Millions of Americans despise Bill Clinton. They have done so since he became a presence in national politics in the early 1990's, and they continue to do so today, more than four years after his retirement from public office.
The passion of the Clinton haters is a phenomenon without equal in recent American politics. It is not based on any specific policies that Clinton promoted or implemented during his years in office. It is almost entirely personal. In its persistence and intensity, it goes far beyond anything that comparable numbers of people have felt about Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or either of the presidents Bush. It surpasses even the liberals' longstanding detestation of Richard Nixon. The only political obsession comparable to it in the past century is the hatred that a significant minority of Americans felt for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In this respect the phenomenon is all the more puzzling. Roosevelt made enormous and sometimes reckless changes in the American government and economy, and when his critics loathed him for it, he loathed them back. “They are unanimous in their hate for me” he said of them in his 1936 re-election campaign, “and I welcome their hatred.” Clinton, on the other hand, was a centrist who undertook no dramatic transformations of society or government and, what was more, showed himself to be an instinctive conciliator who believed in compromise almost to a fault.
Viewed in historical perspective, Clinton-hatred is not easy to explain. Certainly the Monica Lewinsky affair does not explain it. The people who detested the president after that dalliance became public were essentially the same ones who had detested him in 1992. They merely grew louder.
There is, of course, a simpler argument that some Clinton haters use to explain the persistence of their passion. They say that he was, to put it bluntly, a very bad president—immature, self-absorbed, indecisive in domestic affairs and disastrously weak when it came to representing America in the affairs of the world.
It is this argument that John F. Harris utterly demolishes in The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, his thorough, readable and scrupulously honest account of the Clinton years. Harris, who was The Washington Post's White House correspondent from 1995 through 2000, is no Clinton apologist. His portraits of the decision-making process he witnessed reveal a president who indeed lacked discipline in his daily routine; examined and re-examined policy choices endlessly, to the frustration of his advisers; and was fearful about the use of military force abroad, even in behalf of the most defensible causes.
But over the course of 500 pages, Harris also documents the history of a president who, however frustrating he may have been in style and method, usually made the right choices in the end—even when he felt that he was hurting himself politically. The 1993 spending cuts and tax increases, over which he agonized for months, ultimately reduced the federal deficit, reassured financial markets and set in motion the prosperity that marked the second half of the decade. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which Clinton signed against the advice of his closest Democratic allies, turned out to be the most successful domestic policy initiative of the 1990's.
On Bosnia in the early years and then on Kosovo in 1999, the president did shrink from military action while hostilities continued and innocent people died. But the war in Bosnia was settled at an administration-sponsored peace conference in Ohio in 1995, and a few weeks of American bombing persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to give up his assault on Kosovo in 1999. By the time Clinton left office, Bosnia was in the midst of a peaceful recovery, and Milosevic had been deposed from power and was awaiting trial as a war criminal.
Harris tells all the important stories of the Clinton years in detached, workmanlike prose that not only tracks the events and decisions but offers perceptive judgments of the figures who were close to the president as they unfolded. The national security adviser, Sandy Berger, was “a shrewdly political man” who, when Clinton barked at him, “was comfortable barking right back.” The chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, was a natural organizer who, as Harris saw him, protested a little too often about his preference for business over politics. The treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, had “an appreciation for shades of gray and a disdain for absolutes that were very much like Clinton's.”
Most impressive is Harris's balance and fairness. All of Clinton's conspicuous personal failings are detailed, including the sexual obsessions that ultimately cost him much of his reputation. But his warmth, optimism and sense of larger purpose come through equally well. “However heedless he could sometimes be in his personal life,” Harris writes in the closing pages, “Clinton brought a dutiful sensibility to his public life.” Having tangled with the president numerous times over eight years of reporting on him—and having chronicled some of those conflicts openly in the pages of his newspaper—Harris sounds at the end very much as if he would enjoy having a few dinners with Clinton in years to come. In this, he is similar to so many of the people, from all walks of life, who have come to know Bill Clinton well—including a large number of his political enemies. If it were only Clinton's admirers who enjoyed his company, he would not be the social celebrity he has become since 2001.
Most presidents—most public leaders—are complex human beings, and that is certainly true in Clinton's case. But as Harris makes clear, he was more than that: he was a man who appreciated complexities and pondered them endlessly; who saw the ambiguity in nearly any policy situation; who loved to tease out the subtleties and distinctions that lesser minds found uninteresting. Occasionally during the Clinton presidency, writers dredged up Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first-rate intelligence: that of someone who could hold two opposed ideas in his head at the same time and still function. No one in the past century of American politics met that test better than Clinton.
