Bill Clinton was eighteen years old and already set on a career in politics when, in 1964, the Democratic Party won its most substantial victory since the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson got more than 60 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election and carried forty-four states. The Democrats ended up with sixty-eight seats in the Senate and 295 seats in the House of Representatives. But after that there was far more bad news than good for the Democrats for most of the next three decades.
For Clinton personally, every significant political setback of his long career in electoral politics was delivered by the right, not the left. He was the comanager of George McGovern’s presidential campaign in Texas in 1972, which lost the state by a two-to-one margin. He lost his first race as a candidate, for Congress from Arkansas in 1974, to a Republican. He lost his first reelection campaign as governor of Arkansas in 1980, again to a Republican. And in 1994, when Clinton was president, the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, plus ten governorships.
All of us have to coordinate our ambitions with the conditions of our times. Even if Bill Clinton is innately and sincerely a moderate Democrat, as a politician from Arkansas who began his career in the 1970s and 1980s there was no other realistic position for him to take. He was chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization founded in 1985 to move the party to the center, at the height of the Reagan years; as president, Clinton governed mainly from the middle, lost ground politically whenever he tacked to the left, and gained it back whenever he tacked back to the right—most notably in the period between the 1994 and 1996 elections when he brought in Dick Morris as an unofficial but influential political adviser.
It’s worth remembering how successful Clintonism—an approach that combined pro-market economic policies with rhetoric that put middle-class families in the highest place of honor—seemed to be at the end of his presidency. Except for 1964, the Republicans had carried California in every presidential election from 1952 to 1988. They had carried Illinois in every election from 1968 to 1988. Clinton won both states, twice, and today it seems inconceivable that either one could go Republican in a presidential election. In his reelection campaign, Clinton won Arizona and Florida, which hadn’t gone Democratic for decades.
Before Clinton took office, it was common for people in politics to talk about a “Republican electoral lock” on the presidency, and words like “liberal” and “tax” had an evidently lethal effect on Democratic candidates. By the time Clinton was preparing to leave the White House, it seemed as if he had built a far stronger Democratic Party. The country was prosperous and at peace. The federal budget was balanced. Crime rates were down. Al Gore and George W. Bush both chose to present themselves to the voters in 2000 as southern moderates, not so different politically from Clinton. Clinton’s aides were promoting the centrist “Third Way” as a new political model for the whole world, notably adopted by Tony Blair among others.
All those late Clinton-era certainties are gone now. The September 11 attacks, the American invasion of Iraq, and the 2008 financial crisis, among many other events since the 1990s, make serene Clinton-style moderate politics seem like a distant memory. In 2008, Hillary Clinton chose as her chief strategist Mark Penn, who had come into the Clinton orbit with Dick Morris, and lost in the primaries to Barack Obama, a relatively unknown challenger to her left. (Dick Morris himself is now reliably Republican.) The Democratic Leadership Council went out of business in 2011.
The world has become more populist and nationalist, less moderate, more partisan. In her second presidential campaign in 2016, Hillary Clinton ran on policies closer to Barack Obama’s than to Bill Clinton’s—as the leader of a “coalition of the ascendant,” more than of the white middle and working classes, and with a new, Obama-affiliated chief strategist—and found herself first damaged in the primaries by a socialist and then defeated by an authoritarian thug. Now Clinton’s party seems both deeply divided internally—between its left and its center and between its economic and social wings—and especially vulnerable to Republican attacks. What happened to Clintonism?
Bill Clinton’s preferred view of himself is not as a centrist, but as a modernizer and a problem-solver—hence the “bridge to the twenty-first century” metaphor that he liked to use, and that became the design principle for his presidential library. He presided over the rise of the Internet and the rapid advance of globalization. The idea of a simple liberal-to-moderate spectrum also fails to capture the main objections to him that one hears now. These fall into three main categories: racial, economic, and personal.
