The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House

The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House

by John F. Harris


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The definitive account of one of the most accomplished, controversial, and polarizing figures in American history

Bill Clinton is the most arresting leader of his generation. He transformed American politics, and his eight years as president spawned arguments that continue to resonate. For all that has been written about this singular personality–including Clinton’s own massive autobiography–there has been no comprehensive, nonpartisan overview of the Clinton presidency.

Few writers are as qualified and equipped to tackle this vast subject as the award-winning veteran Washington Post correspondent John F. Harris, who covered Clinton for six of his eight years in office–as long as any reporter for a major newspaper. In The Survivor, Harris frames the historical debate about President William Jefferson Clinton, by revealing the inner workings of the Clinton White House and providing the first objective analysis of Clinton’s leadership and its consequences.

Harris shows Clinton entering the Oval Office in 1993 primed to make history. But with the Cold War recently concluded and the country coming off a nearly uninterrupted generation of Republican presidents, the new president’s entry into this maelstrom of events was tumultuous. His troubles were exacerbated by the habits, personal contacts, and the management style, he had developed in his years as governor of Arkansas. Clinton’s enthusiasm and temper were legendary, and he and Hillary Rodham Clinton–whose ambitions and ordeals also fill these pages–arrived filled with mistrust about many of the characters who greeted them in the “permanent Washington” that often holds the reins in the nation’s capital.

Showing surprising doggedness and a deep-set desire to govern from the middle, Clinton repeatedly rose to the challenges; eventually winning over (or running over) political adversaries on both sides of the aisle–sometimes facing as much skepticism from fellow Democrats as from his Republican foes. But as Harris shows in his accounts of political debacles such as the attempted overhaul of health care, Clinton’s frustrations in the war against terrorism, and the numerous personal controversies that time and again threatened to consume his presidency, Bill Clinton could never manage to outrun his tendency to favor conciliation over clarity, or his own destructive appetites.

The Survivor is the best kind of history, a book filled with major revelations–the tense dynamic of the Clinton inner circle and Clinton’s professional symbiosis with Al Gore to the imprint of Clinton’s immense personality on domestic and foreign affairs–as well as the minor details that leaven all great political narratives. This long-awaited synthesis of the dominant themes, events, and personalities of the Clinton years will stand as the authoritative and lasting work on the Clinton Presidency.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375760846
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/10/2006
Pages: 560
Product dimensions: 5.23(w) x 7.99(h) x 1.15(d)

About the Author

John F. Harris is a veteran political reporter for The Washington Post who covered the Clinton presidency from 1995 through its conclusion in 2001. His work during these years earned several prestigious awards, including the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award and the Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency from the Gerald R. Ford Library. Additionally, Harris is a panelist on PBS-TV’s Washington Week and appears on numerous other television and radio programs.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Bells OF Hope

Gong! Gong! Gong! From coast to coast, and even in outer space, bells would ring for America’s new leader. That was the plan. As Bill Clinton finished the grinding work of his transition in Little Rock, the impresarios of his inaugural festivities were in Washington dreaming of grand ways to launch the celebration. The result was an idea of breathtaking presumption: the “Bells of Hope.” Clinton thought it was splendid.

At 6 p.m. on January 17, 1993, just after the president-elect crossed Memorial Bridge over the Potomac and into Washington, citizens of the Republic were invited to let loose with chimes. Orbiting above the earth, astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavour were encouraged to do the same.

The president-elect and his wife devoutly believed that the results of the 1992 election had been a cleansing event in national life, well worthy of bells. Except there was a problem. Nearly 60 percent of the American electorate had voted for someone other than Bill Clinton. Many in the 43 percent who backed him did so only after swallowing doubts. That left few who regarded Clinton’s ascension to power as an occasion for a clanging continental catharsis. The Bells of Hope rang in less celebration than the Clintons had hoped. Loyal Democrats joined in, and the National Park Service dutifully struck the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. NASA, though, informed the inaugural planners that the astronauts would be asleep at the assigned hour. A compromise allowed them to record their bell-ringing in advance, with the video played on large screens in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Mainly, echoing gongs announced the illusions of Washington’s new team. “The bell-ringing seemed a little pretentious to hail great change—when the evidence mounts that there will be precious little,” wrote Mary McGrory, grande dame of liberal commentators, in her column in the Washington Post the next day.

