The Survivor, Bill Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris

President #42, C-SPAN Historians ranking #15

It is what it is if you ask me

clintonsurvivorI wasn’t overly excited about reading a book about Bill Clinton for many reasons.

First, people who read this blog already know Bill Clinton. It’s not like I can find anything new or interesting to say that hasn’t already been said.

Second, I’ve never found Bill Clinton all that interesting. It’s similar to the way I feel about people who want to go on vacation to San Diego. I tell those people, “In theory, San Diego should be interesting, but it isn’t.”

Third, it was hard to find anything resembling an impartial biography of Bill Clinton.  (When it comes to partisanship, Bill Clinton brings out in everybody it seems.) The book I picked was written by a Washington Post national reporter, who covered the White House for nearly all eight years of Clinton’s Administration. And while the book is well written, it is not really a biography. It’s more a story of how a guy from Arkansas tried to fit in with the Washington establishment.

Harris devotes over 400 pages to the ins and outs of the eight years of the Clinton White House. But Harris isn’t analyzing Clinton’s place in history, but mainly recounting how the seemingly unending series of crises unfolded. Very little time is spent on Clinton’s life prior to assuming the Presidency, even though those years would prove to be very important to what happened during the eight years in the White House.

Bill Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946 in Hope, Arkansas. And as most of us know from hearing or reading about his life story, Clinton’s father, William Blythe Jr., died before he was born in an automobile accident. His mother, Virginia, would later marry a man named Roger Clinton, and young Bill would assume that last name. (Clinton and Gerald Ford are the only two Presidents who have changed surnames during their life. Gerald Ford was born Leslie King.) Roger Clinton was an alcoholic and prone to violence, and young Bill was eager to get away.

Fortunately, Bill Clinton was an excellent student. He was able to gain entrance to Georgetown University, and then a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. Upon his return from England, Clinton entered Yale Law School, where he eventually met his future wife, Hillary Rodham.

Clinton would move back to Arkansas and get elected Attorney General at the age of 30. Two years later, he was elected Governor. Two years after that, Clinton lost his bid for re-election. Two years after that, Clinton figured out how to stay elected, winning four more elections. (In 1984, the term of office was extended to four years. Subsequently, Arkansas has limited its governors to two terms.)

Some thought Clinton would run for President in 1988, but he decided against it. Instead, he opted to give the nominating speech for Michael Dukakis. There went two hours of my life I wanted back.

In 1991, Clinton decided to run against incumbent George H.W. Bush. Clinton was the leader of the wing of the Democratic Party referred to as “New Democrats.” This wing, which preferred the term Democratic Leadership Council, was supposed to bring the Democratic Party closer to the center.

Clinton weathered a campaign marked by accusations of marital infidelities and questions over the fitness of the governor of a small state to run the United States. H. Ross Perot mounted a spirited third party campaign.

Perot was able to siphon enough votes away from Bush to allow Clinton to win the election comfortably. However, Clinton ended up with just 43% of the popular vote. Many of his opponents would remind him that 57% of the voters wanted someone else to be President.

Unfortunately for Clinton, he didn’t seem to get the message that he didn’t have deep support. His administration hit the ground stumbling. There were tussles over gays in the military, his Attorney General nominee (Zoe Baird, who withdrew after a disclosure that she had employed an illegal alien as a nanny), replacing the staff in the White House Travel Office, and also making other planes wait for him at LAX while he was getting a haircut. Deputy White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide, either from the stress of the job or severe depression. (Or some combination of the two. Or he was murdered. Take your pick.)

Amidst all this, Clinton tried to get his economic plan passed by Congress. Since it contained some new taxes, Republicans refused to support it. The plan passed narrowly in the House on party lines, and it only passed in the Senate because Vice President Al Gore was available to break a tie.

Clinton also promised to reform health care. Hillary Clinton was put in charge of the project. Clinton demanded that any plan guarantee universal health care. The plan came out of the project supposedly did that, but it ran into fierce opposition from just about everyone. And that included “Harry and Louise.”

The health care plan got nowhere. Much of what Clinton tried to do in his first two years in office went nowhere. His foreign policy initiative in Bosnia went nowhere. Clinton was helpless in the face of a genocide in Rwanda. U.S. troops tried to intervene in Somalia, but suffered some horrific losses.

Unsurprisingly, in the midterm elections, the Democrats were massacred. They lost control of both houses of Congress. Bill Clinton would now face another nemesis, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

At this time, Clinton made a fateful change in strategy. He called an old adviser, Dick Morris, for assistance. Clinton kept this secret from nearly everyone on his staff. Most Democrats disliked Morris. That was because Morris usually worked for Republican candidates. But Clinton had a strange kinship with Morris and trusted him.

Morris was able to get Clinton to shift his policies rightward. Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that appalled many Democrats, but it proved to be hugely important in presenting Clinton to the public as a leader who could get things done.

In 1995, the Republicans tried to get Clinton to agree to their budget deficit reduction plan by threatening to shut down the government. Clinton called the bluff of the Republicans. Clinton bet that while people didn’t like the Federal Government in the abstract, they liked individual things that the Government did. People liked their Social Security checks and weather forecasts. The Republicans ended up backing down and compromised on a budget reduction plan.

All the while, a new scandal was brewing. It was called Whitewater. I believe five people fully understand what the Whitewater scandal truly was about.  It involved the Clintons and their involvement in a failed real estate development called Whitewater back in Arkansas.  There were bribes, embezzlement, and some connection to the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s. Clinton appointed a special prosecutor to look into the matter, feeling that it would be the best way to clear his name.  Originally, this special prosecutor was Robert Fiske, but he would later be replaced by Kenneth Starr. This investigation would take several years, and turn into something much different. (Ultimately, Clinton would not be found guilty of any one particular crime directly connected to Whitewater.)

Clinton faced off against Kansas senator Bob Dole in 1996 and it wasn’t much of a contest. Clinton won despite having to cut ties with Morris before the election after it had been discovered that Morris was letting a prostitute listen in on phone conversations he had with Clinton. Perot ran again and he won enough votes to keep Clinton below 50%.

In his second term, Clinton first faced a crisis over his acceptance of campaign contributions from foreign nationals, which is prohibited by Federal law. Some believed that the contributions, mostly from China, were compromising the security of the nation. However, this dust-up seemed to fade away with little effect on Clinton.

But, the Whitewater investigation was starting to take a turn for the worse for Clinton.

One of the many problems Clinton faced was a civil suit for sexual harassment by an Arkansas woman named Paula Jones. (This was also known as Troopergate.) Clinton’s attorneys offered to settle the case for $750,000. Jones’ attorneys thought “Hey, that’s a good deal.” But, Jones turned down the offer. So, her attorneys quit the case. A conservative legal group called the Rutherford Institute took over the case. And, they knew stuff.

In particular, Jones’ new attorneys knew that Clinton had been carrying on a sexual affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was called in to give a deposition about his relationship with Lewinsky. Clinton, in very legalistic terms, denied the affair. He also denied helping Lewinsky find a job outside the White House.

The problem with this was that: 1) Clinton had had a sexual affair with Lewinsky and 2) he had helped (through his friend Vernon Jordan) Lewinsky find another job. Clinton also had coached his secretary, Bettie Currie, into saying that Lewinsky was just coming to the Oval Office to visit her, not the President.

Kenneth Starr was now aware of this evidence. A White House staffer named Linda Tripp had provided evidence, in the form of a semen-stained dress, that the President had had sex with Lewinsky. Starr viewed Clinton’s earlier testimony as perjury. Skipping ahead, this charge of perjury went to Congress. The Republicans, out for blood, decided that this was an impeachable offense. The House voted in favor of two articles of impeachment (perjury and obstruction of justice), which passed mostly along on party lines. But, to convict Clinton, the Republicans would have to get a 2/3 vote in the Senate. The votes weren’t close, 50-50 for perjury, and 55-45 against on the obstruction of justice charge. (Jones’ case was dismissed, but Clinton did pay her a settlement.)

With the impeachment crisis over, Clinton was able to have a productive final two years in office. Clinton spent much of his time concentrating on foreign affairs, dealing with Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and the West Bank. Clinton also discovered that America had an enemy by the name of Osama bin Laden. (And at this point, you can decide for yourself if you think Clinton did enough to stop bin Laden.)

Clinton hoped that Gore would succeed him in the White House, but was disappointed that the Vice President never asked him to campaign for him. Gore would later tell Clinton that he had to distance himself from the sex scandals. Clinton told Gore that if he ran on Clinton’s record, he would have won. Of course, Gore sort of won. Except he didn’t win the votes in the right places, so he lost.

Amidst all this, you might ask, (I certainly did), what did Bill Clinton do that made him so popular? Beats me. OK, maybe I have some ideas.

It did help that the economy grew during Clinton’s eight years in office. Clinton also managed to tame the budget deficit and left office with a $559 billion surplus. (You can argue amongst yourselves if there really was a surplus or if it was just accounting chicanery.)

It’s hard not to like a President when things are going well. As one of Clinton’s campaign advisers, James Carville, said during the 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Or is it a stupid economy?

Would I recommend Baker’s book? To be honest, no I wouldn’t. But I’m also a guy who doesn’t like to visit San Diego. It’s just not my thing.

Other stuff: In case you didn’t know, Bill Clinton’s wife, Hillary, was a United States Senator from New York. And she almost became President. But now she’s the Secretary of State. Just checking to see if you’re paying attention.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library is in Little Rock, Arkansas.

If you saw this on your RSS feed earlier, that was a mishap on my part. I was hurrying to get this done and clicked “publish” too early. I likely have a lot of typos. I will try to fix them as I go along. I beg your indulgence. This was just not a post I enjoyed writing much. Sorry, I’ll try to do better with the next one. But that won’t be for a few more weeks as I’m going on vacation soon. And not to San Diego.

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