The Clinton Warsby Sidney Blumenthal
An invaluable history of an extraordinary presidency, and the chronicle of a generation's political odyssey
When in 1997 Bill Clinton appointed Sidney Blumenthal as a senior advisor, the former writer was catapulted into the front lines of the Clinton wars. From his first day in the White House until long after his appearance as the only presidential/p>/b>… See more details below
An invaluable history of an extraordinary presidency, and the chronicle of a generation's political odyssey
When in 1997 Bill Clinton appointed Sidney Blumenthal as a senior advisor, the former writer was catapulted into the front lines of the Clinton wars. From his first day in the White House until long after his appearance as the only presidential aide ever to testify in an impeachment trial, Blumenthal acted in or witnessed nearly all the battles of the Clinton years. His major new book—part history, part memoir—is the first inside account we have of the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.
The Clinton Wars begins in 1987, when Blumenthal first met Bill and Hillary Clinton. His chronicle of Clinton's first presidential campaign and first term draws on his experiences as confidant to both the President and the First Lady, and is enriched with previously unpublished revelations about both. This remarkable personal interpretation goes far in explaining the polarizing nature of Clinton's presence on the national scene.
The narrative of Clinton's second term is even more dramatic. Blumenthal takes special note of the battle that was waged within the media between the President's detractors and defenders, which he expands into a vivid picture of Washington society torn apart by warring factions. But he does not neglect the wars fought on other fronts—in Kosovo, against Congress, and for economic prosperity. His remarkable book ends with the inside story of the fight to elect Al Gore in 2000 and extend the legacy of the Clinton-Gore Administration.
Every page of this unrivaled, authoritative book, with its intimate insights into Clinton's personality and politics, attests to Blumenthal's literary skill, profound understanding of politics, and unique perspective on crucial events of our recent past. The Clinton Wars is a lasting contribution to American history.
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Read an Excerpt
ONEThe Challenge to the Old OrderIBill Clinton had been president for only a few weeks, less than half of the fabled First Hundred Days by which all presidents have been early judged since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first burst of the New Deal. “Action, action, and more action,” FDR had demanded. Now it was March 1993, sixty years later, and President Clinton was coming to Hyde Park.I arrived early because I wanted to wander around Roosevelt’s presidential library to soak up the atmosphere before the clamorous entourage wheeled in. Usually, the press corps traveling with the president misses any sense of place. The media are everywhere and nowhere at once. Acrobats in the circus get to see more of where they are while the tent is pitched. The press corps lives with the motorcade. My White House pass, showing that I represented The New Yorker magazine, got me quickly past the checkpoints of the local police and the sentries of the Secret Service. Their cordon for the new president made this plot of land something of a sanctuary, untrammeled by tourists or even stray scholars burrowing in the yellowing archives.The cold gray sky cast no shadows down the long lawn stretching from the road to the single-story library. I walked undisturbed and alone past the exhibits. The whole Roosevelt life was encapsulated there. A bronzed statue of the lanky, carefree boy Franklin lounged on his back. Campaign buttons and banners traced the journey from the New York state senate to his last race for the presidency in 1944. Around the corner was the matter-of-fact typewritten letter from Albert Einstein in 1939 urging Roosevelt to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis did. The artifacts displayed in the old oak cases were like pieces of bone in a natural history museum. The fragments could just hint at the passions, hatreds, and turmoil aroused by the squire who often conducted the swirling business of the nation from his serene Hudson Valley estate. Neatly contained, row after row, from beginning to end, from bucolic boyhood to world statesman, here it was: the past under glass. The story has been drummed into us as though foretold. Every chapter makes complete sense because we know every twist and turn, including the death of the President near Easter in 1945 on the eve of a redemptive victory in war, as Lincoln’s death had been. The story, told in retrospect through our parents’ lives in the Depression and the Second World War, remains vibrant in almost every family.But to those who bore its responsibilities, much of this story of an American president appeared as an unlit passage, and the ghosts were not speaking. Their silence was a false signal that what had occurred before was, if not simpler, then always clearer to those working their way through the events. Roosevelt and those around him, even those in his “brain trust” who had been ascribed omniscient understanding, could not predict the storms that would envelop them. No matter how bold their devices, they were constantly disrupted and recast. The president and his advisers could not see around every turn or know when dangerous obstacles might suddenly appear. Often, they could not predict the consequences of their own plans. Exactly what destiny they would arrive at and by what rendezvous they could not say. It is easy to imagine the past as an epic, like a movie seamlessly edited and comfortably paced; it is hard to imagine it as it was experienced. No matter how vivid a vision of the future one may have, the real future is always wrapped in obscurity.I could hear my own footsteps as I walked past black-and-white photographs of FDR grandly gesturing to roaring crowds. Then, suddenly, came whirling lights, sirens, and black vans soon catching up with their alarms. Out tumbled aides and reporters, hitting the ground running, like an army landing on a beachhead. The present was invading the preserve of the past.I mingled inside the library with the expectant trustees and dignitaries. The chairman of the library, William vanden Heuvel, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy and former ambassador, keeper of the perpetual Roosevelt flame, lovingly opened a book as large as a Gutenberg Bible with vellum pages. It was an unusual guest book: he turned to the signatures of Winston Churchill and then Lyndon Johnson.The friendship between the American president and the British prime minister was at the heart of the Grand Alliance that won the Second World War. It cemented the Anglo-American “special relationship” as the enduring basis of the Western Alliance that weathered the Cold War. Every president since has had to act out a presidential role that Roosevelt established. Would Clinton ever have such a “special relationship,” and what would it mean now that the Cold War was over?If the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill was that of cousins, the one between Roosevelt and Johnson was between a “daddy,” as LBJ called Roosevelt, and his boy. The gangly congressman from Texas, an ardent New Dealer, saw his own presidency as fulfilling his political daddy’s mission, realized at last as the Great Society. But Johnson’s shattered presidency had left an unfinished legacy for another generation. What would Clinton make of it? The book was readied for Bill Clinton to sign his name.President Clinton brought in with him a stream of cool, brisk air from outside. At six feet, two inches, with a jutting jaw, gray-green eyes, a ruddy complexion, and loose long limbs, Clinton was the most physically imposing person in the room, as he almost always was. He was immediately accessible, never at a loss for words, yet the strangeness of having a brand-new Democratic president roaming around FDR’s home created what seemed a startle reflex among the older legatees. Suddenly, the Hyde Park library didn’t feel like Harvard’s Peabody Museum. The dust started to be shaken; the pinned exhibits almost seemed to want to move; the past was no longer at rest. It would in time be seen in a new shadow and a new light. But nobody knew what those would be.Just before New Year’s Eve in 1987, I had gone to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for what was then a little-known gathering called Renaissance Weekend, attended by a few hundred mostly Southern participants. Almost everyone there appeared on one or another panel, on any number of political, cultural, and religious subjects. Friends of mine had suggested to me that if I should go to this weekend, I should try to meet a contemporary, the forty-one-year-old governor of Arkansas. I was then a writer on the national staff of The Washington Post.Clinton and I sat squinting in the winter sun and talked for an hour about his ambitions to be a national figure. He just didn’t know how that was going to happen. He was little known beyond Arkansas and had little hope of getting recognized. Governors knew him, of course, but to the general public he was a cipher. I thought he was being perhaps too blunt about his ambition with someone he had just met. He fitted into the enduring category of rising stars to whom nothing might ever happen. Energy in politicians does not necessarily equal mass or the speed of light. Governors and senators from larger states, touted by newspaper columnists as future presidents, regularly melt away. With the Democratic primaries about six weeks away, Clinton wasn’t even a candidate. The political talk was focused on the chances of Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Clinton was on the sidelines, yet he was feeling his way to a starting gate in the distant future. In his conversation with me, however, he grasped that he was venturing forth during a moment when politics was changing, in particular because of the evolving role of the media, which were disturbingly erasing the distinction between public and private life. Already, two prospective Democratic candidates, Gary Hart and Joseph Biden, had been forced out of the race by the increasingly antagonistic media. Reporters had staked out Hart, who they believed rightly was having an affair, and at a crowded news conference one asked him if he had ever committed adultery. The invisible barrier protecting politicians from probes into their private behavior that had no public impact or appearance was removed. With the heat shield gone, Hart was incinerated. Biden’s sin was that he had engaged in a rhetorical flight of fancy about his family’s grit, from time immemorial as common a technique for a candidate as extolling his own patriotism, and had done so in words borrowed from a British politician. The intense media glare wilted his financial backers and campaign staff overnight. For his old-fashioned stem-winding eloquence, Biden was shamed into quitting as an exaggerator and a plagiarist.Though different in detail, the Hart and Biden incidents together showed that power had shifted. Long before the voters entered into the presidential selection process, the media had changed their unwritten rules. A story sparked by one newspaper or television outlet rapidly spread into what was hailed in newsrooms as a “firestorm.” Prestigious news organizations that had once disdained stories about sex inevitably wound up justifying covering them as part of a reality they just couldn’t ignore. It was not simply that the press was rightfully being more independent in its scrutiny of politicians’ claims. In the new game, the politicians’ effort at self-presentation would be met as a challenge to the media’s self-proclaimed prerogatives.That winter evening in 1987, Clinton stepped onto the stage at Renaissance Weekend and spoke extemporaneously for about a half hour about his decision not to run for the presidency in the coming campaign. He admitted that he wanted to run, but wasn’t ready. Clinton explained himself at the same time as a member of his generation and as a completely engaged politician. Politics was clearly his calling—how he thought, felt, and spoke. At forty-one, he vibrated with the idea of running for national office but was unprepared to enter a terra incognita, and he worried aloud about what the erasure of the distinction between public and private life would mean. Even in voicing his uncertainty, he was involving his listeners in his drama, enlisting their hopes and anxieties; they were caught up in concern about his fate. Later he drew on a number of them for posts in his administration.A heated discussion ensued about the fate of the leaderless Democratic Party, still entrapped in the age of Reagan. In the middle of the free-for-all, a woman with shoulder-length brown hair and thick glasses stood up. It was the thirty-nine-year-old Hillary Rodham Clinton. She spoke deliberately and pointedly. Her thoughts were framed with great logic. She was emphatic but composed. She referred to what her husband had said and provided steel bracing for his expansive talk. Hillary had the effect of settling in Bill’s favor whatever matter was at issue. The issue here, of course, was Bill himself. When the formal session concluded, Bill and Hillary stood a few yards apart, continuing the discussion with separate knots of people, but they were a team.The next day I noticed that Clinton was carrying a book filled with papers under his arm as he made his way from table to table at the buffet lunch: it was The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, by William Julius Wilson. This was a rethinking of the reasons for job loss and welfare, and it focused on how the deindustrialization of America’s cities had left blacks there structurally removed from employment. Clinton and I chatted about Wilson’s policy approach compared to others. After a few days’ exposure to him, my initial impression of a young man in a hurry was evolving and deepening. To be sure, he had ambition, but he possessed more