname he says he dislikes most, was always an unlikely brooder. The thing that would impress others about Clinton’s later philandering, which long preceded the Monica stuff, was its lack of secrecy, its flamboyant risk-taking.

His attempt at a Dickensian shoe-black-factory childhood is therefore unconvincing. One of the afflictions he says he had to bear in silence was going to church in shoes his mother bought him, “pink and black Hush Puppies, and a matching pink suede belt.” But since he shared his mother’s idolatry of Elvis, his S-C (sartorially correct) attitude is probably retrospective. In fact, the “fat band boy” was very popular, with a wide circle of friends who stayed true to him (and he to them) ever after. His ability to enthrall others would become legendary, and one of the pleasures of his book is watching him get around obstacles by force of personality and cleverness:

—As a Yale law student organizing New Haven for the nascent McGovern campaign, Clinton goes to the city’s Democratic boss, Arthur Barbieri, who tells him he has the money and organization to crush the McGovern insurgency:

I replied that I didn’t have much money, but I did have eight hundred volunteers who would knock on the doors of every house in his stronghold, telling all the Italian mothers that Arthur Barbieri wanted to keep sending their sons to fight and die in Vietnam. “You don’t need that grief,” I said. “Why do you care who wins the nomination? Endorse McGovern. He was a war hero in World War II. He can make peace and you can keep control of New Haven.”

Barbieri is struck by this law student—he and Matty Troy of New York are the only old-line bosses to endorse McGovern in the primary.

—Wanting to take Hillary Rodham to a special exhibit in the Yale art gallery for their first date, he finds the gallery locked, but talks his way in by telling the custodian that he will clean up the litter in the gallery courtyard if he lets them go through the exhibit.

—Fresh from law school, Clinton hears his application for a teaching job is turned down by the dean of the University of Arkansas Law School because he is too young and inexperienced, and he says those qualities are actually a recommendation:

I’d be good for him, because I’d work hard and teach any courses he wanted. Besides, I wouldn’t have tenure, so he could fire me at any time. He chuckled and invited me to Fayetteville for an interview.

He gets the job.

—After doing the whole Lamaze course to assist his wife when their first child is born, he learns that she must have a Caesarean section because the baby is “in breech.” No one is allowed in the operating room during surgery. He pleads that Hillary has never been in a hospital before and she needs him. He is allowed to hold her hand during the delivery. Can no one say no to this man?

Persuasiveness on Clinton’s scale can be a temptation. The ability to retrieve good will can make a person careless about taking vulnerable steps. Indeed, a certain type will fling himself over a cliff just to prove he can always catch a branch and crawl back up to the top. There is nothing, he begins to feel, for which he cannot win forgiveness. This kind of recklessness followed by self-retrieval is what led Clinton to think of himself as “the comeback kid” (the use of the word “kid” is probably more indicative than he intended). Famous charmers are fun to be around, but they are not people to depend on.

Washington

David Broder at his sniffiest declared that Clinton was a social usurper in Washington: “He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.”2 Clinton was simply “not one of us.” But unlike Broder he had gone to school there. From the time he saw Washington as a high school member of Boys Nation and shook President Kennedy’s hand, Clinton wanted to get back there. His college placement counselor, Edith Irons, told me she urged him to apply to several colleges, not just one. But he filled out forms only for Georgetown—not because it was a Jesuit school, or a good school. Because it was in Washington. And so ingratiating was this Southern Baptist in a cosmopolitan Catholic school that he quickly became class president as a freshman and sophomore. He did not run for the office in his third year because by then he was an intern in Arkansas senator William Fulbright’s office. He had to be given security clearance because he ran classified documents from place to place on Capitol Hill. Already he was a Washington insider.