Sometimes it brought him serious trouble, as when he labored to tell the literal but not the contextual truth to prosecutors in the Lewinsky case, and left much of the public angry at him. Sometimes it made him maddeningly slow to make up his mind. Erskine Bowles once marveled at Clinton's ability to “analyze all the factors, all the risks and opportunities, and weigh them brilliantly.” On those occasions, Bowles said, all the president needed was someone who could make sure he wasn't influenced to change his mind by the last old friend whom he happened to talk to on the phone. Such is the hazardous life of any politician blessed—or cursed—by the ability to see all sides of a difficult question.
But if Clinton was indecisive, he was also supremely resilient. This is the quality that seems most to impress Harris, and the one the title of his book emphasizes. Clinton may have been a man plagued by uncertainties, but he was also a man who never gave up. Not when the Republicans humiliated him in the 1994 election; not when they seemed to have him cornered in budget negotiations the following year; not when the Lewinsky case seemed as if it would force him out of office in disgrace. “I'm the big rubber clown you had as a kid,” he told Newt Gingrich, his Republican nemesis, in 1995. “The harder you hit me, the faster I come back up.” That very trait—documented by Harris in situation after situation—portrays a strength of character seldom acknowledged by Clinton's many critics.
If, as Harris believes, Clinton was in the most important ways a competent president—and certainly not a combative or ideological one—then the conundrum of Clinton-hatred remains essentially unsolved. Harris does try to explain it. He suggests—as others have—that Clinton, not entirely through his own doing, suffered as the embodiment of a generation and a set of values that much of the country had never understood or been willing to accept. He was the tangible symbol of the Baby Boom, its conceits, its self-absorption, its lack of discipline and failures of responsibility. He was a child of the 1960's preaching to millions of people who had never come to terms with the 1960's and didn't want to be reminded of them.
Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary and close friend since their Oxford days together, told Harris that Clinton's personal history of youthful rebellion and conventional adult success, all achieved without significant personal sacrifice, was threatening to many Americans, even if they themselves did not entirely understand why. And so they despised him. And they despised his wife. Whether Hillary Clinton manages in the end to overcome this generational taint may be one of the more significant political questions of the next few years.
The generational issue is surely not the only explanation of Clinton hatred, but it may be the most persuasive one anybody has presented so far. Ultimately there will be others. The debate about Bill Clinton, about his character and achievements and moral worth, will go on long after the subject himself has departed from the scene. Clinton “was too vital and too vexing a character to be easily forgotten or dismissed,” Harris writes. This is a complex, interesting and subtle book about a complex, interesting and subtle man.
John F. Harris has done the impossible. He's written a book about Bill Clinton that is insightful, comprehensive and above all reasonable in measuring the former president's strengths and weaknesses, achievements and failures. George Stephanopoulos once said that Clinton ignited so much emotion that he drove people crazy. Harris, a Washington Post reporter who covered the Clinton White House, has proved admirably immune to that frenzy, unless you consider it an act of madness in today's politically polarized atmosphere to try writing a balanced book about a president who inspired such passions.
Clinton left office only a little more than four years ago, but his reputation has already oscillated through several distinct cycles, even among Democrats. In 2000, Al Gore ran away from him, fearing that voters would place more weight on Clinton's personal failures than on his policy achievements. Through President Bush's first term, Clinton regained luster with Democrats as they contrasted his economic record (balanced budgets, rising incomes, nearly 23 million new jobs over eight years) with the economy's lackluster performance under his successor. Now, after John Kerry's defeat, the cycle may be turning again, as more and more Democrats (especially on the left) argue that Bush's concentration on energizing his base with a starkly ideological agenda offers a better model for regaining the White House than did Clinton's emphasis on persuading swing voters with his "third way" centrism.
In Harris' new biography, The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, he correctly concludes that the often ridiculed "micro-initiatives" Clinton pursued—on such issues as school safety and teen smoking—after the Republican congressional takeover in 1994 cumulatively advanced goals important to Democrats. He shows how Clinton's foreign policy gained confidence and subtlety as his experience deepened. And he demonstrates, especially in an extended account of welfare reform that is one of the book's highlights, how Clinton forced Democrats to rethink domestic policies that had grown both ineffective and politically damaging.