McGrory’s sour review reflected the oddly conflicted mood of Washington that January. The capital was charged with excitement and anticipation on the eve of the inauguration, awaiting the fresh flow of energy and ideas that inevitably accompanies a new administration. Even in a city of cynics, the formal transfer of power, democracy’s most sacred ritual, commands a measure of reverence. Yet the news from recent days had made plain that Clinton was bleeding power even before he assumed it. Instead of having the clean start customarily afforded new presidents, Clinton arrived in Washington deeply stained by wounds taken during his departure from Little Rock, wounds that caused new doubts about whether the president-elect was a man of his word. This credibility crisis was not about extramarital affairs or a draft history; it was about the foundations of the agenda on which Clinton had run.

The closing days in Little Rock opened a conflict that defined Clinton’s presidency for the next two years. It was a collision between the expansive promises he made in his dream days as candidate and the cramped possibilities that awaited him as president. The days before Clinton’s inaugural were accompanied by an abrupt downward adjustment in popular expectations for his presidency and the changes it was supposed to herald. No one found this reappraisal more jarring than Clinton himself.

On January 7, just under two weeks before inaugural day, Clinton had sat down with his new economic team in his Little Rock living room for a budget tutorial. The meeting lasted six hours—long enough for Clinton to confront the contradictions in his own program. For all the president’s reputation as a “policy wonk,” his knowledge on the most pressing domestic matter confronting him was rudimentary. Most of the dozen people before him were not people Clinton knew well. They included Lloyd Bentsen, the seventy-one-year-old Texas senator Clinton had selected as Treasury secretary; Robert Rubin, who had made a fortune on Wall Street and was joining the Clinton team to coordinate economic policy at the White House; and Leon Panetta, the California congressman whom Clinton had tapped to be federal budget director. Panetta had been startled in his job interview to discover the gaps in Clinton’s understanding.

The mood in the room that day was subdued, even academic, during much of the discussion. But this was broken when Clinton suddenly flushed with a rude epiphany: “You mean to tell me that the success of my program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?”

The president-elect’s outburst captured an essential truth that he had not yet seized upon. The consuming task of his presidency would be to stanch a flow of budgetary red ink that had grown to some $290 billion a year. And these daunting numbers were growing larger still. Just the day before, the outgoing Bush administration, in a cruel welcoming gift to Clinton, announced that the projected deficit for 1997—the year by which Clinton had pledged to cut the deficit in half—was going to be nearly a third larger than earlier forecasts. Deficit reduction, as part of an appeal to common sacrifice, had been one note in Clinton’s campaign message, but far from the major key. The candidate came to life talking about other things: his proposal to cut middle-class taxes, or his plan to jolt the economy with a burst of public works spending in the name of fiscal stimulus. Dearest to his heart was some $60 billion annually in education, child care subsidies, and other planned domestic programs that Clinton called his “investments”—so named because Clinton believed they were not mere spending, but catalysts for future prosperity. During the campaign it had been easy to be for it all. Now Clinton was learning that he had scarcely any choices. Lowering long-term interest rates was the key to priming the anemic economy for new growth, Clinton’s tutors told him. But a president had no direct control over interest rates. They were controlled by two factors. One was the Federal Reserve, led by its mumbling, enigmatic chairman, Alan Greenspan. The other was the capital markets, the actions of which determined the long-term interest rates on the bonds the government sold to finance its debt. Interest rates would come down only if Greenspan and the markets concluded the new president was serious enough about raising taxes and cutting spending to bring the budget deficit to heel. Clinton’s future indeed hinged on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of bond traders.