Some of the freshest pages in the book register Clinton’s impressions of the senators he observed. These were models against which he was measuring his future career, and the images were printed deep in him. He saw Carl Hayden of Arizona, whom a friend called “the only ninety-year-old man in the world who looks twice his age.” The senior senator from his own state, John McClellan, had sorrows “drowned in enough whiskey to float the Capitol down the Potomac River.” Clinton was especially interested in Senator Robert Kennedy, brother to his own fallen hero:

He radiated raw energy. He’s the only man I ever saw who could walk stoop-shouldered, with his head down, and still look like a coiled spring about to release into the air. He wasn’t a great speaker by conventional standards, but he spoke with such intensity and passion it could be mesmerizing. And if he didn’t get everyone’s attention with his name, countenance, and speech, he had Brumus, a large, shaggy Newfoundland, the biggest dog I ever saw. Brumus often came to work with Senator Kennedy. When Bobby walked from his office in the New Senate Building to the Capitol to vote, Brumus would walk by his side, bounding up the Capitol steps to the revolving door on the rotunda level, then sitting patiently outside until his master returned for the walk back. Anyone who could command the respect of that dog had mine too.

One of Clinton’s housemates at Georgetown worked in Robert Kennedy’s office, and another was in Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s office. A Georgetown girl he was dating hated Kennedy because she was working for his rival, Eugene McCarthy, whose lassitude Clinton compared unfavorably with Kennedy’s energy. He especially admired his own boss, Senator Fulbright:

I’ll never forget one night in 1967 or ‘68. I was walking alone in Georgetown when I saw the Senator and Mrs. Fulbright leaving one of the fashionable homes after a dinner party. When they reached the street, apparently with no one around to see, he took her in his arms and danced a few steps. Standing in the shadows, I saw what a light she was in his life.

Oxford

Clinton not only worked for Fulbright in Washington but drove him around Arkansas. He sincerely admired his opposition to the Vietnam War—among other things it gave him an excuse for avoiding the war. The flap over Clinton’s “draft dodging” looks quaint in retrospect. He first tried to do what George W. Bush did, join the National Guard, but he did not have the contacts to be accepted. The differences are that he, unlike Bush, did not support the war, and he is honest in saying that he was trying to avoid combat. He was in his first term as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and a friend and housemate of his (Frank Aller) was defying the draft as a conscientious objector. Aller said Clinton should risk the draft in order to have a political career, though he could not do that himself.

A man much admired by his Oxford contemporaries but tortured by his scruples, Aller later committed suicide. Robert McNamara, who came to know of Aller’s anguish, wrote Clinton when he was elected president:

By their votes, the American people, at long last, recognized that the Allers and the Clintons, when they questioned the wisdom and morality of their government’s decisions relating to Vietnam, were no less patriotic than those who served in uniform.

After Clinton failed to get into the National Guard, his uncle tried to get him into a navy program (which would involve less danger, and a delay in enlistment). Clinton’s third try was as an ROTC law student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, which would have given him three to four years’ delay in actual service—but would have kept him from continuing at Oxford. Only when he drew a low number in the draft did he take his chances on staying in England rather than going to Fayetteville. The famous letter he wrote to explain why he was not going to show up for the ROTC spot was a typical act of ingratiation with the man who had admitted him into the program, Colonel Eugene Holmes. He said that he would “accept” the draft (he did not say he had been given a low number) only “to maintain my political viability within the [political] system.” The ingratiation worked, at first. Colonel Holmes, when asked about Clinton’s relations with ROTC, said for years that there was nothing abnormal about them. Only in the 1992 campaign did he write a letter denouncing Clinton as a draft dodger. Clinton suggests that Holmes may have had “help” with his memory from his daughter, a Republican activist in the Arkansas Bush campaign. Clinton’s best biographer, David Maraniss, goes much further, and says that national officials of the Bush campaign “reviewed the letter before it was made public.”3

Clinton’s time in Oxford led to many silly charges against him. He was said to have been a protester in Arkansas, at a time when he was in England—an accusation that came up in his campaigns for state office. Much was made of his confession that he tried marijuana but “did not inhale.” Could not inhale would have been more truthful—his allergies had kept him from smoking any kind of cigarette, and the respected British journalist Martin Walker, who was with Clinton at the time, confirmed that he and others tried to teach Clinton to inhale, but he could not—he would end up “leaning his head out an open window gasping for fresh air.” The problem with a reputation for being “slick” is that even the simple truth can look like a ploy.

