The Seat-of-the-Pants Presidency
Bill Clinton's first term was a shaky enterprise.

Reviewed by Bryan Burrough
Sunday, July 15, 2007


Mastering the Presidency

By Nigel Hamilton

PublicAffairs. 766 pp. $32

An editor of this fine newspaper sent me Nigel Hamilton's new book, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, back in May. It sat on the far end of my desk, unopened, for a solid month; every morning I glared at it. Jesus. Another Clinton book. If there is Clinton fatigue in the political arena, I suspect it pales before that in publishing. Monica. Travelgate. Whitewater. Oh, please, I thought. Not again.

Yes, again. But that's okay. Franklin Roosevelt has been gone 60 years, and still authors are cranking out fresh works on his life and presidency, the successful ones furnishing some new information, angle or analysis. Nigel Hamilton's claim to a similarly new path through the well-worn Terra Clintonis is twofold. The book chronicles only Clinton's first term, and as Hamilton states in his introduction, he wants to focus on how Clinton functioned as a leader. Well, all right. I'm game.

A hundred pages in, I put the book down, deeply ambivalent. This book should be better than it is. Hamilton, author of JFK : Reckless Youth as well as a book on Clinton's pre-White House years, has a good story in his hands. He tells it chronologically, starting with Bill and Hillary leading their post-inaugural march of idealistic yuppie Democrats through the streets of Washington toward the White House. Has there ever been a president less prepared for the Oval Office? The transition is disastrous, the president chronically disorganized, the staff woefully inexperienced. "It was as if the students of Clinton Junior High had taken over the controls of the world's most powerful nation," Hamilton writes, a nice line. The result: Hillary's health-care fiasco, gays in the military, Hairgate and one of the worst first years in presidential history.

Part of the problem is that Hamilton isn't writing narrative history a la Robert Caro. I think this is the kind of book they call a "study," meaning the author's insights matter more than a steady recitation of relevant facts. Which is fine. Bill Clinton zips along on a tide of quotes from newspapers of the day and earlier Clinton books, augmented by a handful of interviews Hamilton appears to have done with the Leon Panettas and Alice Rivlins of the world. But if a book is to succeed on fresh analysis rather than fresh information, the analysis has to be something pretty special.

Hamilton's, alas, is not. Clinton is sloppy and disorganized. Check. Clinton is empathetic. Got it. Indecisive. Right. Talks things to death. Can't fire subordinates. Doesn't understand Washington. Okay, okay, we know this. Hillary as nasty, arrogant co-president. Yes, we know this story, too. So what's new? What is the value Hamilton is adding atop everything that has come before? To be kind, that's unclear.

Hamilton's m.o. is to lay out the facts as others have reported them, then freestyle his own analytical riffs, which are replete with oddish analogies, including lessons from Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Anna Karenina, The Remains of the Day and maybe Led Zeppelin II; I can't be sure about that last one. His writing, while brisk and clear, is likewise a tad strange. It's the rare presidential biographer who pockmarks his prose with exclamation points and modern-day slang; I can't actually recall whether Arthur Schlesinger used "diss" as a verb or not, but I tend to doubt it. Nonetheless, I mean, yo, I'm down with that. At least he doesn't call the president phat.

Authorial idiosyncrasies aside, the book has its merits. Hamilton ably illustrates Clinton's strengths and weaknesses as a leader, how he thrived whenever the occasion called for him to inspire or commiserate, and how time and again his failures could be traced to what Hamilton calls his "inability to function as a manager of men and women in a structured environment." Clinton's may have been the first seat-of-the-pants presidency, with no organization charts and crucial decisions made in late-night bull sessions, at least until Leon Panetta arrived as chief of staff to bring some order to the classroom.

And a few of Hamilton's insights do feel fresh. He is especially smart on the internal dynamics of Hillary's famed right-wing conspiracy, advancing the case that it was Clinton's own failures during his first year in office that emboldened those Arkansas troopers to come forward in 1993, which led to David Brock, Paula Jones and the long national stumble down sleazy street. In an observation he might have explored further, Hamilton terms Clinton's a "charismatic" rather than an "executive" presidency, which is a nice way of saying the man could exhort his followers to walk on water, which was a good thing, given that he was singularly unable to build them a bridge. All in all, though, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency has a once-over-lightly feel to it, making it a minor contribution to the Clinton canon. ยท

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair.

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