The Survivor: President Clinton and His Times
By John F. Harris. Random House, 504 pages, $29.95
There he was, just last week, larger than life, smiling cheerfully on the tabloid rack above the checkout line at the local supermarket. The headline belied his apparent good humor: "CLINTON MARRIAGE EXPLODES" it said. Below was a smaller image of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, looking grim.
Bill Clinton is the man many Americans still love to hate and others still love, warts and all. Seldom has public opinion been so sharply divided over the worth and abilities of a president.
Sexually obsessed, lazy, disorganized, unable to make a decision, politically expedient, timid -- there is ample evidence of all of those faults and more.
Smart, resilient, generous, courageous, charismatic, passionately articulate, wise, appealing and solid in his judgments of people and policies -- lots of evidence supports that view, too.
So, what are we to think of this bewildering mixture?
John F. Harris, who covered the Clinton White House for The Washington Post from 1995 to 2000, has produced what may be the first substantial effort at a dispassionate assessment of Clinton as president in The Survivor: President Clinton and His Times.
Harris is no Clinton apologist. He sees the many flaws. But he makes a powerful argument that Clinton also made many right choices on the economy, social policy and in foreign affairs.
On the economy, he worked with Robert Rubin, his economic counselor and eventual Treasury Secretary, on tax and budget cuts that produced years of strong economic growth and a steadily shrinking budget deficit.
If he and Hillary failed on health care reform, he succeeded in negotiating a landmark welfare reform compromise. He was hesitant to commit American forces abroad but when he did, he helped end the violent chaos in the former Yugoslavia. He could inspire and charm even his adversaries, a skill that persists -- just ask the elder George Bush.
And, for all of his equivocating -- Harris vividly documents the sometimes endless weighing of policy options -- Clinton could be courageous, doing what he thought was best for the country, sometimes against the advice of his fellow Democrats and against his own political interests. (Democrats objected fiercely to the welfare reform, for instance.)
Clinton's willingness as president to seek compromise with his opponents makes his presidency seem like distant history in the current era of take-no-prisoners political warfare.
Most impressive to Harris and others was Clinton's cheerful resilience in the face of adversity. He bounced back, defying the odds again and again, from every misstep.
It's the missteps that have been most painful for those he impressed -- the sexual misconduct and willingness to lie about it.
Beyond the disappointment of his supporters, there were and are many who have consistently despised Clinton, despite his accomplishments. To many, he personified the worst of his generation with his easy sense of entitlement and his growing affluence spotlighted in the intense and protracted media coverage of his and his wife's involvement in the controversial Whitewater real estate development in Arkansas.
His enemies have seen him as someone willing to say or do anything to get ahead -- a draft dodger turned expedient patriot. To these critics, his intelligence and easy charm are just symptoms of the disease. But the Clinton puzzle is more interestingly complicated.
He is unlikely to be remembered as one of America's greatest presidents -- in part because of his inability, in Harris' words, to impose his own values and purposes on the age.
But he has been a gifted survivor -- at his best in the role of underdog, fighting to win the presidency against all odds or fighting to thwart the will of a conservative majority in Congress.
Larry Williams is the editor of Perspective in The Sun.