Clinton’s asthma and allergies stood in his way during his first political campaign, but charm overcame the problem when two local figures he wanted to campaign for him in Arkansas took him out from town in a truck, pulled out a pack of Red Man chewing tobacco, and said, “If you’re man enough to chew this tobacco, we’ll be for you. If not, we’ll kick you out and let you walk back to town.” Clinton hesitated a moment, then said: “Open the damn door.” The two men laughed and became his campaigners for many years.

A more serious charge arising from his two years at Oxford came from his trip to Russia, which would later be called treasonous—a charge that the senior Bush’s campaign tried to verify by breaking its own rules on passport and embassy reports. Clinton’s interest in Russia came from the fact that his housemate and fellow Rhodes Scholar, Strobe Talbot, was already such an expert on the Russian language and history that he was translating the memoirs of Khrushchev, smuggled out to him by Jerry Schecter, the Moscow correspondent for Time. Clinton learned more about America than about either England or Russia during his time at Oxford, where his fellow Rhodes Scholars talked endlessly about their country and the war. Clinton gave up a third year and a degree in England to get back to the Yale Law School and antiwar activities, first in Joseph Duffey’s failed Connecticut campaign for senator and then in McGovern’s campaign for the presidency. In the latter cause, he had an ally in Hillary Rodham.

Yale

Clinton refers to various women he dated or traveled with in Europe, and he drops some indirect references to his reputation as a ladies’ man—as inoculation, I suppose. He says he “had lived a far from perfect life,” and carried “more baggage than an ocean liner.” “The lies hurt, and the occasional truth hurt more.” He even admits that when he proposed to Hillary, “nothing in my background indicated I knew what a stable marriage was all about.” With women before Hillary, he was the one not seeking a commitment; but he pursued Hillary relentlessly. As law students, after they began living together, they traveled to Europe and the American West. He first proposed to her in England’s Lake Country, but she said no. When she spent the summer of 1968 as an intern for a law firm in Oakland, California, he turned down an offer to organize the McGovern campaign in Miami and went with her to California for the whole summer. He was afraid he would lose her. What their marriage proves is that even a lecherous man can have the one great love affair of his life.

Lechery

In this book Clinton misleads not by equivocation but by omission. He gives a long account of his decision not to run for president in July of 1988—how he summoned friends with wide experience to Little Rock and weighed all the options. He admits that Gary Hart had withdrawn from the race two months earlier, and that “after the Hart affair, those of us who had not led perfect lives had no way of knowing what the press’s standards of disclosure were.” Clinton had to be paying close attention to the Hart campaign that year. He had worked closely with Hart on the McGovern team—in fact, Hart had rebuked him for paying too much attention to his “girl friend” (Hillary) during the campaign.4 What Clinton leaves out of the account of his decision in 1988 is the brutal candor of the advice given him by his longtime aide, Betsey Wright. According to David Maraniss,

Wright met with Clinton at her home on Hill Street. The time had come, she felt, for Clinton to get past what she considered his self-denial tendencies and face the issue squarely. For years, she told friends later, she had been covering up for him. She was convinced that some state troopers were soliciting women for him, and he for them, she said. Sometimes when Clinton was on the road, Wright would call his room in the middle of the night and no one would answer. She hated that part of him, but felt that the other sides of him overshadowed his personal weaknesses.

…She started listing the names of women he had allegedly had affairs with and the places where they were said to have occurred. “Now,” she concluded, “I want you to tell me the truth about every one.” She went over the list twice with Clinton, according to her later account, the second time trying to determine whether any of the women might tell their stories to the press. At the end of the process, she suggested that he should not get into the race. He owed it to Hillary and Chelsea not to.5

No one who has seen Clinton with his daughter can doubt that he loves her deeply, and he does say that concern for her kept him out of the 1988 race, when she was eight years old. “Carl Wagner, who was also the father of an only daughter, told me I’d have to reconcile myself to being away from Chelsea for most of the next sixteen months.” The same problem would arise, of course, four years later, when Chelsea would be twelve—yet he would run then. Wagner’s advice is given a much different sense in his account to Maraniss. Wagner, who was a friend of Betsey Wright and had been given a job by her when he arrived in Little Rock, knew about her concerns, and shared them. After the conference with advisers, he stayed while the others left, to tell Clinton:

