Portraits of Clinton offer familiar views


On the surface, these two books about Bill Clinton have little in common.

"Highwire," by John Brummett, a newspaper columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, is a chatty, anecdotal meditation on Mr. Clinton's rise to power, which provides a lively, discursive and often highly subjective portrait of the president and his circle.

"On the Edge," by veteran political reporter Elizabeth Drew, is a dry and relentlessly chronological account of Mr. Clinton's first year in office, based on dozens of interviews with White House aides, Cabinet members and members of Congress.

In their own fashion, however, both books offer disturbing and remarkably similar portraits of Mr. Clinton as an indecisive, DTC emotionally needy and congenitally disorganized president, presiding over a chaotic and crisis-driven White House.

Ms. Drew argues that each crisis has "undermined his position further" and that his presidency has become "a blur," while Mr. Brummett characterizes Mr. Clinton's political career as "an action-adventure story" with a familiar pattern: "Start out poorly, walk the highwire, rally frantically."

Certainly there is little in either of these books that will surprise readers who regularly follow the news.

Both volumes rehash familiar details of the Whitewater scandal, the budget and NAFTA fights, the battle over homosexuals in the military and the health-care debate.

Nor are the authors' observations about Mr. Clinton's personality and modus operandi particularly startling or new. That Mr. Clinton has difficulty making decisions and sticking to them, that he dislikes conflict, that he loves to talk policy and think out loud: Such observations have been made many times, not only by Bob Woodward in his recent book "The Agenda," but also by a host of newspaper and television commentators.

What lends Mr. Brummett's book a faint aura of freshness is his long familiarity with the president's behavior patterns -- he started covering Mr. Clinton in 1980 as a young reporter for the Arkansas Gazette -- and his ability to place the president's current actions in context with his Arkansas past.

Mr. Brummett paints a detailed and disconcerting picture of the president as a perpetual optimist whose eagerness to overpromise often leads to retraction, reversal or retreat; a picture of a bright, tactically clever politician with "a tendency toward personal indiscretion and recklessness."

Although his portrayal of Mr. Clinton as "a ready compromiser," whose desire to please stems from his own "lack of a solid center," does not explain the administration's failure to involve the opposition in such recent legislation as health care, Mr. Brummett does point out that the president and his advisers from home "were not familiar with a bipartisan political culture," given Arkansas' one-party political tradition.

While Mr. Brummett's penchant for free-association results in a sloppy, incoherent narrative, he does demonstrate a knack for using colorful anecdotes to illustrate his points.

In discussing the president's indecisiveness, for instance, Mr. Brummett repeatedly cites the time in 1985, when Mr. Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, decided to "unveto" a tax credit bill he'd just vetoed, by having a state trooper retrieve it from a clerk's office in the state Capitol; the trooper, seeing the signed bill on the floor behind a locked door, used a wire coat hanger to slide it out and give it back to the governor.

As for Ms. Drew's book, it is a decidedly less uneven and less lively production, a flat-footed chronicle of Mr. Clinton's tenure thus far in the White House that gains momentum only through its cumulative detail.

Though Ms. Drew writes in polite, careful prose, her disappointment in the Clinton administration comes through as she leads the reader through one crisis after another: homosexuals in the military; the nomination imbroglios surrounding Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood and Lani Guinier; the uproar over Mr. Clinton's $200 airport haircut; the travel office embarrassment; and reversals of policy on Bosnia, Haiti and a middle-class tax cut.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton emerges from this volume as a petulant, immature man -- "there seemed to be something unfinished about him," Ms. Drew writes -- with a distinctly un-presidential, talk-show-host manner. Ms. Drew depicts him as passive, indecisive and equivocal, qualities reinforced, she argues, by an inexperienced and poorly organized White House staff and a penchant for long, unfocused meetings.


Title: "Highwire: From the Backroads to the Beltway: The Education of Bill Clinton"

Author: John Brummett

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 294 pages, $22.95


Title: "On The Edge: The Clinton Presidency"

Author: Elizabeth Drew

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 462 pages, $24

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