'Bill Clinton' is a balanced assessment of the 42nd president’s tenure

'Bill Clinton,' like the rest of the excellent 'American Presidents' series, offers a quick sketch of early life and career, and then a thoughtful overview of time in office. 

Bill Clinton: The American Presidents Series, The 42nd President, 1993-2001 By Michael Tomasky Times Books/Henry Holt and Company 208 pp.

Remember way back in November when many pundits and plenty of Democrats and Republicans alike expected this month to mark the start of a second Clinton presidency? The publishers of "The American Presidents" series probably did, too, since the latest entry, on Bill Clinton, arrived just after Inauguration Day.

But instead of former First Lady Hillary Clinton breaking the glass ceiling on her way to the White House, she and Bill are instead at home in Chappaqua, N.Y., trying to figure out how Donald Trump won the election and the presidency.

Michael Tomasky’s biography, Bill Clinton, like the rest of this long-running series, is a brisk life story mostly concerned with a quick sketch of early life and career followed by a concise overview and assessment of the 42nd president’s time in office.

Tomasky is a columnist at The Daily Beast and a longtime contributor to various publications who is known for his liberal bent. Even so, he offers a balanced portrait of Clinton, praising him for political instinct and a centrist approach that revived Democrats while criticizing a lack of self-control that almost cost Clinton his family and his presidency. Tomasky points out Clinton’s policy missteps, including criminal justice laws and welfare reform programs later condemned within his own party as excessive, along with the mixed bag of the NAFTA trade agreement. Of the latter, Tomasky writes that the agreement “opened up an intraparty debate that continues to raise blood pressures on both sides of the argument.”

In general, books in this series aim for an even-handed approach and a thoughtful appraisal of each president’s tenure. Tomasky succeeds on all counts, touching on Clinton’s rough-and-tumble childhood and personal character shaped as much by “the saucier town of Hot Springs” as the campaign gloss of “a place called Hope” in his native Arkansas.

For the many who remember Clinton’s terms spanning 1993 to 2001 as a yin-yang of booming prosperity and personal scandal, Tomasky’s biography serves, in part, as a reminder of just how improbable his election was.

In 1991, as the 1992 campaign got going, incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush enjoyed an approval rating of 64%. The GOP had won three straight presidential elections, prompting some experts to wonder whether a Democrat could win the presidency again any time soon. Bush, to many, looked like a shoo-in for a second term.

Voters viewed Democrats as soft on crime and defense, far too liberal on social issues, and less capable of managing the economy than Republicans, Tomasky writes.

Then, too, for Clinton, the odds were made even longer by his lack of national recognition beyond a disastrous, snore-inducing speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and a cast of better-known former and current senators and governors looked like much stronger candidates than an anonymous Arkansas governor.

But as everyone soon found out, Clinton proved to be an especially gifted politician, intellectual and public speaker, though he constantly repeated a pattern of digging himself holes before climbing out bloodied but mostly intact. Thus “The Comeback Kid” of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, who overcame the first but hardly the last of his infamous marital scandals to remain alive and relevant in a Democratic nomination race he ultimately won.

Clinton defeated Bush and independent Ross Perot in the general election — and, as Tomasky chronicles – went on to preside over a roaring economy while learning foreign policy on the job and battling an endless but often vastly overblown tide of scandal allegations.

First-term blunders such as Hillary Clinton’s attempt to overhaul health care (sound familiar?) and the crushing “Contract with America” midterm elections commingle with Tomasky’s mention of a decision by Clinton in 1994 to sign a new independent counsel law despite deep misgivings.

Former Clinton aide Vince Foster’s suicide and the obsession over an obscure, failed land deal called Whitewater from the Clintons’ Arkansas years soon morphed into what became a cottage industry of scandalmongering among conservative personalities and commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. In other instances, financiers such as the late Richard Mellon Scaife paid for relentless investigations by various groups and outlets to keep digging for evidence of misdeeds, no matter how obscure.

Tomasky presents the dreadful, hurtful affair between Clinton and a young White House staffer named Monica Lewinsky with a proper mix of disdain for the blatant stupidity of liaisons in the Oval Office — and even greater dismay over the independent counsel’s five-year slog to compile an at times lewd 450-page report on an affair that had nothing to do with land deals, constitutional threats, or an impeachable offense.

The first independent counsel, Robert Fiske, was nearing the end of his investigation when a judicial panel replaced him with Ken Starr, a far more partisan choice. Starr’s zealous, failed pursuit of the Whitewater scandal or Clinton influence in Foster’s suicide devolved into months of federal inquiries into Clinton’s alleged sexual assault against Paula Jones when he was governor and the Lewinsky revelations.

(Clinton paid Jones $850,000 to settle out of court. Starr, who went on to run Baylor University, was demoted in May 2016 following a sexual assault scandal that engulfed the school’s football team and led to the end of Starr's tenure as university president and later his resignation of his teaching position at the school.)

Tomasky points to Starr’s dubious tactics and the dumb-luck twist of the screwball characters, including Linda Tripp, a former Bush White House aide shunted off to the Pentagon when Clinton took office, and literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, haphazardly hatching plans to bring down Clinton after Lewinsky confided in Tripp when they became co-workers.

Clinton survived the storm, salvaged his marriage, and left office a popular president, albeit one still dogged by self-inflicted wounds, such as pardoning the tax fugitive Marc Rich as he left office and later forming chummy international ties between the Clinton Foundation and foreign governments of questionable character.

As Tomasky makes clear, Clinton’s presidency succeeded in many respects. He balanced the budget thanks to a 1993 tax bill (and the elder Bush’s self-defeating but courageous earlier shift on taxes), outwitted House Speaker Newt Gingrich by calling his bluff on government shutdowns, and finally managed to bring peace to the Balkans thanks to diplomat Richard Holbrooke. He learned painful lessons with the deaths of 18 American soldiers in Somalia in 1993 (as part of a relief and nation-building mission started by Bush) as well as the steep costs of ignoring crises, as the genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda proved in 1994.

Clinton's near misses on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement late in his second term and his eloquence after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings show the 42nd president at his shrewdest and most empathetic.

Speaking to mourners in Oklahoma, the president said, “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”

As for his New York years and a new round of analysis of his wife taking center stage as Secretary of State and, last year, the Democratic nominee, well, those are different books altogether. Here, Tomasky has done his narrowly focused job and done it well.

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