Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Survivor

Recently finished The Survivor: Bill Clinton In The White House by John F. Harris. Harris was a national correspondent for the Washington Post during the Clinton years in the presidency.

Right-wingers would probably argue the point, but the book provides a reasonably balanced look at the Clinton presidency. While few punches are pulled regarding the troughs, Clinton is given credit for his successes as well. In the end, according to Harris, Clinton's presidency was less a matter of success or failure than the survival noted in the book's title:
"Clinton survived the crises of his presidency for three principal reasons. ...

By the end of Clinton's term, the issue that had been in doubt at the beginning -- whether Democrats had credible ideas about the role of government in a rapidly changing global economy -- was put to rest on favorable terms. Clinton had implemented a mild but innovative brand of liberalism that favored economic growth over redistribution, insisted that government pay its way rather than rely on budget deficits, and embraced free trade rather than taking refuge in protectionism. ...

Clinton's presidency was anchored to an authentically populist spirit and animated by a genuine connection between a politician and common folk whose support he needed. Countless times Republicans believed they had Clinton cornered. The reality was that they never really told voters anything about the president -- about his diverse excesses and vulnerabilities -- that the voters had not long since supposed to be true. ...

Finally, one must note the phenomenon seen so often in his story: the blurring of function and dysfunction in the Clinton style. Voluminous appetites got him into trouble. Voluminous appetites carried him out of trouble. No president had a greater capacity for the work of politics and governance ..."
Harris concludes the book with a natural segue to what will doubtless be the subject of countless future books:
"... Clinton and Bush are likely to be tethered to each other historically. Their presidential styles are such distinct opposites that it is hardly possible to talk about one without invoking a contrast with the other.

As a politician, Clinton made it preeminently his task to capture the center while trying to tame the more ideological elements of his party. Bush has celebrated ideology, and has worried less about placating the center than about rallying the enthusiasm of his party base. On the world stage, Clinton was a pluralist who believed the United States in most instances was better served exerting influence by persuasion and by acting in a community of nations. Bush has been devoted to American exceptionalism, believing in the supremacy of force over persuasion and serving regular notice that the United States is ready to act alone to protect its self-interests. The starkest contrast is in the nature of their minds. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously invoked the Greek fable about the hedgehog and the fox ... : "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Clinton was a classic fox. ... Bush proved to be the classic hedgehog. ... In the Clinton and Bush presidencies, history has crafted an experiment of sourts about which model of leadership is more productive."
I'm not sure if history ever provides judgements that are ever that clear cut, but it is instructive how the distinctions between the two are neatly framed by two issues: terrorism and budgets.

Clinton was, according to Harris, fully convinced of the dangers of Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda, but had so constrained himself with his (largely self-generated) domestic political concerns that he was never able to respond adequately. By Richard Clarke's accounts, Bush was never fully convinced of these dangers until the attacks of September 11th thrust them front and center into his consciousness, where they remain to this day.

Regarding budgets, Clinton spent his presidency crafting what had seemed impossible under his Republican predecessors, the record budget surpluses that would seem to be his most amazing accomplishment. Also his least enduring accomplishment, as four years of the Bush presidency have brought budget deficits back in spades. But, as a hedgehog, the importance of this is not apparent to 43, and so is crowded out.

It is likely that the judgements of history regarding these two areas will indeed come to define both presidencies.

1 Comments:

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Thomas said...

I just started this book. Glad to hear that it sounds decent.

 

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