On all these fronts, Harris regularly takes readers inside the Oval Office. Clinton apparently did not speak to him, but many of his top advisors did. The result is a personal portrait both fresh and full. Clinton emerges as brilliant, moody, dogged, resilient, intermittently self-pitying and profane. New anecdotes capture him as candidly as an unexpected snapshot. One of the most telling is Clinton's explanation of why he called Lewinsky "that woman" in the initial television appearance in which he falsely denied a sexual relationship with her. When he stalked away from the lectern, still shaking with anger, Clinton told an aide that he had used that slightly contemptuous phrase because he "blanked out on her name." (It's difficult to say whether Clinton looks worse if he genuinely forgot Lewinsky's name or falsely claimed he did.)
The book stumbles at points. Harris interrupts his flow too often for mini-profiles of Clinton aides and advisors, losing momentum in a misguided attempt to humanize the story. He's sometimes too quick to see Clinton's "New Democrat" agenda solely as a tactical retreat before conservative arguments. A wider lens would have helped too; this is very much a life, rather than a life and times. Harris offers too little about how Clinton's policies affected the country, how his political strategy affected the Democratic Party and how his allies and enemies maneuvered in response to his initiatives. More of that outside story would have deepened Harris' insider account of how Clinton operated in the Oval Office.
But the story Harris does tell is vivid and enlightening. At least until scholars gain access to more of the administration's internal papers, The Survivor is likely to stand as the most comprehensive account of Clinton's presidency. The verdict on his term that Clinton probably cares most about will come from the electorate if his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, someday seeks the presidency. In the meantime, he won't find a judge more thoughtful or thorough than Harris.
Not too long ago I went up to Harlem to see Bill Clinton. Our talk was off the record, so I cannot tell you what he said, but I can say—can't I?—that he was smart and encyclopedic and wise and knowledgeable. As always, I was impressed, but then, shortly afterward, I read The Survivor, John Harris's smoothly readable new book about the Clinton presidency, and I could hear the air going out of a balloon and the soft, weary voice of Peggy Lee singing, "Is that all there is?" In Clinton's case the answer apparently is yes.
It's hard to describe the disconnect, the contrast, between Bill Clinton the man and Bill Clinton's two-term presidency. The charm, the brilliance, the sureness and all the rest somehow produced a presidency that never lived up to its potential. I say that with considerable reluctance, since to give Clinton no better than a grade of C is, somehow, to legitimize his critics. That is more than I intend—and much more than they deserve.
But Harris has written a brief that is hard to ignore. It does not come this time from either a Clinton partisan or enemy but from a Post reporter who covered his presidency and whose fairness— he has no dog in the fight about Clinton—cannot be doubted. His, in fact, is the first book about the Clinton presidency that comes from an objective journalist or historian. As such, it is bound to set the standard for those that follow.
If so, the initial historical ranking of Clinton will be pretty much what Dick Morris said it would be back in 1996. In one of his routine phone calls to the president, Morris said he had been thinking about Clinton's place in history. Of the 40 men who had preceded Clinton, Morris said, only 18 had truly made history and only five of those—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson and FDR—qualified as "first tier." As for Clinton, Morris had to tell his friend he was "borderline third tier." Nothing that happened in the next four years moved Clinton up.
As Harris points out—and Morris always said—a great president needs a great crisis. Clinton had to make his own—impeachment—and that hardly qualifies. Even the mini ones—Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Rwanda and, ultimately, Osama bin Laden—were either mishandled at first (Haiti, Bosnia) or not handled at all (Rwanda) or handled unsuccessfully (bin Laden) or in a way that prolonged the crisis (Kosovo and the pledge not to use ground troops). He did better with the Mexican and Asian economic crises, but then he did better, and boldly, with his treasury secretaries than with his initial foreign policy team.
Domestically, the record is better. During Clinton's presidency crime went down and so did the welfare rolls and teenage pregnancy. Twenty-two million jobs were created, the budget deficit became a surplus and the stock market went into its irrationally exuberant phase. Lots of people made lots of money. If Clinton were a Republican, Congress would already have named an airport for him.
Then, too, maybe a dollop of greatness will be granted Clinton for the way he restrained the Vandals of the GOP from sacking Washington. When you consider that Clinton survived and Newt Gingrich did not, you can appreciate that a certain genius was at work. Harris reports that Gingrich told Clinton to his face, "Mr. President, we're going to run you out of town." But it was Gingrich who flamed out and Clinton who survived and left office with an approval rating way over 60 percent—a figure George Bush can see only in the rearview mirror.