Race had everything to do with the steady rise of the Republican Party after the 1964 election, and during Clinton’s remaking of the Democratic Party he often tweaked the party’s positions in a direction meant to bring white voters back into the fold. Daryl Carter’s Brother Bill is a long, patient recitation of these efforts. There was Clinton’s confrontation with the young rapper Sister Souljah during his first campaign; the withdrawn nomination of the black legal scholar Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general for civil rights, after attacks from conservatives; the 1993 speech in a Memphis church about black-on-black violence.
On substantive policy, Clinton’s major initiatives included the 1994 crime bill, which extended to some federal crimes the now notorious “three strikes” mandatory life sentences that states had been instituting, and put many more police officers on the street; the 1995 review of affirmative action programs; and the 1996 welfare reform bill, originated by Republicans, which instituted time limits and work requirements in the main federal support program for the poor. The crime bill and the welfare reform bill have become highly unpopular on the left, which views them as having made it more difficult for the most vulnerable Americans to overcome poverty and excessive imprisonment; and the review of affirmative action, which ended with Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” speech, doesn’t get him much credit today because subsequent presidents haven’t felt the need to conduct such a review.
Carter writes in a deliberately measured, even sweet-natured voice that puts his account at a far remove tonally from, say, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th. He gives Clinton credit for saving affirmative action at a time when it was under severe attack, as it isn’t now. He reminds us that the crime and welfare bills Clinton signed had strong black support in polls at the time and that many black members of Congress voted for both; today, black voters, especially younger ones, are far more critical of these measures.
Clinton’s racial policies, Carter says, weren’t just aimed at whites, but also at middle-class blacks, by tapping into their own concerns about violence and underemployment in their communities.1 But he does acknowledge, if rather gently, that both the crime and welfare bills wound up hurting the black poor—the former by forcing more and more young black men into jail and by making the police a more oppressive presence in poor black neighborhoods; the latter by making the new, time-limited welfare program even less generous and more disproportionately black than its predecessor.
Just as it may be difficult today to understand how Clinton’s social policies could have been so popular at the time, his economic policies have also looked far less appealing since the 2008 financial crisis. Michael Tomasky’s short biography of Clinton, the latest in a series edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz, is an excellent capsule version of his career, and a good place to get a feeling for the concerns that drove his economic vision. He aimed to shore up the situation of ordinary working people through the health care initiative led by Hillary Clinton (which failed spectacularly, of course) and by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, which became the country’s biggest antipoverty program during his administration. He promoted free trade through the World Trade Organization and NAFTA—the creation of which, Tomasky reminds us, entailed a wrenching battle with the organized labor wing of his own party. He deregulated banks and stymied an attempt to regulate derivatives and other exotic new financial products.
All this was supposed to produce economic prosperity for everybody, and during Clinton’s second term, when there was both strong growth and low inflation, it seemed to be doing so. His economic policies did not, however, stop the rising disparities in income and wealth, and the financial crisis demonstrated that he’d put too much faith in deregulation. At the heart of both the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Donald Trump campaign in 2016 was a blistering attack on Bill Clinton’s economic policies that a lot of voters found persuasive, perhaps especially because by that time both Clintons had become visibly associated with Wall Street in a way that was historically new for Democrats.
The standard armchair psychology on Bill Clinton is that having grown up around battling parents, he early on saw the benefits of acting as an ingratiating peacemaker. You can see a good deal of this in his presidency: his obvious discomfort when the people around him disagreed strongly about what course he should take, as with welfare reform and economic policy; his impulse to reassure religious voters who didn’t like the Democrats’ positions on social issues like gay rights (Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which invalidated state-sanctioned gay marriages), school prayer, and abortion; his strong preference for diplomatic negotiations over military action.
What’s enduringly mysterious is why someone who wanted to be loved as much as Clinton did generated so much hatred, at least from a portion of the right. Was it jealousy of his success, which came at a time when the Democrats were supposed to be finished? Did his careful avoidance of ideologically exposed positions leave his character as the best available object of attack? Did the institutional structure that conservatives had been building up since the 1970s become a weapon that by the 1990s had to be fired, no matter how thin the justification was? Or did Clinton bring it on himself, especially through his reckless sex life?