When you reach the top of the steps, walk into your daughter’s bedroom, look at her, and understand that if you do this, your relationship with her will never be the same. I’m not sure if it will be worse or better, but it will never be the same.”6

Wagner was not worried about Clinton’s absence from Chelsea, but about the presence of shadowy women in her young mind.

When Clinton ran in 1992, he admits that he anticipated trouble. A man in George H.W. Bush’s White House, Roger Porter—with whom Clinton had worked on the President’s “education initiative”—called him to say that “if I ran, they would have to destroy me personally.”

He went on to say the press were elitists who would believe any tales they were told about backwater Arkansas. “We’ll spend whatever we have to spend to get whoever we have to get to say whatever they have to say to take you out. And we’ll do it early.”

Of course, this is Clinton’s version of the phone call; it has the ring of a Lee Atwater campaign, although it can even be interpreted as kindly meant. Clinton was being forewarned that he could not expect to get a free pass on his background. Clinton presents his decision to run despite this warning as a brave refusal to be blackmailed: “Ever since I was a little boy I have hated to be threatened.”

On Gennifer Flowers, Clinton did resort to equivocation. In the famous post–Super Bowl interview on 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft asked about “what she calls a twelve-year affair with you.” Clinton said, “That allegation is false” (referring to the twelve-year aspect). So, said Kroft, “you’re categorically denying that you ever had an affair with Gennifer Flowers?” Clinton answered, “I’ve said that before, and so has she.” Both answers were technically correct, though six years later he would admit that they were “misleading”—he did have an affair. Most people forget that Clinton’s trouble with women taping their phone calls did not begin with Monica Lewinsky. In 1992 Flowers was taping him, at a time when she was publicly denying claims of their affair. When he called her after defeating Sheffield Nelson for governor, Clinton mocked Nelson for denying that he had charged Clinton with infidelity: “I knew he lied. I just wanted to make his asshole pucker. But I covered you,” Clinton said on a tape that became public.7

The Lewinskiad

Clinton claims that he does not offer excuses for his past life in this book. But he now says that he lied because he was confused, fatigued, and angry at being surrounded by bloodhound prosecutors, a hostile Congress, and a barking press: “And if there had been no Kenneth Starr—if we had different kind of people, I would have just said, ‘Here are the facts. I’m sorry. Deal with it however you please.’” Here all the contrived contrition is forgotten—it was Ken Starr who made him lie. But what was he lying about? For that he has another excuse, his “parallel life” in which he kept embarrassing things secret. Well, we all do that. But why did he do the reckless things with Lewinsky that he had to keep secret? With both Dan Rather and Charlie Rose he said: “I think I did something for the worst possible reason, just because I could. I think that’s the most—just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything, when you do something just because you could.” Here he is applying to himself what Newt Gingrich said to him when Clinton asked why the Republicans shut down the government in 1995. The answer: “Because we could.” Later Clinton says the prosecutors hunted him “because they could.”

As applied to him, the an-swer is nonsense. First of all, he couldn’t do it, if that meant doing it with impunity—as he found out. Moreover, that is not the worst possible reason for doing anything. There are far worse reasons—hatred, revenge, religious fanaticism, sadism. He avoids saying that he did it because he wanted to, but that is the only honest answer. He did it from lechery. And the absurdity of it, the risk, just spiced the matter with danger. He was not withdrawing into a secret self but throwing himself outward in flamboyant bravado. Clinton, like his mother, is a gambler. He does not, as she did, play the ponies. He dares the lightning. He knew he had numerous hunters and trackers circling him about. He knew that he already had to cope with Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey. The young woman he was adding to the list was not likely to be discreet—she boasted of earning her presidential kneepads, and wangled thirty-seven entrances to the White House, and snapped her thong, and preserved the candied semen. (DNA technology is still a comparatively young discipline, but it is not likely for some time to get a stranger exercise than testing the effluvia of presidential fellation.)