A certain sadness attaches to Harris's book. The personal story remains fascinating. But it is also a story about growth, about learning how to be president and finally getting it down just about when Ken Starr rose from the muck, with a blue dress for a shiny sword and an obsession for a duty. Had that not happened, we probably would have seen a convergence between the man and his performance—maybe a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, maybe a better coordinated and more robust effort to get bin Laden and, almost certainly, a passing of the baton to Al Gore. Blame it on Clinton, blame it on Starr or just blame the times. Either way and anyway, it remains a gripping tale. Clinton may merely have survived but Harris, as you will see, has triumphed.
It is called The Survivor, but this history of the Clinton presidency by Washington Post political reporter John F. Harris could just as easily have been called The Roller Coaster. If it had seemed improbable at the time that the governor of Arkansas could become a two-term president of the United States, it seems equally improbable in the retelling. In vivid detail, Harris leads us through the ups and downs of a presidency that seemed to end soon after it began, only to adapt and at times soar in the face of adversity.
For every negative characterization of Clinton's management style—see “tardiness, tantrums, turmoil among his staff”—Harris offers the flip side: a president bursting with restless energy, generous of spirit, and entertaining to watch, "always loading his plate a little higher at life's buffet." Harris also presents plenty of evidence to belie the notion that the president slavishly followed the lead of opinion polls. When Clinton pushed for deficit reduction, propped up the Mexican peso, and intervened in the Kosovo crisis, he did so despite a wary public. At the same time, Harris recounts, Clinton seemed especially adept at taking divisive social issues, such as school prayer and affirmative action, and threading the proverbial needle, so as to give most Americans a feeling that he understood their point of view—even if he wasn't doing exactly what they wanted.
Behind the scenes, of course, Clinton flirted with self-destruction as he carried on a sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and nearly lost it all, both office and family. Overcoming the shame and public mendacity that episode brought—culminating in impeachment but not conviction—represents the ultimate example of Clinton as survivor.
Harris took on a gargantuan task—assessing a presidency that has already been analyzed from many perspectives, including those of Bill and Hillary Clinton in their memoirs. Harris covered the Clinton White House from 1995 to 2001, and then interviewed many key players again for this book, though apparently not the Clintons themselves. He presents a balanced picture, at times giving Clinton the benefit of the doubt, but with enough facts to let readers draw their own conclusions. In a few places, he includes some questionable points of gossip.
Most compelling is Harris's analysis of the relationships and behind-the scenes details that add flesh and nuance—or even contradiction—to real time news accounts.
Most important is Mrs. Clinton, now a potential presidential candidate. After Harris's early assessments of Hillary, her eventual emergence as a major Democratic figure in her own right would seem improbable. She is portrayed as peevish and imperious, demanding, for example, that Madeleine Albright be named secretary of State and leading her husband to costly political failure with her plan for healthcare reform. By the end of the book, she gets credit for learning a thing or two: "After eight years in Washington, she had become ever alert to the perils of overreach."
Al Gore fares less well. Harris seems to agree with the Clintons' view that Vice President Gore has no one but himself to blame for losing the 2000 election, given the time of peace and prosperity.
Back in the larger-than-life column sits Dick Morris, the political guru credited with rescuing Clinton in time for him to win reelection easily – but a man so divisive that his role sat hidden for months. "Their collaboration carried an aroma of prostitution - a relationship that was thoroughly transactional, at once intimate and impersonal, driven by mutual need with an overlay of shame," Harris writes artfully.
In these highly partisan times, Clinton-haters will likely find Harris's eve toned take unsatisfying. But as the jockeying begins for the 2008 presidential race, there's much to be learned from the story of a man who won the presidency twice, even if he never quite cracked the 50 percent mark at the ballot box.
I confess I wasn't looking forward to reading The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John Harris. I've read Clinton's My Life, Hillary Clinton's Living History and a half-dozen books about the Clintons by critics and admirers alike. I figured I knew more than I wanted to know about the Clintons' political and personal lives.
But I was delightfully surprised and informed by The Survivor. It's a dispassionate, insightful and balanced assessment of the man and president who inspired the most basic question, even among his aides: "Is this guy for real?"
Harris, a Washington Post reporter who covered the last six years of the Clinton White House, concludes that he was real while being "facile and entertaining, self-absorbed and self-justifying (and) undeniably impressive."