One casualty of this meeting was the middle-class tax cut, the status of which had already been precarious. Days later, Panetta told a congressional committee that the proposal was no longer a priority. The reversal won praise as a responsible concession to fiscal reality. But it became the most visible—and perhaps the most politically damaging—of Clinton’s campaign promises to not survive in the presidency.

Just as the budget was frustrating his promises at home, another rapidly building crisis was frustrating a promise Clinton had made about a problem just off America’s shore. The problem was Haiti, a brutally poor island nation in the Caribbean populated largely by people of African descent. Haiti had traditions of violence and voodoo, but it also had a history as the second independent nation to take root in the Western Hemisphere. A fledgling Haitian democracy had been defied in 1991, when elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide—leftist former priest and tribune of impoverished masses—was ousted in a military coup supported by the nation’s wealthy elite. As a candidate, Clinton had attacked the Bush policy of refusing to allow refugees from the island to enter the United States. There was undoubtedly a measure of politics in his position: Because Haitians were black, their plight was an important issue to the Democratic Party’s most faithful constituency. Yet Clinton’s position was also sincere. Refusing passage to people who risked all by setting sail in barely seaworthy vessels to reach U.S. shores seemed a humanitarian outrage, and hardly in keeping with America’s history as a refuge from tyranny.

But in early January, officers from the Central Intelligence Agency visited Clinton in Little Rock with satellite photographs showing tens of thousands of Haitians busy at work, hacking down trees and, in some cases, their own homes, to construct makeshift boats. The Haitians knew all about Clinton’s campaign promise. And come his swearing-in on January 20, some 100,000 or more of them were heading for America. As many as 10,000 would likely drown at sea, Clinton was told. Those who made it would swamp the Gulf Coast with a wave of people desperately in need of food, shelter, and medical attention. In his living room, Clinton sat grimly through the briefing. Vice President–elect Gore broke the silence with his dry humor after the agency briefers departed. “Well,” he said. “That’s a worthy problem.”

Indeed it was. And the only solution was obvious: Clinton would have to revoke his campaign promise before he was inaugurated. Sullenly, he agreed to do just that.

The equivocation on taxes and reversal on Haiti hung heavily in the air as Clinton met with news reporters on January 14, two days before he was to leave Arkansas for Washington. But the item that had people buzzing was a remarkable story on the front page of that morning’s New York Times: On the same day that President Bush ordered missile strikes against Iraq to punish Saddam Hussein’s latest defiance of United Nations sanctions, the incoming president said he would entertain normal relations with Iraq if the dictator mended his ways. “I’m a Baptist. I believe in deathbed conversions,” Clinton told the Times’s Tom Friedman. Was he trying to send words of comfort to one of the planet’s most odious leaders?

In fact, he was doing nothing but indulging a familiar habit—hoping to “shroud conflict in soft language and shape his thoughts by hearing how they sounded out loud,” as Stephanopoulos later put it.

But when Clinton saw the story in cold type, he was convinced it had been a deliberate distortion. He said as much at the news conference. “Nobody asked me about the normalization of relations,” he snapped impatiently. However, any reader of the Times that morning could see from the interview transcript that Clinton had been asked precisely that, twice. What did he gain by denying the obvious?

He tried the same on Haiti. There was no joy in reversing a policy that was proving untenable, nor was there dishonor in a forthright acknowledgment of change. Yet Clinton insisted that he was not reversing anything. His earlier statements offering asylum, he maintained, had hinged on a distinction between political refugees, who were entitled to stay in the United States, and economic refugees, who were not. “Sometimes people hear only half the message,” he complained.

There was something to this. Reporters covering Clinton were learning to listen for the escape hatches and qualifiers incorporated, as if by subconscious instinct, into his language—placed there as insurance to preserve flexibility for later. This time he had not preserved quite enough: The previous spring he had said quite clearly that all Haitian boat people should be regarded as political refugees and given temporary asylum, absent “clear and compelling evidence” to the contrary.