Flirting with ever greater peril, he repeatedly telephoned Lewinsky. He sent her presents (Leaves of Grass as Seducer’s Assistant). He wore her present. He lied in risky forums. He put in jeopardy political efforts he cared about, as well as the respect and love of his wife and daughter. It was such a crazy thing to do that many of us could not, for a long time, believe he had done it. But Betsey Wright, from her long experience of the man, knew at once: “I was miserably furious with him, and completely unable to communicate with him from the time the Lewinsky stuff was unfolded on the national scene. This was a guy I had given thirteen years of my life to.”8

Starr

Though Clinton’s conduct was inexcusable, it does pale next to the deep and vast abuses of power that Kenneth Starr sponsored and protected. He is a deceptively sweet-looking fellow, a dimpled, flutily warbling Pillsbury Doughboy. But he lent himself to the schemes of people with an almost total disregard for the law. A man of honor would not have accepted his appointment by a right-wing judge to replace Robert Fiske, a Republican general counsel who was a distinguished prosecutor. Not only did Starr have no prosecutorial experience; he had already lent support to Paula Jones’s suit against the President. He continued private practice for right-wing causes with right-wing funding. Five former presidents of the American Bar Association said that he had conflicts of interest for which he should recuse himself. At one point in his investigation, a New York Times editorial said he should resign. His own chosen ethics adviser, Sam Dash, left him in protest at his tactics. The American Civil Liberties Union had to bring an end to the “barbaric” conditions he imposed on the imprisoned Susan McDougal.9

Starr raised again the suspicion that Vince Foster was murdered, after his predecessor had disposed of that claim. This was a favorite cause of the man funding much of the right-wing pursuit of Clinton, Richard Mellon Scaife, who is a principal donor to Pepperdine College, where Starr now holds a chair. The list of Starr’s offenses is long and dark. Congressman Barney Frank questioned him about the fact that he released his damning “sex report” on Clinton before the 1998 elections though he held findings that cleared Clinton of other charges—findings reached months earlier—until after the election. After Starr made several attempts at evading the question, Frank said, “In other words, you don’t have anything to say [before an election] unless you have something bad to say.”10

Starr prolonged his investigations as charge after charge was lengthily discredited, until the right-wing Rutherford Institute’s lawyers, representing Paula Jones, could trap Clinton in a confession of his contacts with Monica Lewinsky, to which Starr then devoted his frenzied attention. The wonder is that Starr got away with all his offenses. For that he needed a complicit press, which disgraced itself in this period, gobbling up the illegal leaks that flowed from his office. The sniffy Washingtonians went so berserk over the fact that Clinton was Not One of Us that they bestowed on Starr an honorary Oneness with Usness. Sally Quinn wrote in The Washington Post that “Beltway Insiders” were humiliated by Clinton, and that “Starr is a Washington insider, too.”11

Starr was one thing that made some people stay with Clinton, who says Starr’s unfairness helped bring Hillary back to his side. Paul Begala admitted he was disgusted by what Clinton had done, but determined that he would not let Starr accomplish a “coup d’état.” That does not describe what a Starr success would have meant. Conviction on impeachment charges would not have brought in a Republican administration. Succession would have gone to Vice President Al Gore in Clinton’s own administration. But Clinton agrees with Begala. He presents his fight with Starr as a defense of all the things the right wing disliked about him—his championship of blacks, and gays, and the poor. He works himself up to such a righteous pitch that he says his impeachment trial was a “badge of honor.”