Harris is interested in policy, politics and personalities. He covers familiar territory and adds a few details, mostly who said what to whom in an administration full of warring factions. But his most valuable contribution is context and how in crisis after crisis, Clinton "preferred—and needed—to preserve his options," although that was often maddening to his aides. The book also is a reminder of how much the media, fairly or not, put Clinton on the defensive, in contrast with the Bush administration, which has put the media on the defensive. Harris doesn't minimize Clinton's self-destructive behavior and erratic decision-making style, but he defends him, if not on Clinton's terms:
*"It was not true, as Bill Clinton's most jaundiced observers would have it, that he would do anything for political survival. It was true that most of his principles were sufficiently elastic that they could accommodate political realities without a crisis of conscience."
*"The stereotype of Clinton as a supremely guileful and deceptive politician was essentially wrong. On important matters, his real sentiments always surfaced, no matter how his staff tried to keep him 'on message.'"
*"Clinton was not a corrupt public servant. But, on matters ranging from Whitewater to fundraising to Monica Lewinsky, he had followed a pattern of limited disclosure, evasive or false public explanations, and shabby personal conduct."
*"While he was not by instinct a truthful man about his personal life, flatly untruthful statements were not his first instinct, either. His preference was for qualified and equivocal language that could give reassurance to audiences who needed it."
The book is written as an engrossing "you are there" narrative, as if Harris was privy to private meetings and intimate conversations. Of course, he wasn't. He relies on people who were there, or their friends or critics. His reporting is supported by 31 pages of notes, but many cite unidentified advisers, associates and background interviews. One of those unidentified sources says that when Bob Woodward, Harris' colleague at The Washington Post, was working on his 1994 book, The Agenda, about Clinton's economic plan, Clinton pleaded with him: "I'm worried you're going to make me look like a madman." Woodward's book portrayed the Clinton White House in "a harsh but revealing light," Harris writes. "In historical terms, both the book and the economic policies it describes have held up well."
Harris' book should hold up well, too. If the best journalism is a rough first draft of history, then The Survivor is a good second draft. It's too soon for anyone to write Clinton's definitive biography. For now, Harris has come closer than anyone. As for Clinton's legacy, Harris concludes: "A presidency that spent so much of its time operating on defensive premises, and recovering from self-inflicted wounds, was ill suited to presidential greatness."
But if Hillary Clinton becomes president or even remains a key senator for a sustained tenure, he writes, "she could help determine how history views Bill Clinton's presidency."
We haven't heard the last of the great political survivor.
Historical assessments of presidential administrations follow a drearily predictable pattern. First come the briefs for and against, then the partial, padded, and self-serving memoirs (those concerning Clinton’s reign, including the ones written by the former President
and First Lady, aren’t better or worse than the usual lot, but they’re especially cringe-inducing). The reading public, if it’s particularly unlucky, will also be treated to a treacly quasi-official history of the Sorensenian or Schlesingerian variety. All these products are, of course, forms of special pleading, and all are therefore more or less dishonest. And journalists’ instant histories, for their part, either reflect the agendas of their sources or read like an assemblage of old Newsweek stories. Harris, who covered the Clinton White House for the Washington Post, has larger ambitions. True, he obviously has nicely placed sources, and they’ve dished him some B-plus dirt (meaning gossip that’s contrary to the official story and often embarrassing to the former president, although is now of merely historical interest). But he judiciously uses that gossip to elucidate significant policy or political decisions, or to show how that administration was hobbled by scandals of its own making (or by cover-ups, stonewalling, or prevarications concerning same). Harris, in short, has written a responsible, honest, tough, and--best of all--considered assessment of Clinton’s presidency that will endear him to neither Clinton’s enthusiastic supporters nor his vitriolic detractors. Undeniably, the administration lurched from indignity to indignity, which meant that it was usually operating defensively and that Clinton’s governing was often marked by passivity and drift. But Harris convincingly limns a defining and enduring (and Wall Street-friendly) Clinton ideology: “a mild but innovative brand of liberalism that favored economic growth over redistribution, insisted that government pay its way rather than rely on budget deficits, and embraced free trade rather than taking refuge in protectionism.” To be sure, Harris demonstrates that Clinton (almost certainly to a greater extent than his successor) appreciated the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, but he also demonstrates that Clinton’s anxiety that his motives would be held suspect prevented him from adequately meeting that threat. And indeed, “he had followed a pattern of limited disclosure, evasive or false public explanations, and shabby personal conduct,” so his “presumption of suspicion was far from unreasonable.” In this crucial way, Harris concludes, Clinton failed to conduct a responsible presidency. And in this as in so many other ways, Clinton proved himself, to borrow from Fitzgerald, a man of vast carelessness, who ruinously made the personal political and left it to others to clean up the mess he made.