The news conference continued in this peevish spirit—both the questions and the answers freighted with a suspicion bordering on contempt. A reporter noted the rumblings that Clinton was giving up plans for a middle-class tax cut and asked if there were any campaign promises that people could regard as “ironclad.” During the New Hampshire primary, Clinton’s ads said his economic program “starts with a middle-class tax cut.” Now, he said: “From New Hampshire forward, for reasons that absolutely mystified me, the press thought the most important issue in the race was the middle-class tax cut. I never did meet any voter who thought that.” A reporter asked when Clinton’s economic program would be ready, since he had once pledged to present it to Congress the day after he was inaugurated. “Well, I don’t know who led you to believe that, but I’m the only one who’s authorized to talk about that,” he replied.

What’s with those guys? Clinton fumed after he had left the podium. The session had been an exercise in mutual incomprehension, setting the tone for the contentious relationship between president and press that was to follow. Clinton saw himself as a large man pursuing large purpose amid reporters fixed on small details solely for the purpose of causing him harm. Many reporters saw Clinton as someone whose every word needed to be vetted, who possibly could not distinguish truth from evasion even in his own mind. The problem for Clinton was that the media’s perception was taking hold in larger circles. On the day of the news conference, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York was grilling Donna Shalala, Clinton’s designee to head the Department of Health and Human Services. For a quarter century Moynihan had been a towering figure in the nation’s political and intellectual life, and, as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he was also one of the figures determining the fate of the new president’s legislative program. He was concerned about the apparently low priority being given to welfare reform by the new team, an item of first importance to him. “This week,” he observed archly, “has been rather the clatter of campaign promises being tossed out the window.”

Far from enjoying the traditional honeymoon, Clinton and the Washington political class were quarreling like a couple who would have split up years ago except for the kids. He needed somehow to hit the reset button. On January 16, Clinton left his old home for his new one, hoping that the inauguration would lift the cloud of negativity over what by his lights should have been an uplifting moment in the American story.

The cloud did lift, for a time. The inaugural festivities were handled, as usual for the Clinton team, with a keen instinct for symbolism and showmanship, which, as usual, threatened occasionally to go over the top. The co-chairmen of the inaugural committee were Clinton friends and Hollywood producers Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who at the time were among television’s hottest hands as producers of two hit shows, Designing Women and Evening Shade. The trip to Washington, it was decided, would be by way of Charlottesville, Virginia, where Clinton began his inaugural festivities at Monticello. Clinton and his people liked to invoke a mystical connection between the nation’s third president and its forty-second, owing partly to the trivial fact that Clinton’s middle name was Jefferson. More consequentially, Clinton believed that his election in 1992 was in keeping with Jefferson’s admonition that in American democracy, each generation needed to revive its revolutionary impulse. After a roundtable with schoolchildren at Monticello, where Clinton allowed that if Jefferson were alive in 1993 “I would appoint him secretary of education,” the Clintons and Gores drove north. They traveled by motor coach, hoping to summon anew the ebullient spirit of the previous summer’s bus tours, bound for Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial.

The Jefferson and Lincoln imagery was intended to serve “as bookends,” as inaugural director Rahm Emanuel put it, for the day of Clinton’s Washington arrival. Clinton’s invocation of predecessors, a constant practice during his presidency, was an often precarious balance between admirable and excessive. He was a genuine student of his office, and there may never have been an occupant of the White House with such a reverent understanding of who had lived there before. But there was something needy, even vainglorious, about Clinton’s perpetual historical references. Citing the greatness of predecessors seemed a way of saying, I someday also will live in history as a great man. The predecessor who lived largest in the Clinton imagination—and whose legacy infused the Clinton inaugural—was not Jefferson or Lincoln but a leader of more recent vintage: John F. Kennedy.

