No. 42: the image and the flip sides

Success, scandal, and 'loading his plate a little higher at life's buffet'

It is called "The Survivor," but this history of the Clinton presidency by Washington Post political reporter John F. Harris could just as easily have been called "The Roller Coaster." If it had seemed improbable at the time that the governor of Arkansas could become a two-term president of the United States, it seems equally improbable in the retelling. In vivid detail, Harris leads us through the ups and downs of a presidency that seemed to end soon after it began, only to adapt and at times soar in the face of adversity.

For every negative characterization of Clinton's management style - see "tardiness, tantrums, turmoil among his staff" - Harris offers the flip side: a president bursting with restless energy, generous of spirit, and entertaining to watch, "always loading his plate a little higher at life's buffet." Harris also presents plenty of evidence to belie the notion that the president slavishly followed the lead of opinion polls. When Clinton pushed for deficit reduction, propped up the Mexican peso, and intervened in the Kosovo crisis, he did so despite a wary public.

At the same time, Harris recounts, Clinton seemed especially adept at taking divisive social issues, such as school prayer and affirmative action, and threading the proverbial needle, so as to give most Americans a feeling that he understood their point of view - even if he wasn't doing exactly what they wanted.

Behind the scenes, of course, Clinton flirted with self-destruction as he carried on a sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and nearly lost it all, both office and family. Overcoming the shame and public mendacity that episode brought - culminating in impeachment but not conviction - represents the ultimate example of Clinton as survivor.

Harris took on a gargantuan task - assessing a presidency that has already been analyzed from many perspectives, including those of Bill and Hillary Clinton in their memoirs. Harris covered the Clinton White House from 1995 to 2001, and then interviewed many key players again for this book, though apparently not the Clintons themselves. He presents a balanced picture, at times giving Clinton the benefit of the doubt, but with enough facts to let readers draw their own conclusions. In a few places, he includes some questionable points of gossip.

Most compelling is Harris's analysis of the relationships and behind-the-scenes details that add flesh and nuance - or even contradiction - to real-time news accounts.

Most important is Mrs. Clinton, now a potential presidential candidate. After Harris's early assessments of Hillary, her eventual emergence as a major Democratic figure in her own right would seem improbable. She is portrayed as peevish and imperious, demanding, for example, that Madeleine Albright be named secretary of State and leading her husband to costly political failure with her plan for healthcare reform. By the end of the book, she gets credit for learning a thing or two: "After eight years in Washington, she had become ever alert to the perils of overreach."

Al Gore fares less well. Harris seems to agree with the Clintons' view that Vice President Gore has no one but himself to blame for losing the 2000 election, given the time of peace and prosperity.

Back in the larger-than-life column sits Dick Morris, the political guru credited with rescuing Clinton in time for him to win reelection easily - but a man so divisive that his role sat hidden for months. "Their collaboration carried an aroma of prostitution - a relationship that was thoroughly transactional, at once intimate and impersonal, driven by mutual need with an overlay of shame," Harris writes artfully.

In these highly partisan times, Clinton-haters will likely find Harris's even-toned take unsatisfying. But as the jockeying begins for the 2008 presidential race, there's much to be learned from the story of a man who won the presidency twice, even if he never quite cracked the 50 percent mark at the ballot box.

Linda Feldmann is a staff writer in Washington.

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