May 25, 2005
By Ted Widmer
Presidents move in the polls long after they leave office, and armchair historians can hold endless conversations about who belongs with the great, the near great and the mass of lesser mortals. Harry Truman departed the White House with abysmal ratings, but 50 years later, thanks to a series of engaging books about his colorful personality, he ranks as one of the most popular Presidents of the 20th century, revered by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Where Bill Clinton fits into the ebb and flow of history is not yet known. The very word "history" is still a bit awkward with this extraordinarily mobile man, moving across the globe at warp speed on behalf of AIDS and tsunami victims and still moving, despite 13 years of unprecedented exposure, in the hearts of the American people.
John Harris' important new book is without doubt a sign that history, with all its plodding seriousness, is catching up to the go-go 90's. That's good news. For too long, since Mr. Clinton began his improbable run, this supersized American story has been distorted by extremist views, particularly from the right, which continues to wipe out forests in its zeal to publish as much defamatory material on the Clintons as it can find or fabricate.
Neither side will be entirely happy with The Survivor, which is probably just right. At the end of the day, this is a smart reflection on those mercurial years from one of Washington's best reporters (importantly, one who came of age under Mr. Clinton). It's scrupulously researched; it's well-written; and, to a surprising degree, it's calm—not an adjective we usually find in Clintonland.
I was there for many of the events Mr. Harris witnessed, perceiving them through the parallel but quite distinct lens of a speechwriter. It's incredible how distant it all feels at times—another century, and another country as well: We were such a different nation when Mr. Clinton came to Washington that we almost need a passport to get back to it. But every now and then, I'll discover a piece of confetti in a suit pocket and realize that parade in Accra or Sofia or Tegucigalpa really happened.
Not quite a biography, The Survivor is a comprehensive inside portrait of the Clinton Presidency. As we might expect from a Washington Post reporter, there's a lot of politics here, the endless give and take with friends and enemies to push through legislation—not so different from your average West Wing episode. There's also a narrative arc, familiar to readers of 19th-century novels, of a talented protagonist who enters a dangerous city, is beset by problems of his own making and snares laid by others, survives a near-fatal crisis and emerges a changed person. There's quite a lot on the Lewinsky crisis, which Mr. Harris experienced up close. There are also insightful reflections on the Presidency, the eight years and the man himself.
It was a long eight years, as Mr. Clinton's admirers and detractors can both safely agree. (There are 76 million pages of documents in Little Rock to prove it.) It was also an important time of transition, one that we haven't fully come to grips with yet. Mr. Harris does a good job reminding us of the feel as well as the facts of those years. And he persuasively asserts that the entire tenor of the decade-to-be changed when Mr. Clinton forced a reluctant Congress (including zero Republicans) to adopt his program of fiscal discipline in 1993, leading to the prosperity that will always provide a sparkly backdrop to the Clinton story.
That's one of several compliments Mr. Harris pays to Mr. Clinton. The book is carefully calibrated and avoids emotional extremes, but the grudging respect of its title becomes clearer by the book's end. Mr. Harris reminds us of the unpopularity of the courageous decision to bail out the Mexican peso, and steps back now and then with some astonishment to comment on how much good policy was enacted. He also admires Mr. Clinton's foreign policy, generally ignored by the commentariat, and this marks a genuine step forward for The Survivor. There were obvious early missteps in Somalia and Haiti, and a disastrous failure to intervene in Rwanda, but Mr. Harris detects growing confidence from Bosnia onward, as well as a clear international vision for America's importance on the world stage.
Because he knows the eight years so well, Mr. Harris avoids a pitfall that has tripped up previous writers—namely, to interpret the entire administration through the prism of 1993, when pizza boxes were piled around the White House and rancorous discussions divided staffers who looked too young for their jobs. Mr. Harris discerns roughly five major phases—the frenzy of 1993, the overreach and disaster of 1994, the recovery of 1995-97, the crisis of 1998 and the re-recovery of 1999-2000. He notes correctly that Mr. Clinton is the only President in recent memory—and perhaps the only one save Lincoln and F.D.R.—to enjoy as much popularity at the end of his term as at the beginning.
Given the vastness of Mr. Clinton's Presidency, it's perhaps unfair to expect Mr. Harris to cover it all. Still, I had the feeling that some areas were inflated, presumably because of Mr. Harris' access (i.e., the Dick Morris saga), while others were unjustly neglected. Some major moments and ideas receive scant attention: the Arafat-Rabin handshake of 1993, the speech to an African-American church in Memphis, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Family and Medical Leave Act, AmeriCorps, Mr. Clinton's friendship with Ron Brown, to list only a few.