than that essential quality. He was a charismatic if loquacious speaker who had an easy facility with the arcana of public policy. His formidable wife was a force in her own right. He was ambivalent about his future in a swirling political world and hinted at personal difficulties. Underlying it all was a determination to bring the Republican era to a close and alter the coordinates of politics.Now, at Hyde Park in 1993, President Clinton spotted me and waved me over. He wanted me to accompany him as he toured FDR’s library. In his wake trailed a group that personified various aspects of the Democratic tradition—James Roosevelt, FDR’s grandson; Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmental lawyer in the Hudson River Valley; and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who, in his inimitable staccato rhythm, held forth about writing his doctoral dissertation right here at the FDR library, about FDR’s vacations at Campobello Island off the Maine coast, and about Roosevelt’s tenure as assistant secretary of the navy during the First World War.Clinton headed directly for Roosevelt’s desk that had been in the Oval Office, now stationed in the middle of the exhibits, and slowly circled it. It is smaller than the massive nineteenth-century desk made from the timbers of the HMS Resolute that President Kennedy used and that Clinton chose to use, too, in his Oval Office. From behind this smaller desk, Roosevelt, cigarette holder firmly fixed at an angle, had held bantering press conferences with the press corps. None of the reporters wrote about or photographed his wheelchair.Clinton and his entourage trooped up the hill behind the library to the looming mansion. The rooms in the house have been maintained as they were in the 1940s, when Roosevelt conferred with Harry Hopkins and Henry Morgenthau, or when Eleanor would point him to a social problem that needed his special attention. Clinton took his time in every room, absorbing every phase of Roosevelt’s life. He stood before the portrait of James Roosevelt, FDR’s father, who was in his fifties when he and his young wife, Sara Delano, had their only adored child. On the walls of the room FDR occupied as a youth still hung his copy of the Declaration of Independence and a Harvard Crimson banner. Clinton jumped into the little elevator, hand-operated by a rope, that had been installed for FDR after he was stricken with polio. It still worked efficiently. At the far end of the second floor, overlooking the rolling Hudson, was the spartan room he always stayed in. The wooden wheelchair remained. Outside, Clinton laid a red rose atop the white marble tomb on which was engraved: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, and, underneath, ELEANOR ROOSEVELT. Clinton stood awhile in the cold.An aide gently but insistently reminded him that his time was limited. The turbulent world was tugging at him, starting with a boisterous crowd waiting at the local high school. “It’s so peaceful,” Clinton whispered as he stared at the tomb. His mind was filled with great plans: universal health care, reducing the federal deficit, investments in education and the environment, cutting crime, remaking the welfare system, ending discrimination, to begin with. “I believe that government must do much more,” Clinton had told a joint session of Congress on February 17, quoting repeatedly Roosevelt’s call for “bold, persistent experimentation.” With those words, the old familiar politics since 1980 and even since 1968 dissolved, for these phrases refuted the central tenet of Reaganism: “Government is the problem.” But more than principle was at stake. So was every vestige of power, from federal contracts to White House invitations.In his pilgrimage to Hyde Park, Clinton sought to identify his innovations with the Rooseveltian spirit. Clinton had seen for himself the reliquaries, and now he could fix his sights on the road ahead. “I belong here,” he remarked to me as he left Hyde Park.IIWhen the Clintons first moved into the White House in January 1993 they ordered that portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman be hung prominently. But the pictures were not put in place. The instructions to the staff were relayed again. Only after a month, and further prodding, was the order carried out. Some of the White House staff held, it seemed, a class deference to the previous Republican residents. From their upstairs-downstairs angle, patricians were being replaced by outlanders who didn’t know their place. Their recoil from the Clintons was almost as great as if that ruffian Andrew Jackson were moving in. It felt to them like an invasion and occupation. Putting Roosevelt and Truman where the Clintons wanted would mark symbolically that the presidency was not what it had been.The resistance of the old household retainers to the Clintons’ intrusion was a reactive impulse. Hanging pictures of long-ago presidents might seem a small gesture of little note, but the entrenched conservative members of the staff understood that it was not. It wasn’t merely an issue of party, though it was that, nor was it only about class, though there was some of that, too. FDR, after all, was more of a patrician than George H. W. Bush, let alone Ronald Reagan. It was that the presidency was being changed.Ten days after the inauguration, the President and First Lady flew for the first time in the presidential helicopter, Marine One, to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Their guests were the newly appointed cabinet members and senior White House staff. After dinner in the lodge everyone gathered for a discussion. Talk about immediate issues facing the new administration, including the overriding ones of the budget and the economy, soon gave way to talk about how to explain them to the public. That turned into a discussion of how Clinton’s presidency should be presented. What were its themes? What was its narrative line? In his inaugural address, Clinton had spoken of the need to “force the spring”—a metaphor about reform that implied that it would be difficult, if not unnatural. He had also quoted the prophet Isaiah: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Now Hillary briefly reviewed Clinton’s career as governor of Arkansas, when he had tried to do too much in his first term and lost his second election. But he had learned and gone on in the next election to win it all back, making change after change. It was almost as though she were prophesying a cycle of return. But she was making a point beyond that about Clinton’s perseverance. She and Bill knew how to struggle through turmoil. Laying out the nuts and bolts of policy was like showing off the bins in a hardware store. A story also had to be told; even more, the place in history needed to be located.Men and women of the generation born after the Second World War who grew up in the 1960s may have thought that the high tide of American Century liberalism was permanent. In their formative years, they had been imbued with the optimistic notion that improvement was inevitable, and their rising expectations went far to explain the sharpness of their later disillusion. FDR’s four electoral wins had established the realignment. Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican interregnum between two Democratic presidents was felt to be merely a holding pattern. He had been classically conservative, and what he had conserved was the New Deal—“a dime-store New Deal,” Barry Goldwater later called it. Eisenhower’s aides’ effort to fashion what they called “modern Republicanism” never amounted to more than a phrase. It was, as John F. Kennedy put it, time to get the country moving again. When the young Bill Clinton shook President Kennedy’s hand in the Rose Garden in 1963, liberalism was in flower again, and with Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964, liberalism as conventional wisdom seemed ratified; it was felt to be a constantly rolling wave of the future.Moving into the White House is not the same thing as walking onto a stage set. Protocol may inform the president about how to greet visiting heads of state in the Diplomatic Reception Room, but little else. There is no script. The constitutional functions of the office lay out only the minimal design. Whether and how it will be filled and expanded is left to the occupant, but not exactly as he wishes.At Hyde Park, Clinton noticed FDR’s clothes still hanging on hooks in his room, his shoes neatly lined up and polished. “Those are still his clothes?” he wondered. Roosevelt’s political clothes had been tailored to fit each new generation of Democrats that followed him. Even Republicans stood in his shadow, none more so than Ronald Reagan.Reagan had once been a left-wing Democrat, “a near-hemophilic liberal,” he labeled himself in his autobiography, who regaled parties of Hollywood stars with his imitations of FDR’s speeches. Though he turned FDR’s politics on their head, he kept his attachment to Roosevelt. His background—as the son of a small-town, hard-drinking Irish Democrat, saved from the Depression by a job with the Works Progress Administration—was elemental in his appeal to Northern ethnic voters, the Reagan Democrats. In his acceptance speech to the Republican convention in 1980, he quoted Roosevelt liberally and claimed a “rendezvous with destiny.” On the centennial of FDR’s birth, in 1982, Reagan mounted a tribute with a lavish lunch at the White House to which he invited presidential aides from Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s optimism was still trying to echo Roosevelt’s. “Happy days, now, again, and always,” he said in his toast. President Carter had refused to approve the funding for an FDR memorial, but Reagan eagerly signed the bill, even as he tried to inter Roosevelt’s actual political legacy.In 1980, the very year of Reagan’s presidential victory, which shattered the New Deal electoral coalition once and for all, the young governor of Arkansas addressed the Democratic convention. “It seems,” said Clinton, “that everyone in this convention and half the people at the Republican convention quoted Franklin Roosevelt. Everyone can quote him, but his words out of context mean little.”Under President Clinton, the progressive tradition of the Democratic Party had to be re-created on a new basis, he believed. This required more than reinventing government rules and regulations. No one could claim that liberalism was a logical choice and blithely proceed as though the majority of the American people agreed. Clinton realized there had to be a remaking of the presidency, renovating the authority of government itself, discredited not only by the nightmares of assassinations, racial violence, and the Vietnam War but also by the concerted antigovernment campaign of the conservative movement. With Barry Goldwater as their standard bearer in 1964, the Republicans had lost in a landslide, but with Ronald Reagan in 1980, they had swamped the Democrats. By 1992, the consensus of the 1960s had been long smashed.Massive fissures had widened between the realities of social and economic life and the routines of governance. Solutions to the new problems were not resting on a shelf, readily available. At the beginning of 1993, the United States was at the end of a half century of settled politics, but uncertain what would follow. The long twilight struggle of the Cold War was over. And the Democrats, still reeling from the Vietnam War that had so divided the party, had no coherent foreign policy and were widely considered pacifist. Old-style mass production of the industrial age was becoming obsolete. And the Democrats were pulled toward protectionism. A new economy based on microchips and the Internet—a postindustrial revolution—was in the making. And hardly any politician except for the new vice president, Albert Gore, Jr., had given it much thought. Immigration, especially from Latin America and Asia, was creating large new minorities; California soon would have no single racial group in the majority. And the Democrats were perceived as a centrifugal party of identity politics. Republicans had tainted them as soft on racial quotas, crime, and the abuses of welfare. In sum, voters did not believe the Democrats could be the party to define the American nation.The presidency is the chief engine of progress in American history; its leadership and power are central. No social movement, however broad or righteous, from abolition to labor rights, has seen its aims made into law without presidential power. How a president leads depends upon why he’s leading. And in truth, despite what the post-Second World War generation may have thought, progressive Democratic presidents are a relative exception. Opportunities for them to gain power have been irregular. Excluding the Virginians of the early republic, only three Democrats before Clinton had been elected to two consecutive terms: Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR. (Jackson, in fact, was elected three times, but his first win was stolen from him in what became known notoriously as “the corrupt bargain” of his rivals in the Congress.) Wilson first gained office when Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican Party by running on his Progressive Party platform.Of the progressive Republicans, Abraham Lincoln won with a plurality of the votes over a divided field of two Democrats and a Constitutional Unionist candidate. Theodore Roosevelt—called a “madman” by Mark Hanna, the Republican Party boss—acceded to power by accident: he was put into the vice presidency by conservative Republicans who thought of the position as a locked safe, only to have the anarchist’s bullet that killed McKinley put TR in the White House.By its dynamic nature, the tradition of the progressive presidency is not static, and any president who belongs in it must alter it. Progressive presidents are elected because they stand for the idea that the old ways will not work—and should not work. They object to the status quo on the grounds of both pragmatism and principle. They challenge existing political and social arrangements. They seek to expand democracy by redefining the social contract, transforming the connection between