The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton

by Joe Klein
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1989

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 YorkNewsweek, 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.

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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 Washington,” Klein asserts. Since the Watergate scandal of President Richard Nixon’s administration in the early 1970’s, an omnivorous press had been turning peccadilloes and patronage missteps into “scandals,” often tacking on the suffix “-gate” (as in Troopergate, which dealt with state police allegedly being procurers for Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas). Cabinet nominees faced intense scrutiny; when Clinton retreated in the face of criticism, he was perceived as weak. Inexperience, indecisiveness, and a loose staff structure compounded the chaos. Rather than first bring under control the huge budget deficits (a legacy of Presidents Reagan and Bush), he foolishly made health care reform his top legislative priority (eschewing an incremental approach for “universal” coverage). The first baby boomer to wrest the Oval Office from a member of the World War II generation, Clinton came into adulthood when Alex Comfort’s best- selling The Joy of Sex (1973) was heralded as a therapeutic aid. He seemed to lack gravitas or resoluteness in defending the national interest, especially after humiliating setbacks in Somalia and Haiti. Despite guiding to passage NAFTA and presenting an austere budget that did not include a promised middle-class tax cut (alienating numerous members of his own party), the prevailing wisdom was that he was acting too much like an old-fashioned liberal. (Liberalism had so gone out of fashion that some New Democrats referred to it as “the dreaded L word.”)

In January, 1994, Clinton made a monumental mistake. He asked Attorney General Janet Reno (who had botched the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas) to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate accusations that he had illegally profited from a development scheme known as Whitewater. The press had seized on the failed Arkansas real estate venture as indicating a possible conflict of interest, or appearance thereof, on the part of then- Governor Clinton. As he explained, “I did it because I was exhausted, because I had just buried my mother, and because I had people in the White House who couldn’t stand the heat and they suggested that I do it, that I had to do it.” Instead, Clinton should have released the relevant files, since they revealed no misdeeds. Conservatives succeeded in replacing Reno’s initial choice, moderate Republican Robert Fiske, with injudicious former judge Kenneth Starr, whose zeal reminded Klein of Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables (1862). He spent tens of millions of dollars investigating everything from the suicide of Hillary Clinton intimate Vince Foster to semen stains on Monica Lewinsky’s dress.

The shocking 1994 election results caused boorish Newt Gingrich (Clinton’s doppelgänger, Klein cleverly labels him) to act as if he believed he were prime minister. After the Georgian publicly called Hillary Clinton “a bitch,” Clinton took the high road and invited the new House Majority Leader to the White House. Next, Gingrich whined about being assigned a rear seat on the Air Force One flight back from Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. When he called for a balanced budget, so did Clinton. Rather than work with the White House, Gingrich by his intransigence caused in October of 1995 a government shutdown. Republicans paid the political price. By year’s end, Clinton’s move to the political center had virtually assured his reelection. Thereafter, he had his way in end-of-the-year budget negotiations, his forte being a mastery of detail not seen since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. These arcane battles did not attract media attention (in journalese, they were “under the radar”). Still, he kept alive his signature AmeriCorps public service program and yielded impressive gains for the working poor in terms of expanding tax credits for day care, college, and health coverage. As one wag declared, he started acting like a president instead of a governor. Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore’s Reinventing Government project reduced the federal bureaucracy by 350,000 jobs. The president supported setting up a twenty-billion-dollar reserve fund following the collapse of the Mexican peso even though it was politically unpopular. Had it not been for his roving eyes, Klein believes he might have reformed Social Security and Medicare. Certainly in 1998 the money was there.

In Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural (1952), a seductress almost ends the career of a great ballplayer. Klein does not dwell upon the salacious, smarmy details of his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. The fourth estate feigned outrage yet pandered to the prurient with puritanical intensity. John F. Kennedy, Clinton’s idol and mentor, had been far more reckless. Likewise, First Lady Nancy Reagan’s afternoon trysts with crooner Frank Sinatra were common knowledge but shielded from the public. When Clinton approved cruise missile attacks on suspected terrorist operations in Afghanistan and the Sudan, critics brought up the film Wag the Dog (1997), in which a fictitious president creates a foreign policy crisis to deflect attention from a scandal. After television and Internet audiences digested Clinton’s grand jury testimony, however, the president’s approval rating rose and Starr’s plummeted to the level of informer Linda Tripp, who had surreptitiously recorded phone conversations with Lewinsky. Mr. Bill may have been a rogue but not a scoundrel. That is how Klein explains the public’s relative calm in the face of frenzied resignation demands. Right-wing “intellectual” William Bennett bemoaned the situation in a rush-to-print book called The Death of Outrage (1998). After the Democrats gained five House seats in 1998, Gingrich resigned (to get divorced and marry for the third time), but Republicans stubbornly vetoed a compromise censure resolution (which most citizens clearly wanted), even in the face of embarrassing sexual revelations on their side of the aisle (Gingrich’s successor Robert Livingston being the most prominent casualty).

Klein credits Clinton with rescuing the Democratic Party from irrelevance by articulating a prudent yet compassionate New Democrat philosophy. While critical of his lame-duck hyperactivity, especially the pardoning of Marc Rich (at the strong urging of the Israelis), Klein concludes:

Amid the dashed hopes and the scandals and the bitterness, a great deal of real work was done. Bill Clinton conducted a serious, substantive presidency. His domestic policy achievements were not inconsiderable and were accomplished against great odds.

Few presidents have survived two terms with their popularity intact, as Clinton did. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan both had major setbacks (the U-2 spy plane incident in 1960, the Iran-Contra scandal of 1983-1986) that tarnished their final years. Unpopular wars crippled Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Had World War II not come along, Franklin D. Roosevelt would have left office with the economy still sluggish and his legacy in doubt. The visceral hatred of Roosevelt (“traitor to his class”) was more intense, but right-wing rancor against “Bubba the Pretender” (led by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh) was better organized. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Clinton served during a peaceful and prosperous time relatively free of crisis, when politics, paradoxically, turned ugly and personal. Both were intelligent, emotionally high-strung, larger-than-life commanders of the public spotlight who inspired both ridicule and veneration (Clinton especially among blacks; fittingly, he located his postpresidential office in Harlem). Theodore Roosevelt humanized the office of president. Klein suggests historians will remember the Clinton years “primarily as the moment when the distance between the president and the public evaporated forever.”

Sources for Further Study

Choice 40 (November, 2002): 554.

The Economist 362 (March 2, 2002): 80.

Library Journal 127 (February 1, 2002): 117.

National Review 54 (May 6, 2002): 48.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 24, 2002): 8.

Publishers Weekly 249 (February 11, 2002): 74.

Time 159 (March 11, 2002): 68.

The Washington Monthly 34 (April, 2002): 55.

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