Honor

Actually, the honorable thing for Clinton would have been to resign. I argued for that in a Time magazine article as soon as he revealed that he had lied to the nation.12 I knew, of course, that he wouldn’t. He had thrown himself off the highest cliff ever, and he had to prove he could catch a last-minute branch and pull himself, improbably, back up. And damned if he didn’t. He ended his time as president with high poll numbers and some new accomplishments, the greatest of the Kid’s comebacks—so great that I have been asked if I still feel he should have resigned. Well, I do. Why? Partly because what Ross Perot said in 1996 was partly true—that Clinton would be “totally occupied for the next two years in staying out of jail.” That meant he would probably go on lying. He tried for as long as possible to “mislead” the nation on Gennifer Flowers. He still claims that Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey made false charges. Perhaps they did, but he became unbelievable about personal behavior after lying about Flowers and Lewinsky. I at first disbelieved the story Paula Jones told because it seemed too bizarre; but the cigar-dildo described by Monica Lewinsky considerably extended the vistas of the bizarre.

Though Clinton accomplished things in his second term, he did so in a constant struggle to survive. Unlike the current president, his administration found in Sudan the presence of a weapon of mass destruction (the nerve gas precursor Empta) and bombed the place where it had existed—but many, including Senator Arlen Specter and the journalist Seymour Hersh, said that Clinton was just bombing another country to distract people from his scandal.13 “That reaction,” according to Richard Clarke, “made it more difficult to get approval for follow-up attacks on al Quaeda.”14 Even when Clinton was doing things, the appearance of his vulnerability made people doubt it. It was said in the Pentagon that he was afraid to seize terrorists because of his troubles; but Clarke rebuts those claims—he says that every proposal to seize a terrorist leader, whether it came from the CIA or the Pentagon, was approved by Clinton “during my tenure as CSG [Counterterrorism Security Group] chairman, from 1992 to 2001.”

We shall never know what was not done, or not successfully done, because of Clinton’s being politically crippled. He has been criticized for his insufficient response to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Michael Walzer said of the bombing raids Clinton finally authorized that “our faith in airpower is…a kind of idolatry.”15 But Clinton was limited in what he could do by the fact that the House of Representatives passed a resolution exactly the opposite of the war authorization that would be given George W. Bush—it voted to deny the President the power to commit troops. Walzer says that Clinton should have prodded the UN to take action; but a Republican Congress was not going to follow a man it distrusted when he called on an institution it distrusted.

At the very end of Clinton’s regime, did Arafat feel he was not strong enough in his own country to pressure him into the reasonable agreement Clinton had worked out and Ehud Barak had accepted? Clinton suggests as much when he says that Arafat called him a great man, and he had to reply: “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.”

Clinton had a wise foreign policy. But in an Oval Office interview, shortly before he admitted lying to the nation, he admitted that he had not been able to make it clear to the American people. His vision had so little hold upon the public that Bush was able to discard it instantly when he came in. Clinton summed up the difference between his and Bush’s approach for Charlie Rose by saying that the latter thinks we should “do what we want whenever we can, and then we cooperate when we have to,” whereas his policy was that “we were cooperating whenever we could and we acted alone only when we had to.” The Bush people are learning the difference between the two policies as their pre-emptive unilateralism fails.

Clinton claims that he was not hampered in his political activity by scandals. He even said, to Charlie Rose, that “I probably was more attentive to my work for several months just because I didn’t want to tend to anything else.” That is improbable a priori and it conflicts with what he told Dan Rather about the atmosphere caused by the scandal: “The moment was so crazy. It was a zoo. It was an unr—it was—it was like living in a madhouse.” Even if he were not distracted, the press and the nation were. His staff was demoralized. The Democrats on the Hill were defensive, doubtful, absorbed in either defending Clinton or deflecting criticism from themselves. His freedom to make policy was hobbled.

Clinton likes to talk now of his “legacy.” That legacy should include partial responsibility for the disabling of the Democratic Party. There were things to be said against the Democratic Leadership Council (Mario Cuomo said them well) and the “triangulation” scheme of Dick Morris, by which Clinton would take positions to the right of most congressional Democrats and to the left of the Republican Party. But Clinton, as a Southerner, knew that the party had to expand its base back into sources of support eroded by the New Right. This was a defensible (in fact a shrewd) strategy as Clinton originally shaped it. He could have made it a tactical adjunct to important strategic goals. But after the scandals, all his maneuvering looked desperate—a swerving away from blows, a flurried scrambling to find solid footing. His very success made Democrats think their only path to success was to concede, cajole, and pander. Al Gore began his 2000 campaign unhappy about his association with Clinton but trying to outpander him when he opposed the return of the Cuban boy Elián Gonzalez to his father. There is a kind of rude justice to the fact that the election was stolen from Gore in the state where he truckled to the Cubans.