The JFK mythology—interwoven cords of idealism and glamour, of power and sexuality—was a natural draw for Clinton, and it had been the Kennedy example more than any other that had defined his political sensibility. Accordingly, JFK’s ghost hovered over the entire week. At a concert at the Lincoln Memorial upon his arrival in Washington, giant video screens played the Kennedy inaugural address in 1961; Clinton stared in wonderment and mouthed the words. A person reading nothing but the concert program would have known that a Democrat had won the election, and a baby boomer as well. Among a constellation of major talent was Bob Dylan, the bard of Clinton’s generation, who rasped a barely intelligible version of “Chimes of Freedom.” Aretha Franklin was in better form as she belted out “Respect.” And Michael Jackson, not yet terminally eccentric in 1993, appeared at the finale to join in “We Are the World.” On January 19, his last day as a private citizen, Clinton joined Edward Kennedy and others from the Kennedy clan for a pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery, where the president-elect placed a white rose beside the gravestones of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. Most of all, Clinton wanted Kennedy’s spirit to animate the main event, the inaugural address he would give the next day.

January 20, 1993, broke with brilliant blue skies and, with temperatures in the low forties, a crisp but tolerable bite in the air. Kennedy, Clinton believed, had delivered the last truly superior inaugural address. The theme of that address had been the synergy between generational and political change—“the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”—and Clinton wanted this to be the keynote of his. The speech he would deliver at the Capitol that morning had been a work in progress for several weeks. It had been, quite characteristically, a community effort. (He would begin the drafting of major speeches by throwing out, somewhat randomly, ideas and phrases.) For the inaugural, he wanted to talk about “a re-creation, a renewal,” he told the collection of young aides gathered around him. He tried on lines for size: “We have changed the guard, and now each in our own way we must answer the call. . . . We have to march to the music of time but ours is a timeless mission.” The real work of composition, however, would begin only after someone, or usually several people—staff, friends, and all manner of out- side acquaintances—tried putting words on paper and then gave Clinton the chance to tear the work to shreds. Michael Waldman, who worked on the inaugural address and later became chief White House speechwriter, observed that Clinton “decided how to act by reacting—to our drafts, to the urgings of others. He often found his organizing principles by dissecting contrary advice.”

The committee approach often served Clinton well as he was groping for the right policy option, but it was not well suited for rhetorical composition. The address was a collection of lyrical phrases, some of them tinged purple. Clinton’s college friend, novelist Tommy Caplan, contributed the line, “Anyone who has ever watched a child’s eyes wander into sleep knows what posterity is.” Another suggestion came from beyond the grave. The Reverend Timothy Healy, former president of Georgetown University, had been working on suggestions for Clinton when he died just before the new year. An image he offered landed at the top of Clinton’s speech: “This ceremony is held in the depth of winter. But, by the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring.” It was a vivid, if complicated, metaphor that underscored the larger weakness of this speech, and most others when Clinton reached for oratorical heights: Lyricism simply was not his natural voice. He soared when he threw away text and spoke improvisationally, as at a late-night rally or from a pulpit.

Clinton was still working until 4:30 a.m., his swearing-in less than eight hours away. The president-elect had returned from a formal ball to his temporary quarters at Blair House, across the street from the White House, and huddled with aides around the teleprompter that contained his speech. He still did not like it, and he kept finessing the lines while speechwriters typed new language into the text. Vice President–elect Gore tried to help, but his contribution was modest. Unlike Clinton, Gore was not wired for late-night work, and he kept nodding off, head slouching on his chest. The speech finally came together in passable form as time ran out, just as Clinton’s speeches always managed to do. The best line was the one that most reflected his essentially optimistic nature: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” Meanwhile, much of the news media coverage focused on Clinton’s admonition to Washington: “This beautiful capital, like every capital since the dawn of civilization, is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here. . . . Let us resolve to reform our politics, so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people.”

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