the people and their government. They do not believe that the business of government is mere business. They try to reconcile democracy and new technologies, power, and property. Progressive presidents see themselves as the sole legitimate agent of the majority—“the direct representative of the people,” in Jackson’s words. In their mission to extend opportunity and rights, they constantly improvise their relationship with the people. They believe it is their unique responsibility and prerogative to reshape the country. As they see it, the United States would drift and divide without their intervention. They use the authority of the presidency to advance the idea that the United States is one nation. For them, liberty and union are “one and inseparable.”The case for a strong president was early made by Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper Number 70. In his article on behalf of passage of the Constitution, he refuted arguments of the Anti-Federalists, who favored states’ rights and a weak central government. “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” wrote Hamilton. “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of government.” Hamilton meant to forge a strong state but not necessarily a strong democracy. Thomas Jefferson, who was elected in 1800 in opposition to Hamiltonian political goals and pledged to reduce the power of the federal government, used the presidency for ends contrary to his own doctrine. Jefferson was a sinuous and elusive politician who pulled the strings of the Congress without being exposed as a puppeteer and who radically expanded the powers of the presidency without being denounced as a new Caesar. His robust use of the office succeeded gloriously with the Louisiana Purchase but failed miserably when he imposed an embargo on European imports. In the one case, the country’s territory was augmented by one-third; in the other, a quixotic effort at peaceable coercion, American government and industry were bankrupted. Whatever the case, Jefferson never explained that his actions contradicted his theory.Andrew Jackson created the sinews of the progressive presidency as we know it. In his battles against the forces of entrenched privilege (the Bank of the United States) and disunion (the Nullifiers, who were defenders of states’ rights), he boldly asserted the executive branch as the surest defender of the people’s will and the federal union. In his proclamation to the people of South Carolina, hotbed of secession, Jackson said, “I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one state, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.”Lincoln kept a copy of Jackson’s proclamation at hand when he was drafting his early speeches during the Civil War. Without Jackson, there could have been no Lincoln. Lincoln’s notion of the presidency was predicated on Jackson’s, on a tradition that the Democratic Party had repudiated in the debates over slavery. After Lincoln, in the Gilded Age, the presidency shriveled, despite a few shafts of energy. For decades, the Congress, devoted mostly to the dispensing of special-interest favors, ruled together with a deeply conservative Supreme Court and a compliant presidency.Only with the advent of Theodore Roosevelt and the progressive era did the presidency revive. “I did greatly broaden the use of executive power,” TR wrote triumphantly in his Autobiography. His “New Nationalism” was inspired by a book, The Promise of American Life, by Herbert Croly, the editor of The New Republic magazine, who proposed Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends. But TR’s intertwined vision of the office and the nation was abandoned in the 1920s, and the Republicans reverted to their late-nineteenth-century conservatism as though TR had been a passing delirium. Herbert Hoover, whom some voters presumed to be some kind of progressive, “the great engineer,” retreated into clichés about voluntarism in the face of the Depression.In the New Deal, the domestic equivalent of a war mobilization, Franklin Roosevelt blended the approaches of his cousin, TR, and Woodrow Wilson, whom he had served as assistant secretary of the navy. A generation later, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson directly built upon Roosevelt’s and Truman’s policies. Most important, they wielded the presidency so as to make the greatest advance in civil rights since Reconstruction.Progressive presidents follow conservative ones, but their election is not foreordained. The alternation in power of the two principal political parties, of liberalism and conservatism, of public purpose and private interest, mark what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has termed “the cycles of American history.” But the cycles encompass tragedy and accidents. What if Lincoln had not been assassinated? Would Reconstruction have been more effective? What if McKinley had not been shot? Would there have been a progressive era? What if Kennedy had lived and had managed to end American involvement in the Vietnam War before it became a quagmire? Would Nixon or any Republican have come to power?Often, external crises blast apart a seemingly placid order. For Lincoln, his election itself precipitated the crisis; the Depression created one that brought FDR to power. Without external shocks of that magnitude, progressive presidents like Kennedy and Clinton, arriving with thin mandates, have had to maneuver their way into office through superior political skill. And yet, there are cycles. American government does move cyclically, in fits and starts. And however presidents arrive in the office, their energy in great part determines whether their eras become progressive or whether inertia overwhelms them.Conservative presidents preserve their power through inertia, which has powerful momentum and interests. The allies of conservative presidents are indifference, passivity, and complacency. Nostalgia is the emotion that underlies many conservative sentiments—a magical belief that if little is done, a simpler, happier time can be restored and a world of change kept at bay. The desire to roll back a previous progressive tide usually gives the impetus to conservative presidential agendas, to the extent that there are any. And they typically fall back on retrograde elements in the other two branches of government, the Congress and the judiciary, often becoming their willing prisoner.In the twentieth century, every progressive president inherited the unfinished programs and disappointments of the previous progressive era. The progressive era itself ended in ashes, with Teddy Roosevelt dead and President Wilson paralyzed, the leaders’ conditions symbolic of the fate of their politics. TR left behind him an unrealized platform for workmen’s compensation, laws governing workers’ hours and wages, an inheritance tax, and more. A ruined Wilson saw his hopes for U.S. participation in the League of Nations defeated, the American commitment to collective security in the world unfulfilled. At FDR’s death the New Deal was truncated by war, and a coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats dominated the Congress. Harry Truman, desperately unpopular during the unresolved Korean War, left national health insurance and a civil rights agenda unattended. Johnson left the Great Society wrecked by his own continued policies in Vietnam. It was because of these failures that conservative presidents were able to promise, as President Harding memorably put it, a “return to normalcy.”Just as FDR could not re-create the progressive era and Kennedy could not conjure up another New Deal, Clinton could not summon the Great Society. If anything, he had to appear as a contrast to the politics of the preceding generation. He had to overcome an inheritance of voter disillusionment with his own party and of failure in the other. And the disruption in the Democratic tradition was greater between Clinton and the Kennedy and Johnson years than it had been between them and Roosevelt-Truman. Only a dozen years separated the administrations of Wilson and FDR, and only eight separated Truman and Kennedy, but there were three decades between Clinton and a usable Democratic past. The idea of a Democratic executive leading an activist government and an effective party had been discredited. The discontinuities in the progressive tradition were very great in the twentieth century. The landmark legislation of the Kennedy-Johnson period—the laws establishing Medicare, Medicaid, and civil rights—had been readied for years before they were passed. Even on long-standing policies such as health insurance, Clinton now had to remake legislative plans from scratch. Despite the handshake with Kennedy, the torch was not easily passed.Clinton could not turn to the immediate past for help, because the last Democratic president and the last Republican president had left not only contrasts but burdens. The Democrats had lost five out of the previous six presidential elections. Jimmy Carter, the only Democratic president to punctuate the Republican period from Nixon through Bush, seemed to recapitulate the Democratic errors of the 1960s in trying to overcome them, adding new disabling handicaps—and cautionary lessons—for any Democratic successor.IIIJimmy Carter was elected in 1976 as the anti-Nixon. He was a Baptist Sunday-school teacher who promised he would never lie and who campaigned against the evils of Washington. His understanding of the basic decency of Americans and their longing for leaders who respected them set him apart from Nixon. A youthful governor from the South, he had a strong appeal to blacks for his civil rights record and an empathy with blacks that went beyond politics and that was rare in his generation of white Southerners. His moderation and his desire to move beyond the slogans of past liberalism set him apart from his rivals in the battle for the Democratic nomination. He made being an outsider a point of principle, linking his professions of morality to denunciations of politics. Once in the White House he sold off FDR’s yacht Sequoia, intending to separate himself from Nixon’s grandiosity, but he was also symbolically downsizing the presidency.The Democrats had become an entrenched congressional party, a kaleidoscope of competing constituencies, regions, and interests. Undisciplined and unwilling to take a president’s lead, they were ready to punish Carter for any deviation from any constituency’s demand. His program became a series of unfocused priorities, each deemed vitally important, multiplying confusion and diffusing his power. He failed to observe the niceties with Democratic congressional leaders, who grew to hold him in contempt. The party turned into a cacophony of discontent, feeding a Washington press corps that was becoming imbued with the idea that its business was to unmake presidents.Carter was overwhelmed by economic and foreign crises, many inherited from the Nixon and Ford administrations. Inflation ran above 10 percent and interest rates soared above 20 percent. A seemingly intractable energy crisis caused frustrated motorists to wait for hours in long lines to fill their tanks. In July 1979, Carter retreated to Camp David, where he invited a procession of Washington wise men, thinkers, and religious figures to counsel him. He chose to listen to those pessimistic voices counseling him that mass alienation was the problem. The crisis atmosphere incited further anxiety that he didn’t know how or where to lead.Carter came down from his mountaintop to deliver a singularly self-undermining speech. “It is a crisis of confidence,” he said. “It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America … . The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us.” This “malaise” speech, as it became commonly known, seemed to concede to overpowering events and to sentence confidence to exile. Rather than identifying specific forces that could be brought under control by presidential power, he was blaming the American people for their existential crisis. Through self-diminishing nobility, Carter had turned himself into an anti-Roosevelt.In Washington, congressional Democrats, constituency groups, and political columnists implored Senator Edward M. Kennedy to run against the Democratic incumbent. Carter was, they believed, an accident, an interloper, whose candidacy had happened only because Ted had not run. Polls showed him beating Carter among Democrats by a two-to-one margin. On November 7, 1979, Kennedy announced his candidacy, evoking past glories: “We can light those beacon fires again.” The theme song from Camelot blared through the loudspeakers into the hall. But on that very day, Iranian student militants seized American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, and overnight, Carter assumed a presidential stature that he had not had before. Kennedy’s challenge was easily defeated. Yet it is too simple to see his loss as the loss of liberalism. Carter’s primary victories also demonstrated stirrings of a chastened Democratic Party. One of Carter’s favorite quotations was from Bob Dylan: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”Yet the vise tightened around him, a good man caught in bad times. A hostage rescue mission crashed. Then, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter expressed surprise. With the USSR appearing as an expansive, growing threat, the conservative worst-case scenario was seemingly confirmed. National pride demanded more than a diagnosis of “malaise.” Many voters perceived Carter as combining the cold but ineffectual technician’s sensibility of a Hoover with the moralistic but ineffectual sensibility of Democratic losers through the ages. Carter’s campaign autobiography in 1976 was entitled Why Not the Best? By 1980, his purity of heart was regarded as naïve softness in a dangerous world, his unblemished character taken as proof of his innocence.Just as Carter had been elected as the anti-Nixon, Reagan was elected in 1980 as the anti-Carter. Reagan borrowed Ted Kennedy’s nationalist rhetoric from the Democratic primary campaign, echoed Carter’s incessant talk against Washington, and festooned his speeches with quotations from FDR. His confidence, optimism, and