Interviews July 2005

Clinton Reconsidered

John Harris, the author of The Survivor, on why Clinton and his legacy will be debated for decades to come.
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book cover

The Survivor
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by John Harris
Random House
544 pages

"Mr. President," Newt Gingrich once threatened Bill Clinton. "We're going to run you out of town." Clinton told him in return, "I'm the big rubber clown doll you had as a kid, and every time you hit it, it bounces back. That's me. The harder you hit me, the faster I come back up."

Clinton, of course, turned out to be right. Gingrich was the one who was run out of town, while Clinton survived scandal, electoral setbacks, and intense partisan fighting to leave office as popular as he was the day he was elected. It is this uncanny ability to make necessary adaptations in the Darwinian world of politics that is the focus of John Harris's new biography, The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House. Harris, who covered Clinton for The Washington Post from 1996 through 2001, has written a close-up account of Clinton's time in office that slants neither to the left nor to the right and offers a new—and often surprising—perspective on a presidency that has already inspired a wealth of ink. Harris combines his day-to-day observations with interviews with Clinton's close friends and staff to build an intimate picture of the former president—tweaking our understanding of events we thought we knew. Harris's description of what is perhaps Clinton's most famous rhetorical moment is a good example of the new light this book sheds. When Clinton went on television to deny his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, declaring, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," the overriding emotion the sentence conveyed was contempt, as if he could barely bring himself to utter her name. But in Harris's telling, what seemed like a major error in tone was in fact a mistake of a different kind: as soon as Clinton, shaking with rage, left the lectern, he turned to an advisor and said, "I blanked out on her name." Harris also challenges the conventional wisdom of Clinton as a supremely guileful politician. He argues that the man known as "Slick Willie" was in fact exceptionally transparent. His private self was very close to his public persona; in fact, as Harris writes, "On important matters his real sentiments always surfaced, no matter how the staff tried to keep him 'on message.'"

But for all the insight Harris provides into Clinton the man—his vulnerabilities, his quick temper, the ebb and flow of his relationships with his staff, his complicated relationship with Hillary—the book is equally good on the policy side of Clinton's presidency. Harris takes us back through the lowlights and highlights—healthcare reform, balancing the budget, welfare reform, the torturous efforts toward peace in the Middle East—and shows us a man who evolved into an essentially defensive politician, one who did his best work when he was constrained by political realities and forced to find compromise solutions. This was not how Clinton envisioned himself when he took office—he had expansive ideas for how he would reshape the country—but it was, Harris contends, his defensive skills that proved to be the keys to his political survival. "In the end," Harris concludes, [Clinton] proved to be a more effective and more consequential president during those times when he was disciplined by political caution than when he was motivated by vainglorious dreams."

Katie Bacon


Could you talk about what it was like to cover Clinton for all those years? What would you say the atmosphere of his presidency was like?

It was great fun to cover him, especially in retrospect. He was a larger-than-life personality who was forever lurching from crisis to crisis and was forever a good story. At the time it was often a pretty edgy relationship; I think a lot of the reporters would get very frustrated with Clinton. He's somebody who doesn't always answer questions directly or who answers them in a maddeningly indirect way. So professionally we felt like he really needed to be policed. At the personal level, the disorganization that often buffeted his life affected us, too. And it did sometimes produce a little scratchiness. The constant late hours and the constant chaos over small things were contributing factors to the edgy relationship he had with the press corps. But less trivially, the year of Lewinsky was frustrating for almost all the reporters covering the White House full time. It was not how we imagined ourselves—spending our careers writing about political circumstances that were so sordid. We tended to blame Clinton for putting us in this situation. He would say, "Well, look, I didn't ask you to cover the damn story." But the circumstances were obviously ones that couldn't be ignored. It was just no fun. That might surprise people who think we were having a field day, and perhaps some people were having a field day. But I certainly wasn't, and most of the people I know in the business weren't.

Did your views on him change at all in writing this book? You went from covering him day-to-day to pulling back the lens and thinking about him in a very different, long-term way. How did that affect your thoughts on him?

My views of some of his important relationships changed over time. I'd always been fascinated by the real relationship between him and Al Gore. The popular view of this was of an almost fraternal relationship that turned sour due to Gore's anger over the Lewinsky scandal. I think the reality is that they were close in the political and policy sense for six or seven of the eight years of the presidency; but I came to realize that they were never particularly close at the personal level. That surprised me.

