Bill Clinton in the White House

By John F. Harris. Random House. 504 pp. $29.95

"The Clinton wars," as Sidney Blumenthal aptly characterized Bill Clinton's presidency, were not just the political battles of the 1990s. They have also become a continuing part of the literature of this turbulent administration. On the one hand are the relatively few memoirs or histories published to date by Clinton loyalists -- most notably Blumenthal and Clinton himself. On the other hand are the countless conservative attacks on the Clinton years that continue to fuel the passions of the right.

John F. Harris, a Washington Post reporter and editor who covered the White House from 1995 to 2001, has written one of the few studies of the Clinton presidency so far that is not part of the still-raging political battles. The Survivor is intelligent, judicious and relatively nonideological -- and also a surprisingly absorbing story, given how fresh the memory of these years remains. There are few major revelations here, but the book's many new small and telling details enhance our understanding of this important administration. Most of all, The Survivor gives appropriate weight both to Clinton's significant accomplishments and talents and to his many failures and critical weaknesses. The result is the best study of the Clinton years yet to appear.

Harris's view is often at odds with conventional understanding of the life cycles of presidencies. Most observers, and most historians, would argue that presidents are likeliest to be effective in their first few years, when popular support is at its highest and before the inevitable failures and wounds accumulate. But Harris argues very convincingly that, in Clinton's case, the administration was in many ways least powerful in its first years and grew stronger over time.

This seemingly anomalous early weakness was a result, he contends, of the unusual baggage Clinton brought with him to the White House: the personal scandals of his bruising campaign, a series of missteps in his first weeks in office (controversial appointments, engagement with divisive issues such as gays in the military, clumsiness in press relations born of a profound and destructive animosity toward the media) and the inexperience and, in some cases, ineptitude of his initial staff. Some presidential staffs -- that of the Reagan administration, for instance -- grow worse over time as the "first team" gradually departs, giving way to less distinguished and less capable replacements. But in the Clinton years, Harris notes, the staffers taking the reins in 1993 were a chaotic, undisciplined and divided group who unintentionally but seriously undermined the president's effectiveness. By the beginning of his second term, that staff had been largely replaced by much more able and disciplined people, and the administration on the whole functioned more effectively.

Harris also perceptively portrays the inner conflicts of Bill Clinton, whom he sees as a strangely divided man. Clinton's public image over time came to be dominated by his appetites, by his lack of discipline and by the popular perception that he was inconsistent and unreliable in his convictions. But Harris argues that Clinton was in fact a man with a strong sense of responsibility about governance, that he rarely supported measures that he could not reconcile with his own sense of what was right, and that he was deeply immersed in policy issues, able to educate himself quickly and effectively on almost all matters of importance to him.

Yet Clinton was also, as everyone knows, a reckless and at times self-destructive man. In his first years in office, he allowed himself to be constantly whipsawed by the conflicting demands of his advisers. The more conservative among them (Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin, Leon Panetta and others) pressed him to embrace fiscal responsibility and, above all, an aggressive effort to reduce the ballooning federal deficit. The liberals in the administration (among them Paul Begala, Robert Reich, George Stephanopoulos and sometimes the first lady) insisted that deficit reduction was a diversion from the real task of his presidency: strengthening public supports for the middle class, which above all meant health care reform.

Clinton tried to do both. In his first year in office, he fought difficult but successful battles to raise taxes, curb the deficit and ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement, another issue important to the Treasury group around Bentsen. But the president moved promptly from there to an extraordinarily ambitious initiative on health care reform for which he was not adequately prepared. It not only failed but also badly damaged his political standing through the rest of his presidency, not least by contributing to the Republican victories in 1994 that gave the GOP the control of Congress it still maintains. Over time, a chastened Clinton became an increasingly centrist president with some residual liberal inclinations. That was in part because of political necessity. But it was also, Harris argues, the stance closest to his own core convictions, developed over many years in Arkansas politics. Far from seeing the frustrated liberal that both supporters and critics of Clinton describe, Harris describes a man who was a moderate at heart and whose principal achievement was to move a floundering Democratic Party decisively toward the center. Indeed, Harris writes, Clinton thereby became the leader of an international "Third Way" movement that helped left-leaning parties throughout much of the world (Labour in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany, even the former communists in Italy) redefine themselves as parties of the center.

Clinton ultimately managed largely to resolve his inner ideological conflicts; he never resolved the personal ones. Harris adds little to what is already known about the behavior and the scandals that almost destroyed the presidency, although he does make it clear that Clinton's reckless sex life was a constant source of anxiety within parts of the White House well before either the Paula Jones case or the Monica Lewinsky revelations. Given Harris's belief that Clinton was growing stronger in his second term, he considers the cost of the Lewinsky affair very high -- destroying the president's growing effectiveness and barring him in his last years from what might otherwise have been significant and attainable achievements, although Harris does not specify what those achievements might have been.

The scandal also, of course, took a serious toll on the Clintons' marriage. Harris provides an important lens through which to view the damage: The relationship between the Clintons was not the sham that many critics thought it to be, but a deep bond of tremendous value to them both. The power of that bond helps explain the terrible impact of the Lewinsky affair. But that same power also helps explain the ability of these two people -- humiliated and excoriated in ways that few American public figures have ever been -- to preserve and rebuild their union in spite of it all.

Indeed, perhaps this book's most revealing aspect is its persuasive picture of Hillary Rodham Clinton's enormous influence on her husband's presidency from its beginning to its end -- and beyond. She was a powerful force not only during the brief period in 1993-94 when she was so publicly central to the administration's efforts (most notably as chair of the ill-fated health care task force) but also in its later years. Her public profile was lower and more conventional then, but her influence with the president and within the White House remained very high and frequently decisive. Her role as a successful senatorial candidate in the last year of her husband's presidency and then as one of the Senate's most famous members helped keep the Clinton era alive as a force in American politics -- perhaps for a very long time to come.

Harris's assessment of the Clinton presidency is complicated but ultimately positive. Despite all the failures, scandals and missed opportunities, he argues, Clinton was on the whole a responsible and effective president. He failed to enact the great transformative social programs that he once hoped would be his legacy. But he was an exceptionally successful manager of the American economy and deserves at least some credit for one of the most substantial periods of growth in the nation's history -- and for the first balanced budget in decades. He succeeded -- through incremental steps, not sweeping changes like the failed first-term health care reform -- in making important changes in social policy, among them the Earned Income Tax Credit, welfare reform, health-care portability and a minimum-wage increase. As his confidence in his ability to manage international issues grew, Harris argues, he became a skillful and knowledgeable steward of U.S. interests in the world, as well as someone who helped to define a mission for the United States within the international community. Despite his inaction in Rwanda, his failure to mobilize support for NATO action in the Balkans and his somewhat stumbling relationship with allies in his early years, he helped produce a negotiated settlement in Bosnia, led a NATO coalition in a controversial but (on its own terms) successful military intervention in Kosovo, and in his last days in office very nearly produced a significant Middle East peace accord. Although Clinton's failure to destroy al Qaeda in the late 1990s has been the source of considerable criticism since September 2001, his administration did recognize and take seriously the dangers of terrorism long before most other American and world leaders did.

For someone who faced tremendous external and self-imposed obstacles -- a Congress dominated for six years by an unusually partisan opposition, a cadre of enemies of extraordinary passion and energy, and a series of scandals that would have destroyed a lesser politician -- Bill Clinton was, as Harris describes him, not just a survivor but also a man who made something close to the best of a pretty bad lot. *

Alan Brinkley is provost and Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University.

President Clinton responding to questions in June 1997