Whatever the reason, it took only a few months for supposed Clinton scandals to become a constant theme of his presidency. The first of these was “Travelgate,” the series of investigations that followed the replacement, allegedly ordered by Hillary Clinton, of the staff of the previously obscure White House office that booked travel arrangements. This was quickly followed by a revival of intense interest in Whitewater, the failed Arkansas real estate development in which the Clintons had invested back in the 1980s. In 1994, Clinton made one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency when he decided to request the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Whitewater. The second holder of that position, Kenneth Starr, finding nothing financial that rose to a level that would enable him to prosecute his quarry, switched his focus to Clinton’s liaisons with, first, Paula Jones, and then, far more consequentially, Monica Lewinsky.
It’s true that Clinton left himself exposed, not just by his behavior but also by his tendency to prevaricate when being investigated, but the Lewinsky affair seems minor in comparison to the monumental craziness of all those years of expensive, attention-hogging investigation of, essentially, nothing, culminating in Clinton’s impeachment and acquittal. Whitewater and what it led to was perfectly suited to several aspects of Washington culture, including Congress’s love of showy investigations, the rise of cable news, and conservative institutions’ need for a target. It left Clinton indebted, bitter, and understandably mistrustful. It is difficult to find anything in the left’s hatred of George W. Bush or the right’s of Barack Obama that approached the lopsided ratio of attack to justification that prevailed through most of Clinton’s presidency—and that seemed to extend to Hillary Clinton, even more intensely, throughout her years in Washington politics.
In Hillary and Bill: The Clintons and the Politics of the Personal, a revised edition of a 2012 book obviously published in anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s being elected president, William Chafe remarks that, all these years later, there is still very little conventional archival material about Bill Clinton available to historians:
Many of the Oval Office papers, particularly those involving the president and First Lady, have not yet been released, and the multiple oral history interviews conducted by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia on the Clinton Administration will not be open to scholars for some years to come. The heart of this book, therefore, is based on the work of journalists.
(The Miller Center began releasing transcripts of its interviews in 2014.)2
Chafe is especially generous in crediting David Maraniss’s 1995 biography of Bill Clinton and Carl Bernstein’s 2007 biography of Hillary Clinton, but the truth is that even those authors had to work awfully hard to get their material. The Clintons don’t like the press any more than they like making documents public; a quarter-century after his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton still presents an odd combination of ubiquity and elusiveness. That’s why Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton, by Joe Conason, is so valuable. It is one of only two books about Clinton (the other is Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes, from 20093) whose authors had extensive access to Clinton himself.
That Clinton chose these two authors is instructive. Branch comanaged the 1972 McGovern campaign in Texas with Clinton and went on to write the authoritative three-volume biography of Martin Luther King Jr., among other books; he was, from a Clinton perspective, an old friend, not part of the working political press, and his dozens of White House interviews with Clinton were meant to help him write his post-presidential memoir, My Life. Conason is the coauthor, with Gene Lyons, of The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton, plus four subsequent books lustily attacking Republicans. He’s about as clearly on Clinton’s side, and as demonstrably aware of the mendacity of Clinton’s enemies, as any working journalist.
Conason tells his story as one of triumph. Clinton leaves office at age fifty-four, in debt, without any definite plans, and in bad odor for having pardoned Marc Rich, the fugitive financier, on his last day in office. Within a few years, he has become the founder of a multifaceted philanthropic foundation that has helped millions of people; a highly paid author and speaker; an organizer of disaster relief; and a crucial adviser to his wife’s political career. Along with this admiring view, the book offers a great deal of interesting detail and, just underneath the surface, a rich, believable portrait of a master politician out of office: needy, rivalrous, thin-skinned, proud, hot-tempered.