Another place where the conventional wisdom turned out to be a myth was the idea of Clinton as the great compartmentalizer. The view at the time—as espoused by people like me, in some cases literally by me in The Washington Post—was that one remarkable thing about Clinton was that he had this ability to put personal problems in a drawer and concentrate on his work, and that's how he survived the year of scandal. It turned out, in abundant evidence after the fact, that his mind works like everybody else's. He was facing a crisis that year of 1998—when his presidency was at risk, his personal reputation was at risk, his historical reputation was at risk, his relationship with the family was at risk—and he acted just like anybody else would. He was devastated. Aides would walk into the White House and see him deep in thought, a thousand miles away. Or a cabinet meeting would start and one of his political aides would take a cabinet member aside and say, "Look, you're going to have pick up the slack today, he's not having a good day." Maybe that makes his achievements that year more impressive—that he didn't survive through some weird quirk of mind; it was just through genuine self-discipline.

That also makes it sound as if his staff played a real role in his survival that year.

They did. Donna Shalala, the Health and Human Services Secretary, said that if something like this had happened at the beginning of the presidency, it would have been vastly more difficult to cope with. By 1998, most of the people knew their jobs, they had long since accommodated themselves to Bill Clinton and his various strengths and weaknesses, and the operation was running well enough that it could kind of function on its own. That was definitely not the case in '93 and '94.

You said that a lot of reporters appreciated Clinton more in retrospect. Do you have a sense of how his relationship with the press differed from Bush's? Is the press's relationship with the current administration part of what has made reporters appreciate Clinton more now than they did at the time?

I don't think that's it. Reporters are always frustrated with every White House, every president. Clearly the people who cover the White House now are hugely frustrated by the Bush administration's determination to control the flow of information, to turn basic, garden-variety access—something that was pretty routine during the Clinton years—into a prized commodity. But having lots of access doesn't mean you necessarily have access to lots of truth, so I don't think we should portray the Clinton press relationship as any kind of golden age. What does strike me is that the Bush crowd has a cooler, more detached relationship with the press than the Clinton crowd did. I think Bill and Hillary Clinton and their larger group of aides really felt that the press was supposed to be on their side. They'd grown up with their attitudes toward the press influenced by Watergate and had a real sense of, Hey, we're the good guys, and the good guys should get good press. And when that didn't happen they were deeply aggrieved. From the other side of the coin, my sense is that a lot of the reporters thought it was going to be more fun to cover the Clintons than it turned out to be. There was this old, staid Bush crowd in the late eighties and early nineties, and all of a sudden there was a younger, hipper crowd who a lot of reporters related to at the personal level and regarded as friends. And I think there were some reporters who imagined themselves being the equivalent of Ben Bradlee or David Brinkley thirty years earlier—the New Frontier, where you could haze these guys by day in the paper, but josh with one another by evening and have an enjoyable, almost glamorous relationship. That was a great illusion—not one I ever fell prey to, because I arrived in 1995, after the first wave of illusion and disillusion had all washed out. And what I came to as a reporter was what had basically existed in one form or another for the balance of the six years, which was working, functional relationships that were oftentimes rather sour.

Now, changing gears a little bit, you argue that one of the most important moves of Clinton's presidency was his decision to make fiscal responsibility a priority and to cut the deficit. But in reading your book, I couldn't help wondering if this only became the keystone of his presidency in retrospect, once the booming prosperity of the nineties had begun. And I'm wondering if Clinton's action to reduce the deficit really did spur the economy, or if he was the beneficiary of lucky timing.

That's an argument that you can never fully resolve because it rests on an imponderable. You can't go back and try it the other way. That 1993 deficit-reduction package was passed with all Democratic votes. There's no question that it ran against what Bill Clinton would have wanted under different circumstances, which was to be a traditional Democratic president, spending lots and handing out new programs and enjoying the largesse. But those weren't the circumstances that he found himself in. The predictions on the Republican side were that this would cause an economic catastrophe, that it would plunge the economy into recession—that's what Newt Gingrich said, that's what Dick Armey said, and that part's not an imponderable. Those predictions were ostentatiously wrong. Certainly if the economy had not improved, Clinton would have borne the blame for that. My view is that the strength of the economy is largely a function of the enterprise of the private sector—it's obviously influenced by deep structural trends in technology and demography that a president can't control. But I do think that measure in 1993 was an important catalyst to show that the government could manage its affairs with responsibility, and that that was important to the prosperity that followed. To my mind, it is almost like the debate that echoes from the Reagan years. Democrats always say, "If we hadn't had a military build-up, the Soviet Union would still have collapsed." That might be true, but most sensible people would not want to go back and try it another way, given that the end result was a good one. I really do think it's equivalent, and I think it's churlish of conservatives not to accord Clinton some credit for the economy of the 1990s, since they almost certainly would blame him if it had gone the other way.