age rubbed the harsh edge off his conservatism. He wiped away Nixon’s scowl and never mentioned him. FDR’s conservative pretender mimicked Roosevelt’s style against his substance. Paying his peculiar homage, Reagan was the last Rooseveltian.Reagan was astonishingly successful in his plan to paralyze the federal government. After a rush in his first year to pass an enormous regressive tax cut, accompanied by a large increase in the military budget to meet what he claimed was an ever-larger Soviet threat, Reagan was a president at leisure. He delegated his authority and paid little attention to detail. Congress enacted the fewest number of administration-proposed bills since Eisenhower. His achievement of presiding over a government that permitted the federal deficit to grow to astronomical proportions made a federal social policy virtually impossible to realize. Once he learned that the supply-side economic theory his advisers had advocated was backfiring, producing deficits instead of the promised Niagara of revenues, he was pleased with the deadening effect. He revived the grandeur of the presidency for his stage set but put the executive branch to sleep. At the end of 1986, his senescent presidency was jolted by the Iran-Contra scandal, in which his aides were discovered to have arranged illegally to sell weapons to Iran to raise money for the anticommunist “Contra” insurgency against the leftist government in Nicaragua. Reagan claimed ignorance. Yet with Mikhail Gorbachev leading the Soviet Union toward new freedoms and openness, perestroika and glasnost, Reagan, after missing several years of cues about these developments, rose to the occasion to sign an arms-control treaty with the USSR and proclaim the close of the Cold War. He claimed the happy ending as his.Reagan’s successor was a classic heir in every respect. George Herbert Walker Bush had not made his own way in the world or in politics but had been elevated by appointment in the government hierarchy largely because of his pedigree. He was a remnant of a waning part of the Republican Party, straining to belong to the waxing part. A Connecticut Yankee, the son of a Wall Street banker who had become a moderate Republican senator, Bush had been prepared for the duties and customs of his class. He was sent to Phillips Andover Academy and Yale, where he belonged to his father’s club, Skull and Bones. After Yale, he struck out for Texas to prove himself in the oil business, staked with funds from his family and his father’s friends. All his enterprises failed. Slated for a safe Republican congressional seat from a wealthy Houston district, he promptly began adjusting his politics. Bush’s political career thereafter was a long effort to overcome his moderate Republican heritage. His father had been a close ally of the two-time GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey; Bush backed Barry Goldwater. His father had been head of the United Negro College Fund; Bush voted against civil rights. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan ratcheted him up the chain of command, his patrician background being his strongest apparent qualification, until he was named vice president in 1984. He had once been an active member of Planned Parenthood, but now opposed abortion. In the 1980 GOP primaries, he had criticized Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts as “voodoo economics,” but as a presidential candidate in 1988 he promised, “Read my lips—no new taxes!”When his 1988 campaign began to falter, Bush put his fate in the hands of his political centurions, who ran a relentlessly negative campaign against the Democratic candidate, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, arousing the voters’ racial fears by using the image of Willie Horton, a black convict who had abused a prison furlough under a program initiated by a previous Republican governor. Bush also challenged Dukakis’s patriotism and raised nativist prejudice by urging mandatory school recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (a requirement that had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court); and he demonized the “liberal governor” and the “L word” (for “liberalism”). Yet Bush hinted that he would practice a “kinder, gentler” conservatism than Reagan had. He proposed that America be illuminated by “a thousand points of light” through voluntary charity. He promised to be “the education president.” His wife took up the cause of literacy. Priding himself on his realism, Bush considered Reagan a dreamer about the end of the Cold War. He would be a class above Reagan—“kinder, gentler,” and tougher. After he won, Bush said about the vicious campaign, “That’s history.”In the spring of 1991, Bush appeared invincible, standing at the foot of Pennsylvania Avenue, saluting thousands of troops marching by him in review. The commander in chief was the victor in the one-hundred-hour Gulf War that had freed Kuwait from its occupation by forces under the command of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It was a splendid little war. Bush took to comparing himself to Theodore Roosevelt, the patrician Rough Rider. He spoke of his “defining hour” (evoking Churchill’s phrase “their finest hour” about the Battle of Britain). The war, Bush proclaimed, had been fought on behalf of “a new world order,” a phrase first used by Woodrow Wilson to define the hoped-for structure of peace after the First World War. Bush’s approval rating as president stood at 91 percent, the highest ever recorded for a president, even higher than that given President Truman on V-J Day. Bush’s reelection, generally conceded to be a foregone conclusion, would certify conclusively that the Republican Party had a “lock” on the White House. According to the “lock” theory, Republican presidential dominance reflected a profound shift that had taken place in the American electorate—geographically to the south and west, and ideologically to the right—against the very idea of affirmative government.But Bush presided over the Republicans’ fall. The party’s manifest destiny proved less predictable than events foreseen by Nancy Reagan’s astrologer. Issues that Republicans deployed to divide and conquer the Democrats perversely turned against them. The crisis was not located in the evaporation of an ineffable Reagan magic. It was that the walls of the Republican presidency were closing in on its current occupant. Reagan’s policies had set a trap for his successor. After the spending as if there were no tomorrow, tomorrow had arrived—on Bush’s watch. Paralyzing government through deficits, manipulating “wedge” issues on race and women to tear apart the Democratic coalition, and accusing the Democrats of appeasement in the face of the Red Menace were all policies that now had a reverse effect.On domestic policy, Bush was indifferent and distant. Deficits ranged as far as the eye could see. Unemployment rose above 10 percent. At a supermarket checkout line, Bush had no idea what anything cost; he confessed his wonder at electronic scanners, which had been in use for years. Especially because Bush had dispelled his image as a wimp through the Gulf War, people were embittered. He had demonstrated that he could be strong and decisive, so his incapacity on the domestic front seemed cruel. Where was the Rough Rider? There was no charge up this San Juan Hill, just a thousand points of light. In the New Hampshire primary in 1992, Bush proposed a new theme: “Message: I care.”The Republican Party began to crack up. Pat Buchanan, an extremely conservative isolationist and pundit, who had been an aide to both Nixon and Reagan, gave the incumbent president a scare in New Hampshire. And an eccentric Texas billionaire, Ross Perot, formerly a big contributor to the Republican Party, entered as an independent candidate to rescue the country from Bush and his deficits.The end of the Cold War left Bush and the conservatives at sea. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Bush persisted in his belief that the Cold War would continue. The ruins of the former Soviet empire left him virtually speechless about the shape of things to come. He had no idea how to fill in the blank.Vertigo was a commonly felt social sensation. Donald Bartlett and James Steele, two journalists on The Philadelphia Inquirer, reported on a deindustrialized and demoralized country, turning their articles into a book called America: What Went Wrong?, which became a best-seller. In April 1992, when the ghetto of south central Los Angeles was consumed by the flames of racial violence, Bush had little to say and less to offer. The racial conflagration, he said, was not “a message of protest.” His press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, blamed the Great Society. Vice President Dan Quayle put the onus on a “poverty of values,” symbolized by Murphy Brown, a character on a popular television situation comedy who was an unwed mother.No prominent senator or governor in the Democratic Party chose to run for president against Bush. They had become convinced in the aftermath of the Gulf War that he was impregnable. They wanted the presidency conferred upon them without struggle. Most of them were a generation older than the governor of Arkansas. Snug in the Senate cloakroom and their statehouses, they left the field to someone they thought foolhardy enough to undertake the race.IV“One as yet unremarked dimension of the cyclical process deserves particular attention,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “For in basic respects it is the generational experience that serves as the mainspring of the political cycle.”Perhaps only two other presidents came from backgrounds as modest as Clinton’s, the poorest president elected in the twentieth century. His early childhood was spent in a hermetic Southern gothic world, little changed over the decades since the nineteenth century. Segregation was the law. There had not been a lynching in Hope, Arkansas, since the 1920S, but blacks lived in “Colored Town,” literally on the other side of the railroad tracks. Hope’s claim to fame was as the nation’s watermelon capital. Clinton was born there to a single mother, was partly raised by his grandparents, and grew up with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather. The characters surrounding young Clinton combined the endurance described by Faulkner with the emotional turbulence dramatized by Tennessee Williams.Yet on the eve of the Democratic convention that was to nominate him, his private polling showed that the public thought he was a son of privilege who came from a family similar to the Bushes. After all, he was a graduate of Georgetown University and the Yale Law School and a Rhodes scholar. His wife, who had attended Wellesley College and Yale Law, was a noted attorney. He was unusually articulate. He had none of the telltale upper-lip sweat of a resentful and insecure lower-middle-class person like Nixon. His tone was buoyant and optimistic, reminiscent of patrician Democrats. It was not until the convention that most people learned about “the man from Hope.”Clinton was neither a Southern boy posing as a cosmopolitan nor an intellectual pretending to be Bubba (his young brother’s name for him, by the way). He was not one thing or the other; he was many things at once and all of a piece. He was the first president of his generation, and he had not been a passive bystander to its experiences. He had witnessed the civil rights revolution, protested the Vietnam War, and promoted women’s rights. He was inspired by President Kennedy, hoped for Robert Kennedy, and campaigned for George McGovern. He stood in concentric circles: the New South, post-Cold War America, and the generation of 1968 that was coming to power throughout the Western world. In each area, he was something new.His protean nature was revealed through his eclectic relationship with music. He had played the saxophone in his high-school band and in a sunglass-wearing combo called Three Blind Mice. He entertained his friends with imitations of Elvis. When he was president, he collected books about Elvis. Late in his presidency he kept a large framed picture of the young Elvis on display, propped up against the small Christmas tree in the Oval Office, a present from someone who knew what he liked. Clinton’s affinity with Elvis was striking. Elvis, too, was a poor Southern boy, close to his mother, ingratiating and magnetic, who drew on black music and gestures to create a crossover appeal that the traditionally minded warned was the devil’s sign. In Clinton’s famous (or infamous) appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, in June 1992, he put on black shades and belted out Elvis’s standard on his sax, “Heartbreak Hotel.” (His performance offended a number of Washington pundits, who felt he had violated norms of propriety.) During the 1992 campaign, the advance staff produced baggage tags with Elvis’s picture. Clinton wore a baseball cap with the image of the U.S. postage stamp of the youthful Elvis. Asked on the NBC Today Show who he would pick as the greatest entertainer of the century, he replied in a snap, “The early Elvis.”1Clinton sang in Southern Baptist church choirs from his boyhood. In college he was so exhilarated after a Ray Charles concert that he ran for miles into the night. When he was governor, he attended an annual Pentecostal evangelical music festival held outside Little Rock. He joined a church with black members and sang in the choir every Sunday. At his invitation, Bob Dylan—and Ray Charles—played at his presidential inaugural on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As part of the White House Millennium Program, he presided over an evening of gospel choirs, framed by a lecture on the subject. When Václav Havel took him in 1994 to the smoky Reduta Jazz Club in Prague, Clinton jumped onstage to join a jazz sextet in “Summertime.” He gave a National Medal of the Arts to the bluegrass icon Bill Monroe—and another to Quincy Jones. Sheryl Crow—and Itzhak Perlman—played the East Room. One evening, without advance notice, Clinton conducted the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. A member of the orchestra told me he