As with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, President Bill Clinton’s most endearing quality was his sunny optimism. He concluded his 1992 acceptance speech with the line, “I still believe in a place called Hope” (also the name of his home town). As a columnist for New York, Newsweek, and The New Yorker, Joe Klein has had a close but rocky relationship with his subject. From the start he recognized Clinton’s unique skill as a campaigner, especially his ability to bond intimately with audiences, whether playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s late-night talk show or revealing his taste in underwear on MTV. He combined improvisation with an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues (being, in cynical press parlance, a “policy wonk”). On the 1992 campaign trail, Clinton’s staff called him Elvis (another mesmerizing performer with gargantuan appetites) and the Natural (“the best there ever was,” one aide quipped). “Natural” suggests inscrutability, and the book opens with George Santayana’s assessment of another pragmatist, William James: “He was so extremely natural that there was no knowing what his nature was, or what came next.” Klein anonymously authored Primary Colors (1996), a satire whose antihero was a dead ringer for Clinton. Washington Monthly’s Kenneth S. Baer opens his review of The Natural with a line from the novel: “Jack Stanton could also be a great man—if he weren’t such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganized, undisciplined shit.” In “Honey, I Shrunk My Presidency,” Time reviewer Margaret Carlson concludes, “The Bubba of Primary Colors gets a measure of respect in the nonfiction version.” Less substantial than Haynes Johnson’s The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years(2001) but arguably more readable, Klein’s piece of contemporary history glistens with insights but occasionally displays an intellectual awkwardness all too common to the author’s trade, as if for every word of praise there is a compulsion to insert an equal measure of criticism.
The chief accusation against Clinton was that he held no core beliefs and was a pawn of pollsters, like the Robert Redford character in the film The Candidate (1972). Klein takes seriously Clinton’s credentials as a New Democrat willing to take on tough fights, even against party stalwarts, on behalf of programs, such as welfare reform or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that jibed with his political philosophy. Like other Democratic Leadership Council moderates, Clinton believed the role of government was to enhance, not stifle, individual opportunity and responsibility and that the Democratic Party needed to shed its tax-and-spend proclivities and embrace fiscal discipline. His generation’s central challenge was how to construct a safety net for the Information Age, one more decentralized, competitive, and accountable than older bureaucratic models such as Social Security and Medicare. Even though he did not always articulate his goals clearly (“Building a bridge to the twenty-first century,” his reelection mantra, sounded a tad trite), Clinton had a coherent strategy for guiding the nation’s move into an era of postindustrial globalization.
The 1992 race, writes Klein, was “a cross between a disaster movie and a country music song.” Rebounding from revelations about an extramarital affair and efforts to dodge the draft, the “Comeback Kid” confounded pundits who pronounced him “dead meat” and labeled him “Slick Willie” after he replied to a query about marijuana use with the straight line, “I didn’t inhale.” On the eve of the pivotal New Hampshire primary, Clinton tirelessly visited diners and bowling alleys right up until midnight, then bowled a game in his stocking feet. Klein recalls: “At times, as we stood there, waiting for our balls to return down the alley, he’d lean up against me—a strange feline sensation; he needed the physical contact.” The turning point of the general election occurred during the second debate in Richmond, Virginia. The town meeting format definitely favored the challenger. Someone asked President George H. W. Bush a confusing question, which befuddled him. Clinton took three steps toward the audience and inquired about the woman’s day-to-day problems. While an uncomfortable incumbent glanced at his watch, the challenger’s “I feel your pain” move stole the show.
Klein sums up Clinton’s first months in office as amateurish. He enjoyed no honeymoon period. Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole ungraciously vowed to represent the 57 percent of the electorate who voted against Clinton, a reference to the Independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot. Clinton’s ascension marked “an unprecedented escalation in the levels of partisan enmity and journalistic fecklessness in...
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