Right, that's a good point. Now, you describe how the Whitewater investigation broke new ground by looking into actions of Clinton's that occurred years before he took office, and I'm wondering what it was about Clinton that invited such scrutiny. Did the various investigations of him change the expectations of how a president will be treated in office? Or were they just a phenomenon peculiar to his presidency?

It's a very difficult question, because I think most people have come to the conclusion, after many years and millions of dollars of investigation, that the original Whitewater events didn't amount to much. But one has to keep in mind that at the time, in 1993, there were a lot of questions that were genuinely troubling and that demanded answers. The savings and loan that the Clintons had been intimately involved with through their partner in the Whitewater affair had collapsed at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to taxpayers. There were all kinds of questions that I think responsible reporters had a right to ask, and the answers that we got from the Clintons tended to increase suspicion rather than allay it. Vince Foster had killed himself, and it was clear that Whitewater was one of the things that was troubling him. Another thing that's worth pointing out is that the pressure for a special prosecutor—who was appointed in January '94 and later became the independent counsel—was coming from both Republicans and Democrats. If it had been Republicans alone, probably it would have been possible for the Clintons to resist that clamor. But it was coming from people like Senator Pat Moynihan, it was coming from people like Congressman Barney Frank, who were saying, "Look, these questions are persistent enough that they should be investigated and dispensed with." Hillary Clinton was strongly opposed to appointing a special prosecutor, but ultimately she was overruled by Bill Clinton. She and her friend Bernie Nussbaum, who was White House counsel at the time, were fearful that if you appoint a special prosecutor the investigation never ends, and they keep going until they find something, regardless of its relationship to the original question. That turned out to be very much right. Hillary Clinton was not vindicated, though, in her handling of the basic question of what to do about Whitewater. If she had been willing to compromise, it might not have metasticized into something worse.

If the Clintons had voluntarily turned over all of their Whitewater documents to the press and to the public and had let people paw through them, undoubtedly there would have been a couple of months of unfavorable stories. But to me it seems very plausible that the pressure for a special prosecutor would have been relieved. It certainly would have given Democrats something to stand on: Why do we need a special prosecutor when anybody who has any curiosity about this whatsoever can go paw around in the papers for as long as they want? But that really violated Hillary Clinton's sense of privacy. It violated her sense of what they should reasonably be asked to do, and she was contemptuous of the notion. In the book, there was a scene where she was discussing Whitewater with her husband's political advisors. They're advocating a more conciliatory approach, and she's dismissive of that, and dismissive of the idea of compromise. She said, "JFK had real men in his White House." And I do think that is reflective of her mindset at the time, which equated compromise with weakness and combat with toughness.

To me one of the most interesting things about the book was how you talked about Bill and Hillary's relationship and the way it evolved throughout the presidency. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that—what you saw of their relationship and what you would expect the dynamic to be if she does indeed run for president.

People roll their eyes a lot when I say this, but I think it is an authentic relationship. I don't think it's a political convenience. I think that the relationship has persisted and survived through a number of very turbulent episodes because at the end of the day it's based on mutual admiration and respect and love. That's not the same as saying that it's not linked in important ways to politics—I've always thought that politics was the heat for the relationship, what drew them together. One way of thinking of it is, They regard each other as the two smartest people in any room. So it's the most exclusive club in the world, with a membership of two, and nobody would want to leave such an exclusive club, no matter how difficult things get. Paul Begala, a longtime political advisor to the Clintons, used to tell friends that he thought the key to the relationship was that both Clintons looked at the other and said, "I can't believe that this person is willing to be with me." Bill Clinton really does believe that his wife is among the most honorable and intelligent people he's ever met. And I think Hillary Clinton looks at Bill Clinton and thinks that he's one of the most phenomenal personalities ever to be in politics, and she finds that highly attractive. Maggie Williams, who was a longtime friend and aide of Hillary Clinton's, once told the political operative Harold Ickes, "You have to realize that Hillary Clinton grew up as the class grind. She was the girl with glasses studying hard and getting straight As—and she looks at Bill Clinton and asks, How did I end up going out with the most popular guy in school?" So I think that's the essential dynamic that carries them through many ups and downs.