Except for a two-year exile from the Arkansas governor’s mansion in the early 1980s, Clinton had held political office continuously since 1978. In 2001, his most important task was figuring out what to do with himself. The person to whom Conason gives the most credit for helping Clinton answer that question is Ira Magaziner, Clinton’s friend since they were Rhodes scholars together in the late 1960s. Magaziner pitched Clinton on lobbying pharmaceutical companies to offer drastically lower-priced versions of their AIDS treatment medications in Africa, because the previous American policy of stressing prevention rather than treatment had failed. This was something that Clinton had declined to do as president, but now he agreed, and it worked—not with the big American companies, but with some generic drug manufacturers.
His modus operandi was a distinctively Clintonian mix of public and private persuasion (including getting the support of his successor in the White House, George W. Bush), basking in the adulation of crowds and the company of celebrities, living a life of luxury while helping the poor with evidently sincere devotion, and generating a constant ambient level of chaos around himself. Magaziner feuds with Doug Band, the former White House intern and adviser who was the other most important person in Clinton’s postpresidency. Chelsea Clinton enters the picture and feuds with both of them. Journalists investigate the Clinton Foundation’s unusual financial and management practices. Consultants, auditors, and managers are summoned to clean things up.
The origin of the other best-known project of Clinton’s postpresidency, the Clinton Global Initiative, came on a trip on Google’s corporate 767 jet en route to the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2004. During the flight, Doug Band wondered aloud why there couldn’t be a new, different, better version of Davos, one whose elite participants would focus on “the world’s most pressing problems, instead of just jabbering and networking and drinking little cups of espresso?” Larry Page, Google’s cofounder, said, “Do it!” A year later, at the next Davos, the former president announced the Clinton Global Initiative.
To attend the initiative’s annual meeting, you had to pay a $15,000 membership fee, and then you were expected, in a way that calls to mind old jokes about United Jewish Appeal luncheons, to announce during the meeting that you had made a specific dollar commitment to a do-good cause that Clinton was promoting. By the end of the first meeting, the participants
had pledged to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy, small business credit for women entrepreneurs, clean water for Ghana and terrorism insurance in Gaza and environmental protection for Tierra del Fuego and youth unemployment in the Balkans.
(Last year’s Clinton Global Initiative meeting was, evidently, its last; it is now laying off most of its staff.)
What’s hard to tell from Conason’s portrait of Clinton is how much of the material he’s giving us is what anyone who managed to get this close to a leading politician would see and how much is particular to Clinton. Clinton can’t resist watching cable television hosts talking about him, even though it drives him crazy. He is deeply wounded by Michiko Kakutani’s negative review of his memoir in The New York Times—his reaction gets almost two full pages in Conason’s book—and generally feels that the Times is out to get him. (It was the Times that set off all those years of Whitewater investigations with a front-page story by Jeff Gerth in the spring of 1992.) He’s stung by slights from other politicians, even as they’re stung by slights from him; there’s a lot of business here about who owes whom a phone call, who keeps whom waiting, and who visits whose office. He blows up at members of his staff.
Clinton campaigns aggressively for Hillary in 2008, visiting 150 US cities in 121 days, and burns with resentment over the rise of Barack Obama at the expense of her presidential ambitions—“He considered Obama…both poorly prepared and arrogant.” But he dutifully campaigns for Obama in the fall of 2008 and in 2012. He hates organized conservatism, but has a friendly relationship with Christopher Ruddy, the conservative media executive now known for being a confidant of Donald Trump. (Trump himself, Conason reports, expected to be invited to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in 2010, but wasn’t.) He relentlessly fund-raises, speechifies, cadges rides on private jets, and forms alliances with politically interested billionaires, but is mystified and hurt when people fail to understand that his—and Hillary’s—motives are pure.
Conason spends a good deal of space reviewing and trying to refute the many criticisms of Clinton’s post-presidential career for its preoccupation with money (some for the Clintons personally, some for their charitable programs) and the perception that part of what they were offering in return was high-level lobbying. Conason’s account of these accusations doesn’t have what may have been the intended effect of laying all suspicions to rest, not least because of the sheer volume of material he gives us about the Clintons’ business and fund-raising arrangements, and their connection to political influence.