Clinton bequeathed to his party not a clear call to high goals but an omnidirectional proneness to pusillanimity and collapse. This was signaled at the very outset of the new presidency. The Democrats, still in control of the Senate, facing a president not even strong enough to win the popular vote, a man brought into office by linked chicaneries and chance (Kathleen Harris, Ralph Nader, Antonin Scalia), nonetheless helped to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general. The senators knew Ashcroft well; they were surely not impressed by his acumen or wisdom.

A whole series of capitulations followed. While still holding a majority in the Senate, the Democrats did not use subpoenas and investigative powers to challenge Dick Cheney’s secret drafting of energy policy with Enron and other companies. A portion of the Democrats would support the welfare-to-billionaires tax cut. They fairly stampeded to support the Patriot Act and the presidential war authorization—with John Kerry, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton at the front of the pack. The party had become so neutered that Al From and others from the Democratic Leadership Council called Howard Dean an extremist for daring to say what everyone is now saying about the war with Iraq—that it was precipitate, overhyped, and underprepared, more likely to separate us from the friends needed to fight terrorists than to end terrorism.

What would have happened had Clinton resigned? Gore would have been given a “honeymoon” in which he could have played with a stronger hand all the initiatives Clinton had begun, unashamed of them and able to bring them fresh energy. That is what happened when Lyndon Johnson succeeded John Kennedy. Clinton himself may have reaped a redeeming admiration for what he had sacrificed to recover his honor. Before him would have lain all the opportunities he has now, and more. Hillary Clinton’s support of him in this act of real contrition would have looked nobler. Clinton’s followers were claiming that it was all and only about sex. Clinton could have said, “Since that is what it is about, I’ll step aside so more important things can be addressed.” All the other phony issues Starr had raised would have fallen of their own insubstantiality.

Of course, this is just one of many what-ifs about the Clinton presidency. By chance I saw a revival of Leonard Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town, just before getting my copy of the Clinton book. All through the 957 pages of it, a song from the show kept running through my head: “What a waste! What a waste!”

  1. 1

    Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1097– 1098.

  2. 2

    Sally Quinn, “Not in Their Backyard: In Washington, That Let Down Feeling,” The Washington Post, November 2, 1998.

  3. 3

    David Maraniss, First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton (Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 205.

  4. 4

    Garry Wills, “Lightning Rod,” The New York Review, August 14, 2003.

  5. 5

    Maraniss, First in His Class, pp. 440–441.

  6. 6

    Maraniss, First in His Class, p. 441.

  7. 7

    Maraniss, First in His Class, p. 457.

  8. 8

    Interview in the Harry Thomason and Nicholas Perry film The Hunting of the President (Regent Entertainment, 2004).

  9. 9

    The despicable treatment of Susan McDougal is movingly presented in The Hunting of the President, a film that has many trivializing touches (like intercut clips of old Hollywood melodramas). McDougal’s story is backed up by a very impressive woman, Claudia Riley, the wife of Bob Riley, the former Arkansas governor and college president, who stayed with McDougal through her ordeal and describes the bullying tactics she witnessed.

  10. 10

    Sidney Blumenthal, The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 512.

  11. 11

    Quinn, “Not in Their Backyard: In Washington, That Let Down Feeling.”

  12. 12

    Garry Wills, “Leading by Leaving,” Time, August 31, 1998.

  13. 13

    See the important work by two former National Security Council anti-terrorist directors, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam’s War Against America (Random House, 2002), pp. 352–360. See also Richard Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (Free Press, 2004), pp. 146–147.

  14. 14

    Clarke, Against All Enemies, p. 189.

  15. 15

    Michael Walzer, Arguing About War (Yale University Press, 2004), p. 99.

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