was the only guest conductor they’d ever had who knew what he was doing.Born in something like a log cabin, Clinton emerged as the leading meritocrat of America’s first mass generation of college-educated meritocrats. This was both more and less than part of his identity. And he was a member of a loose network that had grown up together politically since the 1960s. This network of people kept in touch through the Vietnam protests, the McGovern campaign, and outward into activism on hundreds of fronts, all the while pursuing professional careers. Many had been involved in Jimmy Carter’s campaign and administration, though they never shared Carter’s antigovernment rhetoric and ultimately were disappointed in his failure. Hillary, for example, had directed the Indiana campaign for Carter and was active as a board member of the Children’s Defense Fund. The lingua franca of this network was the language of policy, the specifics of governmental activism. To be part of the network meant to be connected to its ongoing conversation. It was a large moveable feast, meeting at foundations, nonprofit issue-based organizations, universities, think tanks, journals, and the Democratic Party in all its manifestations. The conversation was amorphous, diffuse, and completely open. The first principle, after all, was merit. Almost all of those engaged came from middle-class backgrounds. They were self-made—not through having made great fortunes, but by reaching high professional standing. Education was more than an issue to them; it was how they had risen. And they had a will to govern because they believed in governing—and not out of a sense of class entitlement or noblesse oblige. They did not see public service as a kind of charitable contribution or themselves as Lady Bountiful; they hoped to be emblems of merit using public policy to extend merit.Their rethinking of liberalism moved erratically, from issue to issue, with no fixed label (early on, neoliberalism, Atari Democrats, New Age Democrats, and others). Orthodoxy and dogmatism were antithetical to them; practicality and modernism were paramount. Their conversation was the opposite of a fixed ideological one, asserting all answers from unwavering preconceptions. Ideology, masquerading as policy, dresses as either pseudoscience, for which any jerry-rigged justification will serve, or as an act of faith. By contrast, this conversation was in the tradition of progressive pragmatism—a restless search for possible workable solutions to empirically defined problems. But it could not acquire clarity until it became a politics, and it was politically headless.Clinton, in 1992, at the age of forty-five, was the longest-serving governor in the country. He was also one of the few elected officials of his generation who was organically part of this rising meritocracy. He was the meritocrat’s meritocrat, but that hardly confined him. He reveled in long seminars on policy, but there was none of the metallic grind about him. After a while you almost got the sensation that his endless discussions were like jazz riffs. He played with them until he felt he had improvised the right composition. And then he would start again. Everything was ongoing and in motion. He read extensively in social science and demanded all the arguments from his policy advisers. He was intrigued by technology and its transformations, from the Internet to the human genome project. But he never confused social science with science or technology with a doctrine. He did not believe social problems were reducible to technical means. He disdained the idea that society should be governed by administrators or engineers. Clinton insisted on facts and valued expertise, but he never made claims of omniscience. Just as he was suspicious of political ideology, he was suspicious of the absence of political ideas.Above all, Clinton believed in the difficult, frustrating, and often humiliating work of politics. Time and again, he said that he thought of the presidency as his “job,” not as an exalted title. In private, he spoke frequently about how he wished to demystify the office so that people would always see the president as someone who was working. He saw himself operationally as the opposite of Reagan. He did not intend to strip the presidency of its accoutrements of grandeur, as Carter had done, but he wanted everyone to understand that it was what the president did that mattered, not how he posed near the presidential seal. He went out of his way to emphasize that the labor-intensive parts of the presidency were what moved the agenda.Politics was Clinton’s calling and vocation—and more. It provided the means for social change by which the majority benefited more equitably from prosperity and more justly from order and by which a sense of society in a vast, polyglot country was fostered. Politics, to him, was the work of democracy.Clinton never left a roomful of people until he had spoken to and physically touched as many as he could. He liked to shake hands, always looking the person in the eyes, never darting a glance at who might be behind him or her, continuing to hold on to the hand and arm. Partly this was old-fashioned courtesy, but it also reflected his desire to meet everyone he could. Politics to him was tactile. He wanted to hear opinions and stories firsthand. He learned from these hundreds of thousands of encounters, receiving countless bits of information. In political strategy meetings, he would often make a point by telling an anecdote he had picked up from a random person he had just happened to meet recently. He remarked to me once that the best part of being president was being able to see so many more varieties of human nature than he might otherwise have encountered. He felt he gained the most from the interactions. Some on the staff joked that the Secret Service was there to protect the people from the president.Franklin Roosevelt’s empathy came from the great distance he had traveled from the heights overlooking the Hudson River to the swimming pool in Warm Springs. At Hyde Park, he was raised as a patroon. At Warm Springs, he dog-paddled with children who were afflicted with polio like himself. His kindness to them was accepted as sympathy by ordinary people, not simply because his programs helped them. His suffering brought him to their level. His immobility made him use his charm to draw people to him. FDR’s enemies and a number of political columnists resented or dismissed the human element that bound millions to him. They believed that they saw through his ruses to the naked politician beneath. To them, he was an opportunist, a chameleon, a habitual liar, and an untrustworthy trimmer. They considered him shifty and unprincipled, someone who would do anything for political gain, even maneuver the country into war and kill our boys. No sacrifice was too great for his political viability.Clinton’s empathy did not require his being stricken with a dreadful disease. He never had to cross much social distance to be in direct contact with whomever he met. Clinton’s critics, however, saw him as a meretricious operator. His compassion was disdained as sheer manipulation. If he was liked, it was because he was seductive. If he was believed, it was because he was false. If he was conciliatory, it was because he was compromised. If he was smooth, it was because he was inauthentic. Whether lodged in the aristocrat or the scholarship boy, these political figures were considered less as genuine personalities than as bundles of pathologies. At the bottom of the distaste was the unpleasant truth that progressive presidents were politically skillful and therefore had prevailed.Roosevelt was born to rule, if he could manage it. Clinton was born to be something, but not likely president. Yet his energy was in perpetual motion, unstoppable by any outside force. Where did it come from? “Did you know his mother?” Hillary asked me once. As a matter of fact, I did.Virginia Kelley lived in her dream house, on a small lake in Hot Springs, with her fourth husband and a German shepherd. When I went out to spend a day with her in the summer of 1992 she had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her. She knew it, though she didn’t show it. Her black hair had a shock of white in the front. She wore long eyelashes and painted-on arching eyebrows. She had a large ring in the shape of a horseshoe on her finger. On her walls were pictures of horses with black velvet motifs. She liked to go to the track and make two-dollar bets. Hanging up on a rafter was an old sepia photograph of a working man in a lumber mill. “That’s my daddy,” Virginia said.Eldridge Cassidy said that when he died he would “go to Roosevelt.” He worked in a lumber mill and an icehouse and, at the urging of his wife, Edith, bought a general store in Hope. “My mother said when I was born, ‘I won’t bring up this child in the country,’ so we moved.” The store was on the wrong side of the tracks, in Colored Town. Eldridge extended credit to his customers and accepted barter. Edith took a correspondence school course to become a practical nurse. The Cassidys were unusual in their racial liberalism, and Virginia recalled her mother admonishing her, as a child, for using a racial epithet.Virginia married William Blythe III, a mechanic from Sherman, Texas, in a flash, and then he was off to the war. When he returned she got pregnant and he got a job in Chicago as a heavy equipment salesman. He bought a house there and was driving back to get his wife when, after a rainstorm, at night, near Sikestown, Missouri, his tire blew and he was thrown from the car. He was found in the morning in a shallow ditch. “There was only one little blue mark on his forehead,” Virginia said. “So it wasn’t the wreck that killed him. He was just stunned enough. He had really drowned. Oh, mercy.” She cried all over again and then regained her composure. “It was just terrible, just terrible. So I was five months pregnant.”She decided to train as a nurse to support herself and her baby. “I guess that I had the same drive that my mother had in deciding she wasn’t going to bring me up in the country.” But Virginia had to enroll in a program in New Orleans and leave her son with her parents. “I didn’t think that he would remember how emotional I was when my mother brought him to see me on a visit and they had to leave. It’s not even easy now. But he remembered how I knelt at the train station and wept.” (Indeed, Clinton described the scene in his acceptance speech to the 1992 Democratic convention.) Eldridge and Edith cared for the boy, while teaching him to read. When Virginia returned she married a local Buick car salesman, Roger Clinton, who had dreams of living large. They moved to Hot Springs, a resort town.Virginia was surprised when teachers called her to school to tell her that her son was unusually bright. “I thought he was just special to me,” she said. He was an avid newspaper reader and asked questions that other children did not. He wondered aloud why he attended a segregated school: “I’ll never forget he asked me the question one day and he was so little, seven, eight, nine, something like that. He said, ‘Can anybody tell me why the color of a man’s skin makes so much difference?’” She also remembered him raising his head from a newspaper after reading about Arkansas’s poor national ranking in education and saying, “Mom, aren’t the kids in Arkansas born with the same brain as other people?”Virginia had another boy, Roger, Jr., who turned to his older half-brother as to a father figure. Bill changed his name from Bill Blythe to Bill Clinton to make his family seem more harmonious. But Roger Clinton was an abusive drunk who ignored his children, beat his wife, and fired guns in the house. “Most of the time he just wouldn’t be able to do what you do for your children,” she said. “Roger just could hardly stand the way his father was treating me, and Bill couldn’t either. He tried so hard in his own way as a child to make peace.” Bill grew to be more than six feet tall by the time he was fifteen, bigger than his stepfather, and once he confronted him when Roger, in a drunken fit, was hitting his mother. “And Bill told him to stand up, and I thought, my goodness, he can’t stand up. Then Bill said to him, ‘Daddy, you must stand up to hear what I have to say. And if you can’t, then I’ll help you.’ He helped him get to his feet. And Bill, he just said, ‘Don’t you ever lay a hand on my mother again.’ I believe those were his exact words. Roger had some sort of fear of Bill. He never raised a hand at me again.” She filed for divorce.Virginia worked at the local hospital. She was a fount of stories about injustices she had seen. “It ain’t right, but it’s so” was her constant refrain. When Bill was eight he handed out palm cards to help elect his stepuncle to the state legislature. He was fascinated by politics and ran for offices at school. In the summer of 1963, he was chosen as one of Arkansas’s two representatives to the American Legion Boys Nation. When the boys were brought to the White House, Bill fast-walked his way to the front and managed to shake the hand of President Kennedy. He brought the picture to his mother: “It was just the expression of his face. He was just so happy. It was the experience of a lifetime for him, it really was. That’s when I knew he was going into politics.”During his Washington visit, Bill had lunch in the Senate Dining Room with his idol, Senator J. William Fulbright, the former president of the University of Arkansas, a Rhodes scholar, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When Bill applied to college, he applied to only one place: Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He was launched.While he was at Georgetown, Bill worked as an intern in Fulbright’s office. His job was to clip newspapers about the Vietnam War, which Fulbright opposed. In the 1960s, Georgetown was not a hotbed of student protest and not swept up in the counterculture, and Clinton’s education on Vietnam took place in Fulbright’s office. In his senior year, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Clinton could see the burning of Washington’s ghetto from the top of his dormitory. He tried to deliver food and clothing to a shelter there but was chased away by a mob. His hopes for the New Frontier and civil rights were now dashed. He applied to be a Rhodes scholar, like Fulbright. He grew his hair and a beard, traveled extensively throughout Europe, and helped organize the Vietnam moratorium protests in London. He returned from Oxford to attend the Yale Law School, where he soon met Hillary Rodham.Clinton always intended to go home again. He wanted to bring back to Arkansas what he had learned in the broader world. He got a job as a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where the black students called him Wonder Boy for his utter absence of racial distinction. Clinton then started running for office. In 1974, he ran for the Congress and barely lost. Two years later, he won for state attorney general. Two years after that he won for governor, becoming the youngest, at thirty-two, in the country. He tried to do as much as he could as fast as he could. He offended some local conservative sensibilities with his team of young, smart aides in a hurry and by his wife’s insistence on keeping her maiden name. Raising the tax on car tags alienated more. When the Mariel boat people from Cuba, many of them criminals released by Castro in 1980, burst out of a military camp in Fort Smith, where they were detained, and rioted in the west Arkansan town, Clinton was caught up in the chaotic events that marked the last year of the Carter presidency. He lost his reelection campaign for the governorship by a narrow margin.His first incarnation as the Comeback Kid came two years later. He was more tempered, more attentive to the Arkansas legislators, and more careful about building coalitions. And he won and won and won. In 1987, Thomas Caplan, Clinton’s college friend, accompanied Clinton’s mother, Virginia, to yet another gubernatorial inauguration. As he did so often, Clinton abandoned his text and spoke extemporaneously to the crowd. Caplan recalled to me that Clinton remarked that the day before he had been to a funeral, where the widow had vividly remembered his grandfather, Eldridge Cassidy. Clinton said, in Caplan’s recollection: “It occurred to me, driving back, that when you get older you don’t remember everything in your life. You just remember when you were most alive. I don’t want to leave this moment, when I am here and most alive, and fail to do what I could to give every child an opportunity.” “Virginia was crying,” Caplan said. “And she hit me on the thigh and said, ‘I’m so proud of that boy.’”Clinton’s empathy and sense of fairness, his impulse to conciliate and persevere, and his reliance on strong women can be traced to his relationship with his mother. Virginia herself believed that his ambition had to do with her, too. “I always kind of thought in the back of my mind,” she told me, “that Bill at an early age had thought that life hadn’t dealt me the best hand in the world. And I think in the beginning he was determined that I would have something to be proud of. Accomplishments make Bill happy.”But there was another factor. The only memento of a president that Clinton had in his private office, upstairs in the White House residence, was a framed letter from Congressman Lyndon Johnson to a Clinton cousin, one of Johnson’s constituents, expressing condolences on the death of William Blythe. The parental tragedy inescapably entered into Clinton’s ambition and appetite for living.When I told him, sometime later, about the day I had spent with his mother and what she had said, he reflected for a moment. Then he spoke about how he had always had an impinging feeling of mortality: “I knew that my mother really loved my father and it struck me, even as a child, as so profoundly sad that he would die at twenty-nine in a freak accident. I sort of immersed myself in my friends and my work. But I think some of that was trying to compensate for my mother and some of it was trying to do it for my father. I always felt like that, too. I always felt like maybe I could live the life that he never was able to live. It was like living for two people. And it got harder as I got older.”VIn his first year in office, in September 1989, George H. W. Bush, seeking to create a reputation as “the education president,” held a summit on the subject in Charlottesville, Virginia. Governor Clinton emerged as the key figure shaping the goals set at the conference. During one of the luncheons, Bush sat next to the governor’s wife. “You know, Mr. President, depending upon what statistic you look at, we’re at seventeenth or nineteenth in the whole world in infant mortality,” said Hillary. Bush dismissed her claim, informing her that the American health care system was “the envy of the world.” She told him she would have Governor Clinton give him the statistics, which he did. Bush conceded that Hillary was right.This was the first contest between Clinton and Bush. When Bush found himself vulnerable in 1992, he replaced his courtesies with vicious attacks, which had worked for him in 1988, when he was seventeen points behind and his political advisers hastily cobbled together a negative campaign. The feebleness of the kinder and gentler part of Bush’s agenda inevitably opened onto the meaner and more malicious part of his politics. Bush thought of public service as a higher, clean calling and politics as a lower, dirty business.There had been a number of chairmen of the Democratic Leadership Council before Clinton. He was the least prominent when he took the position in 1990. Richard Gephardt, Sam Nunn, and Charles Robb were all bigger names. The DLC was founded after the disastrous Democratic defeat in 1984 to try to develop a more “centrist” politics. None of the previous chairmen had figured out how the DLC could be an effective vehicle to promote their own ambitions and engage in recombinant Democratic politics at the same time. Al From, the DLC president, urged Clinton to use the DLC organization and network to run for president.On May 6, 1991, Clinton delivered a keynote address to the DLC convention in Cleveland that was the de facto beginning of his campaign. But it was also the start of his redefinition of the Democratic Party. The DLC proposed a program, long in the making, that included a number of key policies that Clinton later championed, including market mechanisms and incentives for poverty-stricken areas, welfare reform, and tradable permits to lower greenhouse gases. Clinton understood that market devices could be integrated into new government solutions; he was eager to develop them. This hardly made him a Reaganite, but it did separate him from Democrats who had not imagined such new methods. Clinton saw his presidential candidacy as a way to use innovative policy to reanimate the Democratic Party.In his speech in Cleveland, he began by describing how the United States was lagging in the new global economy, suffering from a fall in real income, declining productivity, and paltry investment in education. Clinton had been an education reformer for years in Arkansas, but the idea that education is central to the standing of nations in the global economy because human capital is the most important factor in productivity came in part from Clinton’s fellow Rhodes scholar Robert Reich, then teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Reich laid out his analysis in a series of books, most notably The Work of Nations. Clinton was to appoint him secretary of labor.Clinton lambasted the “greed and self-interest” of the Reaganite 1980s, pointing to the “explosion of poor women and their little children.” But rather than continuing to hammer Republicans, he swiveled to address his own party:
You may say, “Well, if all these things are out there, why in the wide world haven’t the Democrats been able to take advantage of these conditions?” I’ll tell you why. Because too many of the people who used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we’re talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline. We’ve got to turn these perceptions around, or we can’t continue as a national party … . We’ve got to have a message that touches everybody, that makes sense to everybody, that goes beyond the stale orthodoxies of “left” and “right.”
He invoked the themes of opportunity, responsibility, and community—words that he would use throughout his presidency and in his farewell address.Some liberals criticized Clinton’s speech, partly because the DLC did not invite Jesse Jackson to its convention. But if Clinton had not begun speaking to the perceived failures of the party and of government, his appeal to voters on the issue of revitalizing the economy would not have been as wide. The DLC without Clinton would have remained on the fringe of the party, and Clinton without the DLC would have lacked a national organization to project his politics and the notion that he was transcending the Democrats’ old shibboleths. In addition to the DLC, Clinton embraced, or had inroads into, or personal ties with, nearly every other constituency in the party. In his campaign were Harold Ickes, son of FDR’s secretary of the interior, a master of New York politics, ally of Jesse Jackson; Ron Brown, the Democratic National Committee chairman, a patrician of Harlem if ever there was one; the Daleys of Chicago; the liberals of Hollywood; his fellow Southern governors; and just about every black clergyman in the country. Clinton’s unique ability to fuse the myriad parts of the Democratic Party, using policy as a salient means of building a new coalition, buoyed his candidacy. Alone among the candidates, he was able to begin putting the fractured factions together in a new way. But his self-defined task also opened him to suspicions whenever he faltered. The constant improvisations required for him to craft a new message and coalition made it easy to criticize him as an unprincipled, shambling huckster, and to see in his stumbles profound personal flaws.Politics in Arkansas had been Clinton’s school, preparing him for national politics. When he returned to Arkansas after graduating from Yale Law School the state was among the poorest in the nation, its per capita income only 43 percent of the rest of the United States. The cartoon image of Arkansas as Dogpatch was an old joke even in the nineteenth century, when Mark Twain, in Huckleberry Finn, depicted “Arkansaw lunkheads” who wanted “low comedy—and maybe something ruther worse than low comedy.” Little Rock was the only big city, with a metropolitan area containing about 300,000 people. Economic centers were principally located there and in the northwest corner of the state, where Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods had headquarters. Southeastern Arkansas, along the Mississippi River, was poverty-stricken. Among the old Confederate states, Arkansas had the lowest percentage of blacks, about 15 percent—it had not had a cotton-growing plantation culture—but race remained pivotal to its politics, and since the battle over the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 it had been an open wound. About a third of the voters were embittered segregationists. Clinton was in the line of liberal governors who had built black-white coalitions to win office, and none of his elections were certain. As late as 1990, politics was circumscribed almost completely by the Democratic Party, but there was no political machine or party boss. All the players—political and economic—knew each other well. And politics was intensely personal, ambition against ambition, given to blood feuds.2Perhaps the best description of Clinton’s political survival and legislative record was offered by his two predecessors as governor, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, both subsequently U.S. senators, who jointly wrote a succinct letter in 1994 to The New York Times to correct a long, caricaturing article in the Times Magazine:
We have become increasingly exasperated with those who write that Mr. Clinton’s years in the governor’s office were a kind of wasteland, during which a hollow man played it slick and safe to insure a certain path to the Presidency. Governor Clinton demonstrated the courage, tenacity and other leadership qualities that caused the people of Arkansas to elect him time and again. “The President’s Past” by Michael Kelly (Magazine, July 31), styled as political biography, devoted but one paragraph, amid much dubious psychological speculation, to Mr. Clinton’s 12 years of gubernatorial service in Arkansas, dismissing that record as simply “a number of moderate reforms.”Is it “moderate reform” for a Governor to produce thousands of new jobs paying higher wages, make the state’s tax system fairer, increase access to public health programs, establish the state’s first ethics law to regulate the relations between lobbyists and lawmakers, appoint record numbers of women and African-Americans to high office, dramatically reduce infant mortality rates, stiffen environmental regulation of polluters and, with the help of his amazing wife, significantly improve state-supported education at all levels?It takes energy, determination and perseverance to effect change as an Arkansas governor. The Legislature needs only a simple majority to override a governor’s veto, while a raise in income tax requires a 75 percent vote. Until 1986, a governor was limited to debilitating two-year terms. All this for the lowest gubernatorial salary in America.There is no party machine in predominantly Democratic Arkansas. The political scientist V O. Key long ago observed that a one-party state is a no-party state. The governor of Arkansas must form a new coalition on each issue. The resulting bartering and negotiating may look slick to the unpracticed eye, but the novice should try it before judging.3