Obama’s staff, Conason reports, initially demanded that Bill Clinton give up the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative as a condition of Hillary’s becoming secretary of state, and also submit “every paid speech and business relationship” to the White House for approval. Bargaining between representatives of Clinton and Obama ensued. “After several loud, heated discussions, the negotiators found ways to accommodate Obama’s concerns without eviscerating the foundation,” Conason says—but the episode demonstrates how large the difference was, even in 2008, between the Clintons’ self-perception and others’ perception of them. As Conason drily puts it, referring to Hillary’s speeches to Goldman Sachs, “Like her husband, she felt such confidence in her own probity that she was unable to imagine how others might view her acceptance of enormous sums of money from special interests.”
It’s beyond dispute that these persistent questions about the Clintons helped Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and hurt Hillary Clinton’s. Many passages in Conason’s book, though based on well-documented events, read like a fantasy about “elites” dreamed up by Steve Bannon in service of his and Trump’s political ambitions:
Clinton flew home to Westchester, only to rise early the next morning to head out to Kennedy Airport, where a comfortably furnished Boeing 737 owned by Google waited to take him, a group of foundation staffers and friends, and several pallets of medical supplies to Port-au-Prince. Joining him were Chelsea Clinton and her fiancé, Mark Mezvinsky, as well as Google founder Sergey Brin, clad in a T-shirt and jeans and toting a camera with a huge telephoto lens. On the flight down Brin lounged on the plane’s beige leather seating while he asked Clinton about China, where his company was encountering difficulties with the government.
Conason ends his book on a note of complete certainty that the portion of Bill Clinton’s life that is his subject—2001 to 2017—will come to an end “on the morning after Hillary’s dizzying inauguration.” Instead, the fortunes of Bill Clinton’s party are back where they were when he first ran for president, or maybe worse. The Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and most state governments. For Clinton’s entire adult life—indeed, for most of American history—it has been difficult for the party of the people to hold together a coalition of less-well-off whites plus racial and ethnic minorities, because economic populism so often has a strong, even controlling, element of racial resentment. Every liberal politician has to find a way to manage this tension, and Clinton’s presidency at its most successful demonstrated that it could be done.
What the Democrats were not, before Clinton, was the party of many of the best-educated and the most financially fortunate Americans, which they are now. That new support provides the party with resources that can help win elections, but it makes the coalition even more difficult to hold together, exposing it to populist challenges including from the right. It’s a measure of both Clinton’s talents and his good-heartedness that he can connect with voters who are susceptible to populist appeals—especially working-class whites—without resorting to demonizing a caricatured other, as real populists usually do.
In his only sustained public remarks since the presidential election, at the Brookings Institution in March, he gave an eloquent counter to Trump-style nationalism, without naming Trump, by presenting it as merely another manifestation of an eternal human weakness:
It is a very old story. And it always comes down to two things—are we going to live in an us-and-them world, or a world that we can live in together?
Clinton is uncannily good at framing the case for Democratic policies in ways that combine a mastery of policy (something Trump doesn’t have, of course) with plain, vivid, persuasive language that doesn’t sound processed or patronizing; this was on display in his 2012 convention speech laying out a case for Obama’s reelection.
In his talk at Brookings, Clinton acknowledged that the rising tide of nationalism is an “inevitable consequence” of the jarringly rapid pace of globalization in recent years. Clinton as president did a great deal to set this in motion; Clinton as ex-president has become a highly visible participant in a distinctive subculture that globalization has created, one in which the focus of liberalism has moved from the state to philanthropy by billionaires, and from the nearby working class to the faraway very poor. That has made him into the kind of foil that Trumpism feeds on. The question about him now is whether he can shed his liabilities sufficiently to offer real help, at a moment of dire need, to the party to which he has devoted his life.
James Forman Jr.’s new book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), also emphasizes the influence of the black middle class on the policies that led to mass incarceration. ↩
Patrick J. Maney, in Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President (University Press of Kansas, 2016), makes a similar observation about Clinton’s office papers, though he insists that if one is willing to dig, “a daunting amount of material is easily accessible.” Still, his book too is substantially based on journalistic sources. ↩