In my own not unbiased opinion, more attention could have been paid to the tangible ways that American lives were made better during those eight years, in ways ranging from education to crime prevention, job creation and conservation. It wasn't always the sexiest news, but it was happening every day. And after going into all of the scandals that dogged the Clinton team (as he should have), Mr. Harris could have been clearer about stating that no one was ever convicted of any felony relating to official wrongdoing—in stark contrast to the Reagan/Bush years. Hardly anyone noticed, but a few weeks ago, Henry Hyde expressed doubt about the impeachment trip that he and Tom DeLay took America on.
Surprisingly, Mr. Harris neglects some big-ticket items like the Good Friday Agreement, which changed Northern Ireland forever. Or North Korea, where Mr. Clinton and his team negotiated a complex agreement that wasn't perfect, but was indisputably better than our current broken diplomacy (at last count, North Korea may have up to six nukes that didn't exist in the 1990's, with more on the way). A bit more on Mr. Clinton's unusual standing with world leaders, and his almost superhuman capacity to goad enemies into making peace with each other (usually by keeping them awake with him, past the point of normal human endurance), would have made this a fuller book. It would also have provided a public service by reminding Americans that there once was a time when Presidents did this sort of thing: The Bush administration's next peace conference will be its first.
Mr. Harris is simply wrong about terrorism. He's usually the master of his material, and confident whether addressing Mr. Clinton's strengths or weaknesses. But here he seems unsure of himself, and unpersuasive when he argues that it was ultimately Mr. Clinton's fault that few heeded his very vocal warnings about Osama bin Laden and other terrorists. It was his fault for warning us? As I recall, the press corps was oblivious, and the Republican Congress simply opposed anything Mr. Clinton proposed. Then, after George W. Bush became President, when the G.O.P. had a chance to do something about terrorism, they slashed counterterrorism funding, ignored intelligence concerning Al Qaeda and chased after chimeras like a national missile-defense system.
I wish Mr. Harris had looked at another area of accomplishment. In 1992, the year of the Rodney King riots, the United States was a racially polarized nation. In 2000, that was no longer the case, and we don't have to look far for the reason: There wasn't a week in his Presidency that Bill Clinton didn't address in some way the unfinished legacy of the civil-rights movement. Black Americans understood from the start that a President was speaking to them with a level of intelligence and sustained commitment that they had never heard before, and are not likely to hear again until we elect an African-American President. I vividly remember a small ceremony that President Clinton held to restore the honorable discharge of a black soldier who had been unjustly cashiered a century ago. There was no media coverage, no political gain—he did it simply because it felt right.
That leads to a larger point, which is that Mr. Harris' clinical detachment—necessary for a print journalist—can lead him to ignore the mystical bond that united Mr. Clinton with the American people, and which still drives his powerful appeal. Does anyone doubt that he would defeat his successor if the 22nd Amendment were repealed? Mr. Harris excels at the inside hardball of politics—the chin music. But he doesn't always convey the other kind of music, the theatrics and laughter and empathy that Mr. Clinton did so well. In the last century, only F.D.R., Kennedy and Reagan can touch him for charisma. The Irish always understood this about him, and somewhere in my desk I have a crumpled piece of paper that Seamus Heaney gave me during a Clinton visit to Dublin, quoting an ancient bit of Irish poetry. "The music of what happens," wrote Finn McCool, "that is the most beautiful music of them all." Bill Clinton could hear those celestial harmonies; most of us cannot.
A great anecdote in The Survivor has Mr. Clinton telling Robert Rubin, the Secretary of the Treasury, to "get out and talk to real people." Mr. Rubin responded, "Am I a real person?"—to which Mr. Clinton answered, "No." Despite his heroic command of his subject, Mr. Harris retains a little Beltway unreality—aware of the unhealthy cynicism of the White House press briefing room, but not entirely able to free himself from it. He knows that Mr. Clinton was "a marvelously entertaining president," "always loading his plate a little higher at life's buffet." But he can't quite allow himself to surrender his suspicion. Oddly, very little of Mr. Clinton's own version of history, copiously available in My Life, makes it into The Survivor.
Obviously, no one can write a detailed political history and a potboiler at the same time. And it's unfair to ask Mr. Harris to relinquish the skepticism that reporters carry around like a notepad. But the very excellence of Mr. Harris' effort creates nostalgia for a book that doesn't yet exist—one that will tell Bill Clinton's story with less sound and fury, and more Faulkner. One thinks a little of All the King's Men, recently filmed in New Orleans, and one longs for a latter-day Robert Penn Warren, or Edwin O'Connor, or A.J. Liebling. Sin, perseverance, redemption—isn't that what America is all about?
