Book: The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton
Author: Joe Klein
NOTE: I had planned on reading When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan as my next book but left it at work over the weekend. As a result I read this book by Bill Clinton. The Reagan book will be next
This is the first book I have read in my US Presidents series where I can remember many of the details of the presidency in a first person account. Bill Clinton WAS the 1990’s and his influence and scandal are part of my memories of that period. To his credit, Klein does not dwell on the tawdry scandals of the Clinton presidency, but does reveal how the White House staff reacted to the challenges of the period.
In a matter of full disclosure I did vote for Bill Clinton and admire his skills as a politician. Klein does an excellent job of revealing the good and bad of Clinton and his staff. The old adage of “peeking behind the curtain” certainly resonates in this book.
Clinton came into office with one of the most disorganized staffs and vision of any modern day presidents. By bringing in the Arkansas cronies, he did show he did not want to be part of the beltway establishment but it hindered him in developing the relationships and nuances needed to get things done in Washington. Klein reveals that many times the White looked like a frat house full of old pizza boxes from the all night sessions of the young staff.
He did not rectify this in any way until he brought in David Gergen to gain some kind of order but that was met with territorial hostility from the First Lady and George Stephanopoulos. Like many administrations, there were many territorial people.
Clinton’s Presidency was strong domestically but extremely weak in foreign policy. The mantra of James Carville, “It’s the economy stupid”, carried over in the oval office. Warren Christopher was characterized as being in over his head on foreign policy and Clinton’s focus was not on what was going on abroad until he was made to react, i.e. Bosnia, USS Cole.
Clinton is referred to as a “Third Way” President. He is not a traditional liberal Democrat and not a conservative Republican; he was taking a completely different path from the regular party line, which allowed him success on many different issues. Welfare Reform was on example of that. Not a Democratic issue but one he was behind. You can Barack Obama attempting that same path today.
Klein has great insight in the rise and fall of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich looked at a moderate as an enemy regardless of party. This attitude continues today and working across the aisle was and still is considered a sign of weakness. Gingrich was brash and extremely intelligent but looked at government through ideological glasses and not practical ones. It can be argued that Clinton’s successful programs came as about as a result of having to work with a GOP congress and that is a valid assessment. Gingrich was certainly instrumental in the Clinton administration.
Finally, the Lewinsky affair was detailed. The White House staff was angry with Clinton for doing something so silly that caused such great damage to his legacy. Up until that point Kenneth Starr had turned up nothing of magnitude on Clinton and this incident gave him a gift-wrapped package.
The books end with a great line that I will quote: “He (Clinton) may be remembe4red as the President who served before history resumed its contentious dance, before life got serious again.”
This was a fast quick read and extremely enjoyable. Klein gives you just enough so that you can understand yet does not bog us down in excruciating detail that many Presidential historians tend to do. This book makes me want to read more about Bill Clinton and that is precisely the point.