In the fall of 1989, Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee, whose negative campaign had rescued the feckless Bush the year before, had had a plan to destroy Bill Clinton. Atwater, then a thirty-eight-year-old South Carolinian, strutted as a Southern bad boy, masking his insecurities. In my extensive dealings with him, beginning in the 1984 Reagan campaign, he was eager to demonstrate to me that he was intellectually serious. He drew diagrams showing politics divided between the poles of “populism” and “the establishment.” And he made references to history, especially the Civil War. He prided himself on his mastery of “populism.” His pose as an electric-guitar-playing bluesman added to his image as a rebel. But Atwater’s political skill was in updating an old-fashioned Southern antipopulism, using coded racial issues to prevent the white working class from allying with blacks on common economic interests, and to peel off enough white votes on that basis to defeat the New South Democrats. He had interned with Senator Strom Thurmond, father of the Dixiecrats and the Southern Strategy that had realigned the GOP (he eventually ran Thurmond’s reelection efforts). Atwater used all the modern tools of campaigning, fine-tuning polls whose results he drew on to shape television commercials. He was relentless and shrewd and knew no limits. As a consultant to other politicians, he had exploited an opponent’s psychiatric record, done a poll against a Jewish opponent for not accepting Christ as his personal savior and leaked the result, and was the one who devised the Willie Horton campaign for George Bush. Bush, the candidate who saw politics as unclean, hired Atwater to do the dirty political work for him.Atwater shrewdly saw Clinton as a potential threat to Bush, and he wanted to eliminate him before the 1992 campaign. He flew two local Republican operatives to Washington for a secret meeting at the Republican National Committee headquarters. His strategy was to use the first, Tommy Robinson, an Arkansas congressman and former sheriff who had switched to the Republican Party, as a weapon. “We’re going to take Tommy Robinson,” Atwater said, “and use him to throw everything we can think of at Clinton—drugs, women, whatever works. We may or may not win, but we’ll bust him up so bad he won’t be able to run again for years.” Their plan was to make Robinson the Republican candidate against Clinton for governor in 1990—and Clinton would never recover. Atwater was descending into the dark byways of Arkansas politics to strike him down.The second operative, J. J. Vigneault, whom Atwater had made the RNC regional chairman in Little Rock, told me in detail how this initial plan was upset by the embittered ambition of another figure they had not counted on. Sheffield Nelson was a poor boy who had been virtually adopted as a surrogate son by Witt Stephens, patriarch of the Stephens holding company, the most influential business in Little Rock, which included the largest bond-trading firm west of Wall Street. But Stephens had expelled Nelson from paradise when Nelson refused to make a deal he wanted, and by 1990 they were at war. Clinton had always got along with Nelson and in 1984 had given him an important state post in economic development. The Stephens family had never supported Clinton, who was too liberal for them. Indeed, Jackson Stephens, Witt’s brother, was close to the Bushes and a major Republican contributor. And as Robinson’s bankroller, he became an indispensable element in Atwater’s scheme against Clinton.However, Sheffield Nelson, once a Democrat, enraged at the Stephenses, decided to run against Tommy Robinson in the Republican primary. Vigneault described to me how Nelson spent his own money to smash Robinson—resorting to dirty tricks, Vigneault claimed, including break-ins at campaign headquarters to steal files. Thus the Republican primary, pitting two former Democrats against each other, was a contest of ulterior motives. Nelson’s vengeance was aimed at the forces looming behind Robinson, Atwater’s pawn against Clinton.When Nelson defeated Robinson, the Stephenses for the first time backed Clinton in the general election. At their orders boxes of damaging information about Nelson’s financial dealings were delivered to Clinton’s campaign headquarters. But Clinton didn’t need them. Nelson—a neophyte now running against the most popular, entrenched politician in the state as well as the most powerful economic empire, and having split his newfound Republican Party, confounding the well-laid plans of its national chairman—had no chance.Nelson’s rage against the Stephenses stoked his new dislike of Clinton. Nelson, the rejected son, was determined to mangle the Stephenses’ newly favored one. His useful idiot was a former state employee, Larry Nichols, whose life was a shipwreck. Nichols had been forced to resign from his job after getting caught making thousands of dollars of telephone calls to Contra leaders in Nicaragua and to a disreputable business partner, Darrell Glascock, a low-level Republican operative known for dirty tricks. Nichols’s marriage had disintegrated into an acrimonious divorce. When his wife fled the state with their daughter, Hillary Clinton was one of the lawyers representing her, giving him a personal motive for his animosity toward the governor.Three weeks before the election, Nichols distributed a statement claiming he had been fired as Clinton’s “scapegoat” in order to conceal the governor’s misuse of state funds to pay off five alleged mistresses, and he filed a lawsuit against the governor. Sheffield Nelson distributed Nichols’s statement from his campaign headquarters and faxed it to reporters. It received little attention. But Nelson insisted that the race turned on “character.” Meanwhile, all five women, including Gennifer Flowers, denied Nichols’s charges; three of them threatened to sue.“Two days before Election Day, Nichols tipped his hand,” Joe Conason and Gene Lyons wrote in The Hunting of the President. “At a meeting in a diner with Clinton press secretary Mike Gauldin, he offered to settle his lawsuit if the governor arranged to pay off the mortgage on his house and give him an additional $150,000.”4 Clinton won by eighteen points. But it was in this dank political atmosphere that the anti-Clinton campaign began.In July 1991, Clinton decided to brush off the rumors about his personal life by directly confronting them at a Washington press breakfast hosted by Godfrey Sperling of The Christian Science Monitor. Hillary accompanied him. “Like nearly anybody who has been together for twenty years, our relationship has not been perfect or free from difficulties, but we feel good about where we are and we believe in our obligation to each other, and we intend to be together thirty or forty years from now, whether I run for president or not.” He believed the matter settled.The right-wing Washington Times published a front-page article about Clinton’s breakfast appearance, signaling that personal lives would be subject to search-and-destroy missions in the upcoming campaign. In The New Republic, where I was then a senior editor, I followed with an editorial entitled “Predators,” which I quote here because it summarizes virtually all the themes that were to dominate press and politics during the Clinton years:
The press treatment of Gary Hart was the exception that has proved to be the rule. Mr. Hart’s case, we were solemnly informed by his media prosecutors at the time, was unique. But in the four years since, the peculiarities of his particular fate have become routinized. Now, however, there is no sharp gasp at questions about adultery and the like. The artifice of justification that surrounded the Hart episode—the self-destructive hypocrisy ascribed to the subject—is hardly deemed essential. No explanation is given for each new humiliating exposure. Private lives are fair game. The stakeout, the dragnet, and the inquisition have become quintessential methods of contemporary political coverage. Any self-protective gesture is considered an ipso facto confession of guilt and thus an incitement.The unspoken claim that private acts, especially sexual ones, have a direct bearing on public acts is, at best, extremely confused. When it comes down to such slippery terms as “character,” rather than specific claims about the professional qualifications for public office, it is close to being a blanket justification for all manner of media excess … .But the press has also devised an elaborate system for privacy raiding. Rumors are circulated; off-the-record quotes are pursued. Once a certain level of controversy has been stirred up, the controversy itself becomes the story, in which all the details of a private life are “incidentally” revealed. There are variations on this Hart-model, of course. In the last resort, the prestige press and the tabloids enter into a parasitic relationship, where the former reports the reporting of the latter. Increasingly, the media does not even go through the motions of civility … .In the endless snipe hunts for bedroom hypocrisy, the media may boost circulation or ratings. But, so far, there has been no discernible rise in political virtue … . Instead, in the name of honesty, integrity, and candor, the trend toward supplanting serious political discourse with dubious distractions has been accelerated. The press, naturally, has no program of its own. But in its slow slide toward undiscriminating prurience, it has contributed to the trend of illiberalism.5
In January 1992, a month before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton emerged as the front-runner, poised to win. New York governor Mario Cuomo, thought by many observers to be the strongest candidate, had dithered Hamlet-like for months before deciding not to make the race. The field included Paul Tsongas, retired U.S. senator from Massachusetts; Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, former governor of California; Tom Harkin, U.S. senator from Iowa; and Robert Kerrey, U.S. senator from Nebraska. With polls showing Clinton pulling ahead of the rest of the field, Larry Nichols and Gennifer Flowers sold stories to the Star tabloid about Flowers’s supposed “twelve-year affair” with Clinton, for which Nichols received $50,000, Flowers $150,000. The Clintons went on CBS’s 6o Minutes, appearing immediately following the Super Bowl. Bill called the allegation “false,” though he acknowledged causing “pain in my marriage,” and Hillary said that if people didn’t like it they didn’t have to vote for him. Sheffield Nelson stepped forward to say that Clinton was lying. Tommy Robinson claimed that Nelson had “orchestrated” Flowers’s accusations and that she was lying. She had, in fact, become close to Republican officials, even contributing to one Republican campaign. Nichols dropped his lawsuit and apologized to Clinton. “In trying to destroy Clinton, I was only hurting myself,” he said. Quietly, he demanded $200,000 from Clinton. His bid for a payoff was rejected.The sluice gates of scandal were opening. On February 18, a tabloid called the Globe headlined, “New Scandal Hits Dems’ Front-Runner; Bill Clinton’s Four-in-a-Bed Sex Orgies with Street Hookers—and he’s the father of my child, claims ghetto gal he had sex with 13 times!” It was, of course, completely false. The story was exhumed from Arkansas’s racial past: it was a canard that had first been used years before to tar Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, the liberal Republican.The Flowers incident lofted the “character” issue into the presidential campaign. Clinton’s carefully devised platform was being overshadowed by scandalmongering on the part of a press pack that was developing a uniform and instant line. Lars-Erik Nelson, one journalist who stood independently apart from the herd, wrote in his column in the New York Daily News, not widely read in Washington, in the aftermath of the Flowers incident:
Not a vote has been cast this election year, and yet it is clear that strong and bipartisan opinion feels Clinton must be destroyed, and the sooner the better. Who are these people? And why do they want to kill him? The media campaign against Clinton is the most fascinating. The attacks on Clinton have been peddled first and foremost by the Star tabloid, the Boston Herald, the New York Post, the TV show “A Current Affair,” and the Fox television network. Clinton would appear to be under a generalized media barrage. Yet what do the above named outlets have in common? They are all either owned or formerly owned—and all are currently staffed by long-time associates of—Rupert Murdoch, the one-time Australian who delights in his ability to destroy political candidates on three continents … . And then the TV networks, based in New York, find they cannot ignore the story that blares at them from every newsstand and from Murdoch’s Fox network … . The onslaught becomes self-fulfilling. Truth doesn’t matter. Clinton is whispered to be “damaged” by allegations. His campaign is “rocked” by charges. He is “mortally wounded.” Except he is still standing.6