Now, in political terms, I think that Hillary Clinton becoming the person actually out facing voters has revived the relationship. She told Harold Ickes, "I never knew how good Bill was at this till I tried to do it myself." And I think Bill Clinton enjoys being useful to his wife—enjoys playing the role for her that she played for him in the first twenty years of their relationship. I think if she runs for president, on the one hand he's going to be highly supportive of that, and highly supportive of her winning, because if she were to get elected president that is indeed a real historical validation of his eight years. But I also think that he knows that it's going to require exceptional self-discipline for him to allow her to be at center stage, to stay on message, to not do anything that would interfere with the season in their relationship when it's her turn to be in the dominant role. And I don't think that necessarily comes easily to him.

Right, I can imagine that he might have a little trouble with his ego. But I also imagine that he would be the ultimate campaign advisor for her.

That's true, although one can overstate that, because all campaigns are really about being immersed in the moment and the particular circumstances that someone is facing. At the beginning of her campaign for the Senate, the political meetings would typically be at the White House. Toward the end of the campaign some of the strategists were always happier when the meetings were out of the White House and up in New York, because Bill Clinton's advice, while well-intentioned, oftentimes was a little bit irrelevant. It just didn't reflect the realities of the particular problems they were facing day-in, day-out. Although Bill Clinton's got a great political line, needless to say, I think it's easy to overstate the idea that he's a strategic genius who has an answer in every situation.

If Hillary runs for president, do you think she has any chance of winning?

Obviously she has enormous hurdles to overcome in terms of her national reputation, but people who think that she could never win haven't looked really carefully at what she did in New York. She overcame a lot of those same hurdles, and she did it with more than just traditionally Democratic votes. Who she really is as a person; what she stands for politically, ideologically; what makes her tick—those are always the questions about Hillary Clinton. To date, she's been able to answer them in ways that have satisfied the people who needed to know. She'd have to do it on a much, much larger scale if she ran for president.

Let's go back to Clinton's presidency for a bit. You always hear how polling is important during campaigns, but I was a little surprised by the extent to which Clinton relied on it throughout much of his presidency. And I'm wondering if you think all that polling ultimately helped him, or distracted him. Also, why was a politician as supposedly intuitive as Bill Clinton so reliant upon the polls?

Bill Clinton, after his disastrous start in 1993 and '94, resolved that he was never going to allow himself or his presidency to become so estranged from public opinion. He felt he'd been portrayed in the public as something he wasn't during those first couple of years, so never again was he going to allow that to happen. I think that far from distracting him, those polls were critical to how he survived repeated crises—both the political crisis of how to respond to Newt Gingrich in 1995 and then win re-election in 1996, and the personal crisis of how to respond to the Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Bill Clinton is to some degree an intuitive politician, but he's also very much a data-driven politician. It always will vastly increase his confidence if he feels he knows, not based on a hunch but based on hard data, what the public thinks. That is not the same thing as saying that he always does what the polls tell him to do. That's not true. There are plenty of examples over those eight years where he didn't simply take the more popular approach. But he always will want to know what that approach is. The presidency is predominantly a political job, so for him to rely on polling was perfectly natural.

Dick Morris once said about Clinton, "In a room, he will instinctively, as if by a canine sense of smell, find anyone who shows reserve toward him, and he will work full time on winning his approval and, if possible, affection." So how did Clinton deal with the visceral hatred of him felt by so much of the country? Was it especially painful for him?

I think that he found it searing. Franklin Roosevelt loved his enemies—in other words, he loved the contempt they had for him and he returned it. I don't think that is true of Bill Clinton. He felt that the opposition he faced from the right was not simply political—it was personal and it was illegitimate. I'm sympathetic to that. But I feel like his great political challenge was to make that opposition irrelevant, and instead, at various junctures in his presidency—through the handling of the Whitewater matter, through the raw material that he gave to his opponents in the whole Lewinsky episode—far from rendering that opposition irrelevant, he ended up making it central to his presidency. And that's a self-inflicted wound. That's not anything that was done to him even by his worst opponents.

