The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Bill Clinton

Nov. 8, 1994.

In the roller-coaster ride that has been the Clinton presidency, that date - the day the Republican Party seized control of Congress in a nationwide election rout - has to rank as the lowest of the lows.

Everything President Clinton had tried to do during his first two years, from allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military to reforming the nation's health-care system, was seemingly rejected by the voters. His presidency lay in a shambles. Republican revolutionaries had seized the momentum.

By April 18 1995, he was publicly pleading that he was "relevant."

But the very next day, an extraordinary and awful moment in American history - the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City - changed the course of Mr. Clinton's presidency.

"It was the turning point," says senior adviser George Stephanopoulos. "Oklahoma City crystallized the president's role as chief of state and chief of government, and brought to bear the royalty of his position."

Just as President Reagan pulled the nation together after the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, so Clinton took on a presidential stature - for the first time, some aides say - as he led the national day of mourning and then sought to channel the anger toward action with his call for new antiterrorism laws.

But if Oklahoma City was a defining moment in Bill Clinton's evolution as president, it is but one outward manifestation of how, after a series of stumbles and with a dose of good fortune, he has fashioned a presidency that a majority of Americans see as workable and poised himself for reelection.

How did Clinton salvage his presidency? Has he truly matured into a leader with a coherent vision, or, as one of the century's legendary political operators, has he just mastered the art of positioning? Observers of Washington are deeply divided.

"Let's face it, nobody's prepared for the presidency," says deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, standing beside a rumbling bus that will take the president to his next stop on a Midwestern campaign swing.

"It's an overwhelming job, and the press of business and the difficulty of the issues that come up for the president I think nobody is prepared for."

Those rough first years

Being governor of Arkansas, population 2.5 million, couldn't prepare Clinton for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In the failure of his first two years as president, Clinton had clearly repeated the mistake of his first term in Little Rock: trying to do too much.

Clinton himself has acknowledged that he overreached his limited mandate, bound by his victory in 1992 with only 43 percent of the vote. It was a mistake born of the fact that he was the first Democrat to occupy the White House in 12 years, the first of his generation to become president, and a born policy wonk eager to change America's direction in the post-New Deal, post-cold-war era.

But besides ambition, Clinton also brought to Washington lingering questions about his character - namely, the Arkansas land deal that came to be known as Whitewater and allegations of adultery and sexual harassment. He brought, too, a breezy, undisciplined management style to a White House that lacked enough experienced hands.

All these factors - plus a virulent anti-incumbent feeling across the country - led to the massacre of Nov. 8, 1994. Clinton took the Democrats' defeat personally, and he publicly accepted blame.

In certain key ways, though, Clinton had already begun to retool his White House. Back in June 1993, after a rocky first 100 days, Clinton brought in old friend David Gergen - a veteran of three Republican administrations - to improve White House communications and relations with the press.

But it was the appointment a year later of Leon Panetta, once a powerful California congressman and Clinton's budget czar, as chief of staff that made the White House begin to tick, say Clinton aides. Affable but tough, Mr. Panetta "doesn't tolerate these open-ended, on-going, never-coming-to-a-close meetings," says Mr. Ickes, one of his deputies. "Meetings with the president are 'manifested' now. Your name isn't on the list, you don't get in."

Another key White House player who took the stage midterm is Dick Morris. Now gone again after allegations of an affair with a call girl, Mr. Morris urged Clinton to distance himself from both Republicans and congressional Democrats - and to propose a steady diet of small, family-oriented initiatives.

Clinton's personal decisionmaking style also has become more focused, his allies say. "He has learned an efficiency, a discipline forced by time and events," says Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, one of the Cabinet members who attends Clinton's weekly campaign strategy sessions. What some see as a Clinton tendency to "waffle" when formulating a position, he says, is really a sign of transparency in the decisionmaking process - and of the breadth of Clinton's intellect.

"He has an ability to analyze a question in all its facets, which other people don't have the patience or the ability to do. To some, that may seem like an extended decisionmaking style. But usually he comes out in the right place, because he's taken the time to look at all the angles."

No more slovenly sweat suits

The making of a president comes slowly.

In the movie "The War Room," a documentary about Clinton's '92 campaign, the future president is shown in one scene wearing a sweatshirt, flopped on a couch looking more like a college student than a presidential nominee. Later in the film, after Clinton has won the election, Mr. Stephanopoulos comments that he'll never be just "Bill" again, it will from then on always be "Mr. President." But it would be many months, if not a couple of years, before even his own staff would see him as truly presidential.

