A Calm and Considered LookAt a Vast, Divisive Presidency

The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, by John F. Harris. Random House, 504 pages, $29.95.

Presidents move in the polls long after they leave office, and armchair historians can hold endless conversations about who belongs with the great, the near great and the mass of lesser mortals. Harry Truman departed the White House with abysmal ratings, but 50 years later, thanks to a series of engaging books about his colorful personality, he ranks as one of the most popular Presidents of the 20th century, revered by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Where Bill Clinton fits into the ebb and flow of history is not yet known. The very word “history” is still a bit awkward with this extraordinarily mobile man, moving across the globe at warp speed on behalf of AIDS and tsunami victims and still moving, despite 13 years of unprecedented exposure, in the hearts of the American people.

John Harris’ important new book is without doubt a sign that history, with all its plodding seriousness, is catching up to the go-go 90’s. That’s good news. For too long, since Mr. Clinton began his improbable run, this supersized American story has been distorted by extremist views, particularly from the right, which continues to wipe out forests in its zeal to publish as much defamatory material on the Clintons as it can find or fabricate.

Neither side will be entirely happy with The Survivor, which is probably just right. At the end of the day, this is a smart reflection on those mercurial years from one of Washington’s best reporters (importantly, one who came of age under Mr. Clinton). It’s scrupulously researched; it’s well-written; and, to a surprising degree, it’s calm-not an adjective we usually find in Clintonland.

I was there for many of the events Mr. Harris witnessed, perceiving them through the parallel but quite distinct lens of a speechwriter. It’s incredible how distant it all feels at times-another century, and another country as well: We were such a different nation when Mr. Clinton came to Washington that we almost need a passport to get back to it. But every now and then, I’ll discover a piece of confetti in a suit pocket and realize that parade in Accra or Sofia or Tegucigalpa really happened.

Not quite a biography, The Survivor is a comprehensive inside portrait of the Clinton Presidency. As we might expect from a Washington Post reporter, there’s a lot of politics here, the endless give and take with friends and enemies to push through legislation-not so different from your average West Wing episode. There’s also a narrative arc, familiar to readers of 19th-century novels, of a talented protagonist who enters a dangerous city, is beset by problems of his own making and snares laid by others, survives a near-fatal crisis and emerges a changed person. There’s quite a lot on the Lewinsky crisis, which Mr. Harris experienced up close. There are also insightful reflections on the Presidency, the eight years and the man himself.

It was a long eight years, as Mr. Clinton’s admirers and detractors can both safely agree. (There are 76 million pages of documents in Little Rock to prove it.) It was also an important time of transition, one that we haven’t fully come to grips with yet. Mr. Harris does a good job reminding us of the feel as well as the facts of those years. And he persuasively asserts that the entire tenor of the decade-to-be changed when Mr. Clinton forced a reluctant Congress (including zero Republicans) to adopt his program of fiscal discipline in 1993, leading to the prosperity that will always provide a sparkly backdrop to the Clinton story.

That’s one of several compliments Mr. Harris pays to Mr. Clinton. The book is carefully calibrated and avoids emotional extremes, but the grudging respect of its title becomes clearer by the book’s end. Mr. Harris reminds us of the unpopularity of the courageous decision to bail out the Mexican peso, and steps back now and then with some astonishment to comment on how much good policy was enacted. He also admires Mr. Clinton’s foreign policy, generally ignored by the commentariat, and this marks a genuine step forward for The Survivor. There were obvious early missteps in Somalia and Haiti, and a disastrous failure to intervene in Rwanda, but Mr. Harris detects growing confidence from Bosnia onward, as well as a clear international vision for America’s importance on the world stage.

Because he knows the eight years so well, Mr. Harris avoids a pitfall that has tripped up previous writers-namely, to interpret the entire administration through the prism of 1993, when pizza boxes were piled around the White House and rancorous discussions divided staffers who looked too young for their jobs. Mr. Harris discerns roughly five major phases-the frenzy of 1993, the overreach and disaster of 1994, the recovery of 1995-97, the crisis of 1998 and the re-recovery of 1999-2000. He notes correctly that Mr. Clinton is the only President in recent memory-and perhaps the only one save Lincoln and F.D.R.-to enjoy as much popularity at the end of his term as at the beginning.

Given the vastness of Mr. Clinton’s Presidency, it’s perhaps unfair to expect Mr. Harris to cover it all. Still, I had the feeling that some areas were inflated, presumably because of Mr. Harris’ access (i.e., the Dick Morris saga), while others were unjustly neglected. Some major moments and ideas receive scant attention: the Arafat-Rabin handshake of 1993, the speech to an African-American church in Memphis, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Family and Medical Leave Act, AmeriCorps, Mr. Clinton’s friendship with Ron Brown, to list only a few.

In my own not unbiased opinion, more attention could have been paid to the tangible ways that American lives were made better during those eight years, in ways ranging from education to crime prevention, job creation and conservation. It wasn’t always the sexiest news, but it was happening every day. And after going into all of the scandals that dogged the Clinton team (as he should have), Mr. Harris could have been clearer about stating that no one was ever convicted of any felony relating to official wrongdoing-in stark contrast to the Reagan/Bush years. Hardly anyone noticed, but a few weeks ago, Henry Hyde expressed doubt about the impeachment trip that he and Tom DeLay took America on.

Surprisingly, Mr. Harris neglects some big-ticket items like the Good Friday Agreement, which changed Northern Ireland forever. Or North Korea, where Mr. Clinton and his team negotiated a complex agreement that wasn’t perfect, but was indisputably better than our current broken diplomacy (at last count, North Korea may have up to six nukes that didn’t exist in the 1990’s, with more on the way). A bit more on Mr. Clinton’s unusual standing with world leaders, and his almost superhuman capacity to goad enemies into making peace with each other (usually by keeping them awake with him, past the point of normal human endurance), would have made this a fuller book. It would also have provided a public service by reminding Americans that there once was a time when Presidents did this sort of thing: The Bush administration’s next peace conference will be its first.

Mr. Harris is simply wrong about terrorism. He’s usually the master of his material, and confident whether addressing Mr. Clinton’s strengths or weaknesses. But here he seems unsure of himself, and unpersuasive when he argues that it was ultimately Mr. Clinton’s fault that few heeded his very vocal warnings about Osama bin Laden and other terrorists. It was his fault for warning us? As I recall, the press corps was oblivious, and the Republican Congress simply opposed anything Mr. Clinton proposed. Then, after George W. Bush became President, when the G.O.P. had a chance to do something about terrorism, they slashed counterterrorism funding, ignored intelligence concerning Al Qaeda and chased after chimeras like a national missile-defense system.

I wish Mr. Harris had looked at another area of accomplishment. In 1992, the year of the Rodney King riots, the United States was a racially polarized nation. In 2000, that was no longer the case, and we don’t have to look far for the reason: There wasn’t a week in his Presidency that Bill Clinton didn’t address in some way the unfinished legacy of the civil-rights movement. Black Americans understood from the start that a President was speaking to them with a level of intelligence and sustained commitment that they had never heard before, and are not likely to hear again until we elect an African-American President. I vividly remember a small ceremony that President Clinton held to restore the honorable discharge of a black soldier who had been unjustly cashiered a century ago. There was no media coverage, no political gain-he did it simply because it felt right.

That leads to a larger point, which is that Mr. Harris’ clinical detachment-necessary for a print journalist-can lead him to ignore the mystical bond that united Mr. Clinton with the American people, and which still drives his powerful appeal. Does anyone doubt that he would defeat his successor if the 22nd Amendment were repealed? Mr. Harris excels at the inside hardball of politics-the chin music. But he doesn’t always convey the other kind of music, the theatrics and laughter and empathy that Mr. Clinton did so well. In the last century, only F.D.R., Kennedy and Reagan can touch him for charisma. The Irish always understood this about him, and somewhere in my desk I have a crumpled piece of paper that Seamus Heaney gave me during a Clinton visit to Dublin, quoting an ancient bit of Irish poetry. “The music of what happens,” wrote Finn McCool, “that is the most beautiful music of them all.” Bill Clinton could hear those celestial harmonies; most of us cannot.

A great anecdote in The Survivor has Mr. Clinton telling Robert Rubin, the Secretary of the Treasury, to “get out and talk to real people.” Mr. Rubin responded, “Am I a real person?”-to which Mr. Clinton answered, “No.” Despite his heroic command of his subject, Mr. Harris retains a little Beltway unreality-aware of the unhealthy cynicism of the White House press briefing room, but not entirely able to free himself from it. He knows that Mr. Clinton was “a marvelously entertaining president,” “always loading his plate a little higher at life’s buffet.” But he can’t quite allow himself to surrender his suspicion. Oddly, very little of Mr. Clinton’s own version of history, copiously available in My Life, makes it into The Survivor.

Obviously, no one can write a detailed political history and a potboiler at the same time. And it’s unfair to ask Mr. Harris to relinquish the skepticism that reporters carry around like a notepad. But the very excellence of Mr. Harris’ effort creates nostalgia for a book that doesn’t yet exist-one that will tell Bill Clinton’s story with less sound and fury, and more Faulkner. One thinks a little of All the King’s Men, recently filmed in New Orleans, and one longs for a latter-day Robert Penn Warren, or Edwin O’Connor, or A.J. Liebling. Sin, perseverance, redemption-isn’t that what America is all about?

Still, that wistful note shouldn’t detract from Mr. Harris’ achievement. He has set the bar high for all who come after him, and written a big book that’s worthy of his talents and his subject. To quote the final line of All the King’s Men, he has taken us “out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”

History may be an argument without end, as Mr. Harris reminds us. Bill Clinton certainly is. Americans will continue to debate the complex man who led them for eight years at the end of the 20th century, for the simple reason that he’ll be an ex-President for much longer than he was President. He’ll loom especially large as 2008 approaches and the full damage of President Bush’s domestic and foreign policies becomes clear. We will still find reasons to hate him and to love him, according to our needs. But thanks to this book, there’s now a sounder basis to the argument, and some hope that the argument might even turn into a conversation.

Ted Widmer directs the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. From 1997 to 2000, he was director of speechwriting at the National Security Council.