In thinking about Clinton, many people see him as the epitome of the politician who never tells the truth, or who tells his audience what they want to hear. Yet repeatedly throughout the book you argue that this view of Clinton is wrong, that in fact, by the standards of politics, he was "guiless" and "free of artifice." Why is the conventional wisdom off in this case?

Well, the name that got branded on him way back in Arkansas was "Slick Willie." And it's not a great mystery where it comes from—he's got a penchant for equivocating under pressure, or occasionally resorting to a smart-alec answer, the most famous example being when he answered whether or not he was having a relationship with Lewinsky by saying, "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." But in the more fundamental sense there's nothing really slick about Bill Clinton. He's effectively a transparent person. If something is on his mind, invariably it will soon be on his lips—he'll be talking about it. As a reporter, I knew that the times to really be covering Bill Clinton, to really pay attention, were at the end of the day, once the official news-making events were over. He'd speak at fundraisers, and it didn't matter what the official line was, his true feelings inevitably came pouring out in these settings. I think one reason Bill Clinton is a good politician is that the distance between the private Clinton and the public Clinton is relatively small. If Bill Clinton is talking to you off the record, he's going to be more informal, he might be somewhat more profane, he's going to indulge a measure of self-pity that he wouldn't in public, but basically, in terms of what he really believes, what he gets excited about, what he's animated over, what at the end of the day he is fighting for—it's precisely the same thing that he'd say on a public stage. I know lots of politicians—I think Al Gore is one—for whom the distance between what they are like in private versus what they feel they have to be in public is an enormously wide gulf. In Gore's case it was an unbridgeable gulf.

Maybe that accounted for the awkwardness that you saw with him.

I think it's the principal explanation for the awkwardness—that he would have to start each day by getting up and thinking, What can I say?, rather than just saying what he thought.

Right, he'd have to switch from the "home" Al to the "campaign" Al. For me the most painful parts of the book were the descriptions of Gore's run for the presidency—how he just visibly deflated in Clinton's presence, and how what had been a good relationship between them really soured once he was campaigning. This is another one of those "what ifs," but do you think the election would have turned out differently if Gore hadn't chosen to distance himself from Clinton?

Al Gore wasn't making up the phenomenon of Clinton fatigue in 2000. There was such a thing, and it was causing problems for him. That said, I don't think that it was an insurmountable political problem. A more nimble politician, like Bill Clinton, would have easily figured out a way to overcome and soar above that problem. But it just wasn't possible for Gore to do that. He's not as talented politically, and he was facing more than a political problem. I think at some level he was facing a psychological problem: his intense feelings of resentment toward Bill Clinton. And I think some of those feelings long predated the Lewinsky scandal. They were kept under the surface through incredible self-discipline for much of the presidency. At the time it really mattered, though, they erupted to the surface, and they were a critical barrier to Al Gore performing at his best as a politician. But Clinton was mystified by this. He would always give Gore the benefit of the doubt, long after it was apparent to most of Bill Clinton's advisors that Gore was furious at him, and that it wasn't simply politics, it was personal. But Clinton never got it. He told Gore once in 2000, "Al, there's not a person in the world who thinks you messed around with Monica Lewinsky"—meaning, in other words, just run on the record, people will hold me accountable for a personal mistake, but the public record of the administration is there for you to run on. That's probably true, but it wasn't a step Gore could take.

I was wondering what you see as Clinton's role going forward. Do you see him becoming a Jimmy Carter-type figure?

I don't see him laboring in obscurity much of the time, as Carter did for a good decade after he left the presidency. I don't think we're likely to see Bill Clinton in blue jeans with a hammer in an obscure African village. I think he enjoys his life of celebrity, of globe-trotting, of knowing all manner of interesting heads of state, wealthy people, celebrities. But I don't think there's anything frivolous about the life he's carrying on right now. I think he's doing what he does best for pretty useful purposes. For example, the work that he's doing on AIDS, in which he can use his celebrity to draw the attention of drug companies and get them to negotiate lower rates for AIDS treatment in the developing world, is a useful role for Bill Clinton's particular star power. I think generally what he sees himself doing is representing a benign vision of America's role in the world in this increasingly globalized age. He very rarely makes the contrast between him and Bush explicit, but it's almost always there in an implicit way. He says, "Look, unless you believe you can invade, jail, or occupy all your enemies, we need a world where America's got fewer enemies and more friends." I think Bill Clinton devoutly believes that he can present a benevolent face of America that relies more on community and persuasion than on force, whereas in his view what the Bush administration represents is the notion that force is the way that we achieve our goals in the world.