Clinton's at-times slovenly personal style didn't help. But with time, the president set out to change that. "He eats a lot more healthy now; he also looks a lot better," says White House political director Doug Sosnik, who notes he hasn't seen Clinton drink a cup of coffee in a "long time" - not even decaf.

Clinton also set out to emulate the tone and style of Ronald Reagan, even watching videotapes of the Great Communicator, who led by setting the broad themes and letting surrogates handle the details. If Clinton spent his first two years in office talking too much in public, leading to overexposure in the media, he has learned to pull back.

But it is in the more consequential arena of policymaking that Clinton observers see the most marked evolution.

"The biggest change I guess I've seen in Bill Clinton is, when he came up here, he did not really understand the difference between being the architect of national purpose and architect of national policy, between leadership and management," says Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist think tank that Clinton helped found. "I think he understands that now."

As the new kid in town, say Mr. From and others, Clinton had to feel his way with the Democratic barons of Congress. They steered him away from taking on the Washington political system, assuring him campaign finance reform could be put aside until later. By the time Clinton understood that his job was not to be America's prime minister, though, voters had rejected Washington's status-quo leadership and overthrew Congress's 40-year Democratic majority.

As it turned out, Clinton has fared much better politically under the congressional Republicans, who gave him the political gift of their own version of overreaching, than when Congress was guided by Democrats. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his talk of revolution proved the perfect foil for a president who sought to reclaim the mantle of a right-of-center New Democrat.

Still, with the major exception of Clinton's failed health-care reform, Mr. From argues that the president's first two years successfully carried out several important New Democrat initiatives that superseded the traditional Republican and Democratic labels and have helped to reshape the nation's political consensus.

First among them is the approval of two major trade initiatives, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. These have proved to be cornerstones of a US foreign policy that emphasizes economic relations and America's position as a hub in the increasingly interconnected global economy.

Second is the crime bill, with its pledges of tougher enforcement, more gun control and street cops, and a nod to neighborhood involvement in fighting crime.

Other key efforts from the New Democrat playbook, says From, are the "reinventing government" initiative that cut about 200,000 federal jobs, the national service program, and a bigger tax break for the working poor.

From the standpoint of partisan politics, some of these initiatives have had the effect of stealing issues from the Republicans - leaving many conservatives to conclude the president is just posturing. Adding fuel to that argument was Clinton's acquiescence to a seven-year balanced budget and his decision to sign the Republican Congress's third version of welfare reform, which many traditional Democrats found too harsh to support.

Clinton acolytes say that all of the above - plus small measures the president is pitching for a second term, such as an expanded Family and Medical Leave Act to allow parents time off for duties such as parent-teacher conferences - does constitute a vision.

In his new book, "Between Hope and History," a campaign manifesto, Clinton seems to hope that sheer repetition of the word "vision" (on page 172 it's there seven times) will make readers believe that he has one.

David Mason, a presidential observer at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that while Clinton has clearly learned his way around Washington, "he's been much better at the tactical level than he is at the broader visionary level, where he tends to make mistakes." Mr. Mason highlights Clinton's failed "stimulus package" of 1993, a grab-bag of spending plans designed to "stimulate" the economy (and fulfill campaign promises), and the complicated health-care reform plan led by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, which was successfully tagged as liberal.

Beyond the vision question, though, the biggest rap on Clinton is his unpredictability. Some call it zigzagging. One day he's opposed to Congress's welfare reform because it will hurt too many children. A few weeks later, he's ready to sign a revised version of the bill, even though his own government still maintains many children will be hurt. Then without skipping a beat, he's talking about how he'll "fix" the reform if he's reelected.

With this behavior, Clinton is going against a gentlemanly tradition of how Washington works: After a hard-fought legislative battle, a president may not like everything he's just signed. But he lets it lie, at least for a while.

Not so with Clinton, who relentlessly pursues what he wants, whether it is a perfect piece of legislation or the presidency itself - which seemed to have slipped from his grasp both during his fight for the Democratic nomination in 1992 and in the Democrats' political crash of 1994. But with just a few weeks until Election '96, Clinton's never-say-die attitude appears to be paying off - again.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Bill Clinton
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today