Clinton-Gore Leadership and the
Perils of Moderation
By James MacGregor Burns and Georgia Sorenson, with Robin Gerber and Scott Webster
Scribner. 416 pp. $27.50
Reviewed by David Brooks
In 1994, David Frum wrote a book called Dead Right, about the intellectual collapse of the American right. In 1996, Michael Tomasky wrote a book called Left for Dead, about the intellectual collapse of the American left. And now James MacGregor Burns and a cast of supporters have written a book called Dead Center, about the collapse of the American center. Somebody should bundle these three books into a holiday gift pack with a few tabs of cyanide for morose political junkies of all persuasions.
Though a little depressing, Dead Right and Left for Dead were at least two of the best political books of the decade. They were tautly argued, and presented new and interesting material. Dead Center is nothing like them. Most of this book is a musty rehash of the Clinton presidency. If you were in a coma for the past eight years, you might be interested to read a warmed-over description of the 1993 budget, the invasion of Haiti, or the health care fight. But if you have been paying even cursory attention to American politics during the Clinton years, this is a dull slog.
The chief value of this book is that it gives us a first sign of how leading historians are going to view the Clinton presidency. James MacGregor Burns is one of the giants of the profession. He now teaches at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, and he wrote this book with Georgia J. Sorenson, the director of the academy, with additional help from Robin Gerber and Scott W. Webster.
Their verdict on the Clinton administration is not positive: "A rhetorical presidency that tinkered at the margins of policy. His scandal-ridden tenure was unlikely to give him any moral authority to affect grander more transformational change." Or as they put it later on, "Clinton's major failure was his inability, during his centrist phases, to frame a coordinated policy program that would make of his centrism not just an electoral strategy but a vital center of change."
Clinton wanted to be a great president, they emphasize, and he had the brains for it. But his bursting aspirations were largely unrealized. The authors locate two fatal defects in Clintonism. One is the man himself; he lacked the guts and commitment to buck the status quo, preferring political popularity to historic achievement. The other has to do with centrism; people imagine they can create a dynamic centrism, but in office, centrists tend to become vapid deal-makers who do little but tinker around the edges.
This book is built around a distinction between transformational leadership and transactional leadership. Transforming presidents have strong convictions and superhuman persistence, and manage to enact bold change. Transactional presidents are deal-makers. They craft compromises and follow the polls. It's apparently better to be transformational than transactional.
But one problem with Burns's paradigm is that it makes a fetish of historic change while never explaining why change is necessarily preferable to stability. Clinton took office at a time when the economy was growing at over 4 percent a year and all sorts of social indicators were trending positively. Is it any wonder that the American people felt that they had more to fear than to gain from dramatic change foisted on them by Washington? A more charitable account of Clinton's term would say that he came into office longing to be a grand historical figure (as Newt Gingrich did a few years later) but the American people weren't in the mood for grand historical figures. They wanted modest budget balancers, and, this being a democracy, the people won.
Burns and company counter by arguing that it is a great president's job to overcome public apathy and cynicism by creating popular support for change, as Teddy Roosevelt did during his peacetime administration. It's true that Bill Clinton only exacerbated public cynicism, with his shameless spinning, his dishonesty and his tawdriness. But it's not clear that even a person of sterling character could have fomented a public hunger for change in this anti-political post-Cold War decade.
In any case, it's highly doubtful that the public would have responded to the sort of retro-liberalism that Burns and his co-authors endorse. They argue that after the failure of the health care fight, the Clinton administration should have re-formed and mounted a new attack. "As the sixties made plain," they write in their chapter on racial matters, "Americans would tolerate change -- radical change -- if leaders articulated values and visions consistently and succeeded in conveying a sense of urgency. Clinton did neither." If the electorate is really receptive to another great liberal crusade, they've been doing a pretty good job of hiding it over the past two decades.
One of the recurring motifs in the book is the way the authors seek to rescue Hillary Rodham Clinton (and to a lesser extent Al Gore) from the mediocrity of the Clinton administration. They stud the book with quotations from friends of Hillary, who seem to be competing for some sycophancy award.
They conclude their book by arguing that "in the end, perhaps Clinton's finest legacy will be the two persons he chose to be his close and nondisposable comrades. Decades earlier he had spotted a bespectacled, drably dressed woman at Yale -- not his usual type -- and sensed the brilliance of her mind and the power of her personality." They continue a few pages later, "We believe this to be the real, the liberal Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will strike out on a militantly progressive course once freed of her understandable determination to support her husband. . . . We see Hillary Rodham Clinton as a potential transforming leader dedicated above all to achieving practical results."
The pest from Hope is out of our hair. Let the real battle begin!
David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.