These days it seems like all the world leaders are thinking, Oh, God, we wish we had Clinton back. But your book makes the point that at the beginning of his presidency Clinton's inexperience drove a lot of world leaders crazy. It was interesting seeing the perspective that Clinton wasn't always this revered figure in terms of foreign policy.

Well, for the first couple of years he did what a lot of presidents do, which is to imagine that foreign policy's a priesthood that's only barely comprehensible to people outside the priesthood, and that they're to accept the advice of their elders. What was incredibly liberating for him was his realization that at the end of the day most foreign policy problems are at bottom political problems; in other words, they rely on skills of persuasion and finding some kind of defensible middle ground that can allow people to compromise—the same sort of skills that are second nature to him in a domestic context. And I think once he had that understanding he never again was subordinate to the priesthood. He never again thought of himself as faking it on a world stage, which is, I think, how he did think of himself in '93 and '94—I'm here with all these heads of state, but at some level it's a put-on. After 1995, and in particular after the Dayton Peace Accords in November of 1995, I never again saw Bill Clinton in any foreign context where he wasn't clearly the most commanding figure among any group of heads of state.

You describe how Clinton eventually came up with a "general theory of peacemaking," which involved using U.S. power to convey legitimacy on leaders like Gerry Adams and Yasser Arafat, in the hopes that that would give them the ballast they needed to help push their people to accept peace. Could he continue to apply this theory now, or does it depend too much on presidential power?

I think it's heavily dependent on presidential power—it's one of the reasons that he loved the job. And he did love the job. He used to say at the end of his presidency, Even the bad days were good. And I think that is how he viewed it. That's not to say that he can't be useful in a foreign context in terms of helping craft peace agreements, but there's really nothing like the power and mystique of the office, and even Bill Clinton's outsized personality doesn't have the same leverage in an ex-presidential setting.

Has the public's attitude toward him changed now that we have a little perspective on his presidency?

I think that even many on the right now feel some measure of respect and appreciation for him as a rogue and as a survivor—as opposed to the intense bile that they felt at the time. I think most of the real animus is probably going to transfer to Hillary Clinton. She's a contemporary figure, not somebody who is viewed retrospectively. So every bit of opposition that he faced is probably going to now be focused on her.

Do you have a sense of what his legacy will be? I guess it depends to some extent on whether she runs, and how that run goes if she does.

I think it does depend on what happens to Hillary Clinton, because that's going to affect the historical prism through which he's viewed. My essential take on Bill Clinton is that however irresponsible he sometimes was in his personal life, at the end of the day, in his policy decisions, he made what he believed to be the responsible choice. There's a Hot Springs, Arkansas, side of his personality that is very populist, but I tend to think it's the Georgetown-Oxford-New Haven part of his persona that proved decisive on most policy questions. He gravitated naturally to the prescriptions of a certain breed of progressive-minded expert—people like Bob Rubin or Bruce Reed—and that allowed him to compile a pretty good record. The country was better off at the end of the nineties than it was at the beginning of the nineties. That's the essential reason he survived. But I do think that he thrived as a defensive politician—that is, when he was defining himself in opposition to others and when he was fighting back from crisis. I don't think a defensive-minded presidency is ideally designed to be placed in the first tier of history. I think the greatest leaders tend to impose their own values on the age, and Clinton spent much of his time navigating his circumstances, rather than creating the circumstances.

That makes me think of that conversation you recounted between him and Dick Morris, where Morris said. Oh, well, I guess you're probably a third-tier president, and that the only way for Clinton to move up to the first tier was through some event like a war. It's amazing that they actually had that conversation—but it also must have been very frustrating to Clinton that he recognized where he was, and that he was never going to get to the first tier.

Well, he might not accept my appraisal of his presidency now that it's done. And there's no reason that my appraisal—or his—is the last word. My favorite description of history comes from a Dutchman named Pieter Geyl, who said that history is an argument without end. And I definitely think that's the case when it comes to Bill Clinton. We're going to be, as a people, debating this guy for decades to come.

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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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