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by John Harris
"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."
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.