Then came a new barrage. A letter Clinton had written in 1969 to a Colonel Eugene Holmes, who had been on Clinton’s draft board, thanking him for helping him get out of the draft, was mysteriously released to the media. His letter made plain that the Vietnam War was “a war I opposed and despised with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America before Vietnam.” The young Clinton also explained that he planned for a political life: “The decision not to be a resister and related subsequent decisions were the most difficult of my life. I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead.”The story about the draft turned on memories of events that had occurred decades earlier. There had been no law broken, no wrongdoing. But Clinton did not remember everything about his getting out of the draft in the correct sequence, and he said he had forgotten about a mistaken draft notice that had been instantly rescinded. The press treated this as a question of “character.” Many in the mainstream press corps who had once been uncomfortable with the Flowers story but who were losing their discomfort with such tales now basically accepted and amplified the draft story, which they thought they could report legitimately. Reporters a generation older than Clinton held him in special disdain as two-faced, a would-be practical politician but in fact a countercultural, antiwar protester out only for himself. To them, the episode revealed deception, opportunism, and a lack of patriotism. Other reporters took his explanations as falsehoods. Among those who professed to be personally offended were some who had once defended Nixon’s Vietnam policy.In the deep freeze of New Hampshire, in February, Clinton’s poll numbers fell to a single digit. The Clintons decided to throw themselves at the voters. Bill would fight “until the last dog died,” he told a rally. Finishing second to Paul Tsongas, he proclaimed himself the Comeback Kid.On the campaign trail, he continued trying to overcome the burdens borne by the Democratic Party because of its racial inclusiveness, which the Republicans used against it in a coded way. He told separate audiences of blacks and whites in Michigan that they each had to change. He criticized Sister Souljah, a rap artist, for her racial invective against whites. And finally, at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, in July, in his effort to redefine the party he chose Senator Al Gore of Tennessee as his running mate—not someone older, not someone from another region, not someone more or less liberal. Clinton decided to double himself. He put all his chips on one square.By mid-October, President Bush was desperate. His campaign was frantically searching for a “silver bullet,” a story like a magic projectile that, once it hit Clinton, would make him crumple to the ground. Republican operatives trolled for sex tales in Arkansas, calling every potential source of dirt. Plane tickets to Washington were offered to unidentified women telephone callers who plied them with lurid stories and then hung up. Aides were even dispatched to the phone booths used by these callers in futile efforts to track them down. Resources were poured into an operation to prove an apocryphal story that Clinton during his years in Oxford had tried to renounce his American citizenship to protest the Vietnam War. The British Home Office was asked to search its files, which it did. State Department officials looked to see if Clinton or his mother had even withdrawn their passports. Tory strategists were imported to advise on the negative themes that John Major had used to win as prime minister earlier in the year. The press corps was like a burned-over district, scorched by rumors and swept with fervent belief that the end was near: soon the Los Angeles Times will publish a story about Clinton’s cocaine use!Bush had trained to be a Cold War president and arrived in office in time for the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Gulf War had been swift, hardly the same as a decades-long confrontation that had divided the globe. Clinton’s repositionings baffled and upset him. This was not the kind of Democrat that Republicans were used to deconstructing. Clinton did not act like a convenient and familiar sitting target. His rapid responses to the Bush campaign’s attacks disoriented Bush, who took to calling him “the new man,” half in bafflement and half in sarcasm. He was genuinely perplexed that he seemed to be losing. He lashed out at Gore for his environmentalism as “Ozone Man.” On CNN’s Larry King Live, he lunged at Clinton’s patriotism: “But to go to Moscow one year after Russia crushed Czechoslovakia, not remember who you saw, I think, I really think the answer is, level with the American people.” Bush’s plight as yesterday’s man might have appeared poignant if he had not indulged in these smears.His administration then reached for a last straw, a failed real-estate investment called Whitewater. On March 8, 1992, seven months earlier, The New York Times had published a front-page article by Jeff Gerth: “Clintons Joined S&L Operator in an Ozark Real Estate Venture.” Much of the article had been in error, beginning with the headline. When the Clintons had made their investment in 1978 in a property called White-water, their partner was not yet a savings-and-loan operator; he started the bank in 1983. Nor was Clinton yet governor. Gerth implied that the Arkansas securities commissioner, Beverly Bassett Schaffer, appointed by Clinton, had granted favors to the S&L operator at the prodding of the Clintons in 1985 and then, when questioned by Gerth about this, had had a convenient memory lapse. In fact, before his article appeared she had given him a twenty-page memo spelling out in detail what had actually happened—she had requested federal regulators to close the S&L—an account Gerth ignored. (After the article appeared she considered filing a libel suit; later, her version was vindicated.)The S&L operator in question was a flamboyant figure from Arkansas’s political past, now fallen on hard times. Jim McDougal had been an aide to Senator Fulbright (convincing Fulbright to invest in his deals, too), a former state Democratic Party chairman, who lived large. His bank, the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association, had collapsed and he had been acquitted in 1990 of federal bank fraud. He had tried an insanity defense during the trial but then withdrew it. Everything was gone: he was manic-depressive, drug-addicted, alcoholic, divorced, bankrupt, subsisting on Social Security. He was embittered that he was not getting something from a rising Bill Clinton. Who had put him in contact with Gerth? The helpful Sheffield Nelson. McDougal and Nelson had been business partners in a deal to buy Campobello Island, FDR’s famous summer place, and turn it into resort lots. More than any other scheme, that failed one had helped pull the Madison bank under. But the Campobello deal went unmentioned in Gerth’s account.I interviewed Nelson shortly after the New York Times article was published. He sat behind a big desk in a spotless, generic office atop a building overlooking Little Rock. But his initial appearance as a corporate manager soon altered as he adopted a low voice, arched his eyebrows, and let loose a stream of innuendoes about Clinton. By the end, he was leering. He made it clear to me that he had spoken to many reporters.After Gerth’s article was published in the Times, McDougal retracted his charges, saying Clinton had done nothing illegal or unethical. A forensic accountant scratched through the confused records and issued a report showing no wrongdoing by the Clintons, while they lost about $65,000. But in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an investigator for the regional office of the Resolution Trust Corporation—the temporary federal agency that had been created to sort out the assets of failed savings-and-loan banks and to assist their depositors—L. Jean Lewis, an ardent Republican, read the now forgotten Times piece and, working overtime for the next few months, produced a criminal referral drawing a picture of a large conspiracy. Bill and Hillary Clinton, according to the papers Lewis filed, were to be called as witnesses. The head of investigations for her RTC office had dismissed the idea that the Clintons had anything to do with Madison Guaranty, but this did not inhibit the aroused Lewis.In October President Bush’s White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, called the chief executive of RTC to inquire about the existence of the referral. And Attorney General William Barr demanded information from the U.S. attorney in Arkansas, Charles Banks (who had once run unsuccessfully for the Congress as a Republican and served as the state party chairman). On October 7, the FBI office in Little Rock sent a telex to superiors in Washington:
It is the opinion of Little Rock FBI and the United States Attorney … that there is indeed insufficient evidence to suggest the Clintons had knowledge of the check-kiting activity conducted by McDougal … and does not suggest the Clintons had access to checking account statements that would have reflected the questionable transactions … . It was also the opinion of [Banks that] the alleged involvement of the Clintons in wrong-doing was implausible, and he was not inclined to authorize an investigation or render a positive prosecutive opinion.7
Bush’s attorney general did not accept Banks’s opinion as final. He sent an assistant to demand a review of Lewis’s referral. Banks sent a stern rebuke to his boss in Washington in the form of a letter to the head of the FBI office in Little Rock:
While I do not intend to denigrate the work of the RTC, I must opine that after such a lapse of time the insistence of urgency in this case appears to suggest an intentional or unintentional attempt to intervene into the political process of the upcoming presidential election. You and I know in investigations of this type, the first steps, such as issuance of grand jury subpoenas for records, will lead to media and public inquiries [about] matters that are subject to absolute privacy. Even media questions about such an investigation in today’s modern political climate all too often publicly purport to “legitimize what can’t be proven.” For me personally to participate in an investigation that I know will or could easily lead to the above scenario … amounts to prosecutorial misconduct and violates the most basic fundamental rule of Department of Justice policy. I cannot be a party to such actions.8
On October 16, the Little Rock FBI office sent another telex to Washington stating categorically that there was “absolutely no factual basis to suggest criminal activity on the part of any of the individuals listed as witnesses in the referral.”With that, the Whitewater scandal withered. Despite Nelson’s having planted the story at The New York Times, despite Lewis’s referral, and despite prodding by the Attorney General, it never developed into Bush’s hoped-for October surprise. Unlike previous Democratic candidates, Clinton triumphed over the personal assaults. And once he won in November, he held an illusion that the scandalmongering would fade and that the focus would turn toward the serious problems facing the country. Yet, in time, the least effective negative tactic used in the campaign against him, the bogus Whitewater scandal, had the most profound effect on his presidency.Conservatives were enraged that Bush had lost. They had believed that Republicans had a perpetual “lock” on the White House. A Democrat was never supposed to occupy it. For some the loss was akin to all the Cold War betrayals by liberals: Who lost Eastern Europe? Who lost China? Who lost Vietnam? Now the issue was: Who lost Reagan? At first, they blamed Bush himself. At the Heritage Foundation in Washington, a group of young conservatives called the Third Generation held a frenzied postelection anthropological rite. They filled an auditorium with partisans and then entered with a plastic mask of Bush on a platter with red crepe paper to represent his blood; by this symbolic beheading, they tried to exorcise the defeat.Clinton had won partly by default. Bush’s ratings had declined an unprecedented fifty-seven points between the end of the Gulf War and the Republican National Convention. Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy represented an inchoate and unstable revolt against the Republican Party on the part of rank-and-file members and Republican-leaning independents. Bush’s rejection was decisive. But the rage instantly turned against the one who had beaten him. The new Democratic president aroused the furies simply by existing. From the RNC to the Wall Street Journal editorial board, from the special-interest associations of K Street to Rupert Murdoch, Clinton was seen as a usurper who must be driven from the White House.To the Republicans, Clinton’s defeat of Bush undid the natural order. He was unimaginable in the White House. He was a cracker who would never have been admitted to Bush’s Yale, certainly not tapped for Skull and Bones. In any case, Clinton had been not at Yale College but at the Yale Law School, a different kettle of fish entirely, especially by the late 1960s. Conservatives knew he was a liberal, only worse than a liberal because he kept eluding their campaigns to destroy him as such. He was unpatriotic, a libertine who had not only opposed the war but said so in a letter to his draft board (unlike Bush’s sons, who used their father’s connections to get out of serving in Vietnam and never uttered a word about the war, either for or against it). Something had to explain the rise of this figure to them, but they didn’t know what. Clinton couldn’t have gotten to where he was naturally. His victory had to be illegitimate.Like Roosevelt, Clinton came to power after long years of Republican rule. But FDR had faced an immediate crisis with the Great Depression, and his political room for maneuver was greater, since the Democrats had large majorities in the Congress. Clinton, on the other hand, confronted a vacuum and resistance whichever way he turned. The old politics had been played out, and the country was pinioned between a liberalism fashioned during an age of scarcity and war and the reaction to it.When I left Hyde Park after Clinton’s visit, I went back to a capital that was not an open city. Washington had not been ready for Clinton, and his every move there had shaken things up and created uncertainty. The Democrats were divided and confused, the Republicans were determined to bring him down, and the media were already lurching from scandal to scandal. Whether Clinton would be able to pass his programs or not, whether the Democrats would achieve political momentum, and where the Republican assault and the media gyrations would lead were all unknown. It was as though gravity had suddenly been suspended. At the beginning, Clinton seemed to be all possibility. But in Washington almost everything old felt threatened by everything new; the possible imperiled the settled. And not everyone wanted to start the world over again. Clinton referred me to a passage from Machiavelli’s The Prince: “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than a creation of a new order of things.”Copyright © 2003 by Sidney Blumenthal All rights reserved
Meet the Author
Sidney Blumenthal wrote for The Washington Post and The New Yorker before serving as assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton from August 1997 until January 2001. He is the author of several books, including The Permanent Campaign, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife; they have two sons.
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