The modern Democratic Party, like New York itself, came into its
own around the time of the Erie Canal. Since then, a total of four men have
been elected to consecutive Presidential terms from what is truly the grand old
party: Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William
Jefferson Clinton. It’s time to measure the latter’s accomplishment, and more
than a few chroniclers are ready to belly up to the trough of records now
stored in a former Oldsmobile dealership in Little Rock.
True, the battle scars of the
1990’s are still fresh. But at the same time, a sepia bath of nostalgia colors
memories of the Age of Clinton, that premillennial landscape when September was
a month like any other and Enron was just a lousy name for a ballpark. The Natural , Joe Klein’s contribution to
the load of journalistic and scholarly pontification, brings the heft of The New Yorker and the author’s own long
experience with Bill Clinton, from their first dizzying conversations as fellow
policy wonks in the 80’s to the 1992 campaign to, well, everything . Mr. Klein was one of the earliest reporters to promote
Mr. Clinton’s candidacy, and he was no less prominent as a Clinton critic from
1994 onward. Few will need to be reminded that he became a story in his own
right through the oldest Washington trick in the book: writing a political
novel that he claimed not to have written-based, of course, on Mr. Clinton.
Joe Klein is no longer
Anonymous, but he’s still trying out new voices, and now dons the historian’s
mantle. From the sober past tense of the book to the cover illustration of Mr.
Clinton’s profile, in Roman repose on a coin ( that should send right-wingers to the bughouse), it’s clear that
Mr. Klein aspires to a grander purpose than merely recording Mr. Clinton’s ups
and downs over 2,920 days. Clio is whispering in his ear, and he wants nothing
less than to render a verdict. (What to make, then, of Joe Ellis’ curious
blurb: “When they talk about the first draft of history, this is the epitome of
what they mean”?) For all these reasons, this book is heavier than its 230
pages would suggest.
The news hook will be that The Natural tilts back toward the
approval Mr. Klein felt when he was first swept off his feet by the Man from
Hope. He’s persuasive about the varied achievements of what he calls “a
serious, disciplined, responsible presidency.” This argument first surfaced in
one of Mr. Klein’s New Yorker pieces,
but it’s fuller here. As he lists hundreds of piecemeal Clinton contributions,
you feel like an archaeologist watching a lost Mayan city reassembled before
Mr. Klein also succeeds in giving much-needed context to Bill
Clinton’s rise. He explains clearly, and from personal experience, what a
cramped intellectual space the Democrats occupied in the 1980’s, and how
candidate Clinton’s new ideas and energy electrified the faithful. He also
offers a compelling genealogy of hatred throughout what he calls “The Era of Bad Feelings,” the long twilight of
civility from Watergate through John Tower and Clarence Thomas to Whitewater,
Lewinsky, impeachment, Florida and beyond. The firewall of anger the right
built around itself would have been difficult for any Democrat to penetrate, much
less Bill Clinton, who excited more paranoia than any American since Martin
Luther King Jr.
Given the bipartisan bickering, it comes as no surprise to reread
about the stink bombs that exploded early and often during the first term. Mr.
Klein spares none of the principal actors, excoriating the new President and
First Lady for personal and political misjudgments (Dick Morris skulks through
these pages as a “mortal jerk”), but seeing in Newt Gingrich and his intifada a
darker threat to the republic.
Yet the book falters at that crucial moment, as it enters the
hilly terrain of the second term-which Mr. Klein does not even get to until
he’s nearly out of space. This is a recurring problem in the commentariat,
caused in part by the first-term staffers whose self-promoting memoirs created
a glut of Clinton works on the years 1992-95. It’s as if all the Reagan books
ended in 1983. (In retrospect, that wouldn’t be so bad.)
Foreign policy suffers as
well. Mr. Klein is in his element when discussing, say, the Earned Income Tax
Credit, but if you seek a cogent explanation of the Balkans, you might as well
hop a plane to Pristina. There’s no mention of the Good Friday Accord, or
Africa, or North Korea, which was moving loopily toward normal relations with
its neighbors before its recent promotion into the axis of evil. On Kosovo, Mr.
Klein falls into lame Wag the Dog
scenarios, as if central casting had invented the hundreds of thousands of
refugees who were fleeing for their lives in the spring of 1999. He’s shaky on
the Middle East, too, ignoring eight years of painstaking progress, then
curiously blaming Mr. Clinton for the current violence (as Ari Fleischer recently tried to do, before
issuing a rare retraction). And he lapses into a lazy, hindsighted jeremiad on
terrorism, faulting Mr. Clinton for his 1998 attack against Osama bin Laden (as
so many Republicans did at the time), then claiming that Mr. Clinton did little
to fight this invisible scourge. In fact, he did far more than any previous
President, though Congress made it difficult, and massive public indifference
made it harder still.
Part of the problem, as far
as I can tell, is that Joe Klein hasn’t come to terms with his decision to be
impressed by Bill Clinton again. His internal gyroscope is still wobbling.
True, no one would expect Mr. Klein suddenly to go all gushy, and the book
would be implausible if he did. Though he’s saying nice things about Mr.
Clinton, he’s also finishing a lot of his thoughts by wondering if he believes
them. Take this sentence: “He remains the most compelling politician of his
generation, although that isn’t saying very much.” It’s like he’s driving with
the brakes on. That’s O.K. in a beat reporter, who’s reshaping his opinion, if
he has one, from week to week-but it’s distracting when a historian
turns into a giant mood ring, flashing pink
when he approves, and then blue again when he does not. Like other journalists
coeval with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Klein frets about his generation, worried that it
was somehow on trial with Mr. Clinton. That’s too self-reflective for my taste.
No Presidency belongs to a single cohort.
Still, The Natural is an important step forward for Clinton literature-a
new covenant, if you will. Crisp writing and vivid images enliven every
section. We see candidate Clinton, bowling in his socks with Mr. Klein late at
night in Manchester, N.H., on the night of the primary. We overhear him telling
Mr. Klein that he’s already read the galleys of a book that Mr. Klein has only
heard about. We watch him, time and time again, making brave decisions against
the logic of popularity that lead to real improvements in the world-the 1993
budget that started the boom by creating fiscal discipline (remember that?),
the crime bill, the Mexican peso bailout, welfare and so on. As these stories
pile up, undergirded by dazzling statistics, Mr. Klein uncovers the truth that
lies at the heart of this book-that over eight years, Mr. Clinton’s thousands
of actions, real and symbolic, accreted into a meaningful whole.
Thoreau said history was
“merely a story agreed upon by posterity.” The full story of the 1990’s will
take some time to emerge, and it will be even longer before posterity agrees to
it. But to see that vanished time as an era in its own right is a healthy
start, and helps us to understand the very different time and nation we now
Ted Widmer, author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New
York City ( Oxford University Press), was
a special assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton.