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The 'Third Tier' Years

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Not too long ago I went up to Harlem to see Bill Clinton. Our talk was off the record, so I cannot tell you what he said, but I can say -- can't I? -- that he was smart and encyclopedic and wise and knowledgeable. As always, I was impressed, but then, shortly afterward, I read "The Survivor," John Harris's smoothly readable new book about the Clinton presidency, and I could hear the air going out of a balloon and the soft, weary voice of Peggy Lee singing, "Is that all there is?" In Clinton's case the answer apparently is yes.

It's hard to describe the disconnect, the contrast, between Bill Clinton the man and Bill Clinton's two-term presidency. The charm, the brilliance, the sureness and all the rest somehow produced a presidency that never lived up to its potential. I say that with considerable reluctance, since to give Clinton no better than a grade of C is, somehow, to legitimize his critics. That is more than I intend -- and much more than they deserve.

But Harris has written a brief that is hard to ignore. It does not come this time from either a Clinton partisan or enemy but from a Post reporter who covered his presidency and whose fairness -- he has no dog in the fight about Clinton -- cannot be doubted. His, in fact, is the first book about the Clinton presidency that comes from an objective journalist or historian. As such, it is bound to set the standard for those that follow.

If so, the initial historical ranking of Clinton will be pretty much what Dick Morris said it would be back in 1996. In one of his routine phone calls to the president, Morris said he had been thinking about Clinton's place in history. Of the 40 men who had preceded Clinton, Morris said, only 18 had truly made history and only five of those -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson and FDR -- qualified as "first tier." As for Clinton, Morris had to tell his friend he was "borderline third tier." Nothing that happened in the next four years moved Clinton up.

As Harris points out -- and Morris always said -- a great president needs a great crisis. Clinton had to make his own -- impeachment -- and that hardly qualifies. Even the mini-ones -- Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Rwanda and, ultimately, Osama bin Laden -- were either mishandled at first (Haiti, Bosnia) or not handled at all (Rwanda) or handled unsuccessfully (bin Laden) or in a way that prolonged the crisis (Kosovo and the pledge not to use ground troops). He did better with the Mexican and Asian economic crises, but then he did better, and boldly, with his treasury secretaries than with his initial foreign policy team.

Domestically, the record is better. During Clinton's presidency crime went down and so did the welfare rolls and teenage pregnancy. Twenty-two million jobs were created, the budget deficit became a surplus and the stock market went into its irrationally exuberant phase. Lots of people made lots of money. If Clinton were a Republican, Congress would already have named an airport for him.

Then, too, maybe a dollop of greatness will be granted Clinton for the way he restrained the Vandals of the GOP from sacking Washington. When you consider that Clinton survived and Newt Gingrich did not, you can appreciate that a certain genius was at work. Harris reports that Gingrich told Clinton to his face, "Mr. President, we're going to run you out of town." But it was Gingrich who flamed out and Clinton who survived and left office with an approval rating way over 60 percent -- a figure George Bush can see only in the rearview mirror.

A certain sadness attaches to Harris's book. The personal story remains fascinating. But it is also a story about growth, about learning how to be president and finally getting it down just about when Ken Starr rose from the muck, with a blue dress for a shiny sword and an obsession for a duty. Had that not happened, we probably would have seen a convergence between the man and his performance -- maybe a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, maybe a better coordinated and more robust effort to get bin Laden and, almost certainly, a passing of the baton to Al Gore. Blame it on Clinton, blame it on Starr or just blame the times. Either way and any way, it remains a gripping tale. Clinton may merely have survived but Harris, as you will see, has triumphed.

cohenr@washpost.com


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