Clinton White House In Turmoil: a Portrait

WHEN Elizabeth Drew cobbled together the developments of last summer for the epilogue of her latest political book, ``On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency,'' she did not yet know that the Democratic Party would face a stunning wipeout at the polls last fall aimed indirectly at President Clinton.

The loss of the House and Senate to the Republicans changed everything for the Clinton presidency. But Drew's detailed account of Clinton's first year and a half in office contains most of the reasons for his later comeuppance. This is the story of all the ways that the president and his aides went wrong and thwarted their own high ambitions. It is a story told largely by senior officials as they try to learn from mistakes, contain the president's lack of discipline, and avert the next disaster.

``On the Edge'' is a thorough, reportorial book. It reads at times like going through old newspaper clippings as Drew recounts well-worn events, and it will hold the interest of only avid political junkies. Most readers will find Bob Woodward's recent book, ``The Agenda,'' a more readable and dramatic peek into White House meeting rooms.

But Drew's journalism is pretty good, and she improves the clarity of how things happened - offering what seems to be a truer, more reliable account of a presidency that has never quite found its voice.

The picture here is of an incompetent White House. It is no laughable, Keystone Kops incompetence, but one of bright yet inexperienced people finding their way in a very loose and ineffective organization. Clinton appears in these pages as an unsteady president. The immense talents and drive of the man would be more apparent if Drew had written on his campaign. Instead, in situation after situation she shows him stumbling over decisions, troubled over setting clear direction, and perhaps not quite grasping his own place as president and how to use it.

As one old Clinton friend told Drew: ``He's been to Yale and was a Rhodes [scholar], but he's one generation away from Hope and Hot Springs and a father with several wives and children.''

To Drew this means that Clinton is capable of insight into the lives of working-class people, but also of hitting elitist notes like the infamous haircut on the Los Angeles airport runway - that only detract further from his presidential stature.

``On the Edge'' is full of aides, consultants, and old friends fretting over and over that the president needs to redefine himself, that the White House has lost its focus, that the message is not getting through. The last words of the book quote a top Clinton advisor: ``The President has to redefine what his Presidency is about.'' The same words could have been uttered last week.

Meanwhile, Clinton is talking so much and so casually to the public that he has lost the armor of the stature of his office. When he is on television, aides note in dismay, people in airports no longer stop to watch. He is described in the book as often losing his confidence, and of having an outsized need for personal affirmation that drives him to want to be all things to all people.

Yet Clinton does not lack core principles as is often charged, Drew argues. ``Bill Clinton was well motivated and serious about using his time in office to serious purpose. He had a sense of where he wanted to take the country ... and how he wanted to improve the lives and potential of its citizens. He reached high. He was an activist President in a cynical age.''

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