Still, that wistful note shouldn't detract from Mr. Harris' achievement. He has set the bar high for all who come after him, and written a big book that's worthy of his talents and his subject. To quote the final line of All the King's Men, he has taken us "out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time."
History may be an argument without end, as Mr. Harris reminds us. Bill Clinton certainly is. Americans will continue to debate the complex man who led them for eight years at the end of the 20th century, for the simple reason that he'll be an ex-President for much longer than he was President. He'll loom especially large as 2008 approaches and the full damage of President Bush's domestic and foreign policies becomes clear. We will still find reasons to hate him and to love him, according to our needs. But thanks to this book, there's now a sounder basis to the argument, and some hope that the argument might even turn into a conversation.
By Edward Morris
Bill Clinton aspired to be another Franklin D. Roosevelt, someone whose presidency
historians would rightly view as epochal. John F.Harris, who covered the last six years
of Clinton's administration for the Washington Post, concludes in The Survivor: Bill
Clinton in the White House that he fell considerably short of that mark. But Harris
credits him with being more effective and courageous than his detractors admit. The
drama in Harris? account, though, proceeds less from
Clinton's clashes with his avowed enemies than from the
irresolvable tensions between his worthy ambitions for
the nation and his own flawed character. Intelligent,
hardworking and driven though he was, it is clear that
Clinton?s chief survival trait was his resilience.
Because he grew in political wisdom during his eight
years in office and emerged triumphant into a generally
prosperous society, it is easy to forget that Clinton floundered
pathetically during the early months of his first
term—so much so that Time magazine depicted him on
its cover as "The Incredible Shrinking President." The
?villains? at this point were not the partisan Republicans
in Congress but Clinton's conflicting support team and
his own indecisiveness. Then there was the increasingly
skeptical press to deal with. When the Republicans won
the House of Representatives in 1994, his prospects really
began to look grim.
But gradually, as Harris demonstrates, Clinton started
showing traces of leadership and resolve. Disregarding
the polls, he came to the aid of Mexico when its economy
was collapsing. He intervened, albeit with excruciating caution, to stop the bloodbaths
taking place in the former Yugoslavia. He fought the tobacco industry and protected
vast stretches of federally owned land from development. It wasn't exactly the
New Deal revisited, but it wasn't such a bad deal, either.
Harris is especially adept at creating close-ups of Clinton and his advisers at work.
He deftly sketches in the context of the moment and then summarizes with bits of
recorded or remembered dialogue the essence of each encounter. Instead of keeping
his readers behind the rope, figuratively speaking, he takes them by the elbow and
drags them into the thick of the action. In one very telling scene, Clinton and his priapic
Rumpelstiltskin, Dick Morris, discuss what it will take to move the standing of his
presidency from "borderline third tier" (as Morris sees it) to "first tier."
Apart from his analytical skills, Harris also has a real gift for the apt phrase.
Describing the election-night euphoria that accompanied Clinton's 1992 victory, he
says, "[I]t was as if somebody had flicked a switch and turned off gravity in Little
Rock." When he reviews the incident in which Monica Lewinsky "flashed" her thong
underwear at the commander-in-chief, he wryly observes, "Somehow, he interpreted
this delicate signal as an invitation."
A revealing look at the Clinton presidency, characterized by great ambitions and shattering failures.
Washington Post reporter Harris traces several themes that dominated the Clinton years, many of which emerged early on. One was the so-called Travelgate affair, concerning a team of career staff dedicated to making travel arrangements for reporters on the road with the president. Hillary Clinton is said to have remarked of them, “We need those people out. We need our people in,” setting in motion their firing and a subsequent riling of a good number of reporters. She denied involvement, Bill Clinton denied knowing anything about it--and in 2000 federal prosecutors concluded that Hillary had made false statements about the matter. Another theme is a leitmotif: Harris’s favorite word for the Clintons in retreat--as they so often retreated from such topics as health care and gays in the military--is “sullen,” and sullen they often are in these pages. Yet another theme is Clinton’s resistance to established protocols, such as going through a switchboard operator to make a phone call and going to a fast-food restaurant whenever he wanted. When he discovered that the White House had a few elements in common with a prison, he became, well, sullen. Against this backdrop, Harris deftly explains critical losses that seem all the more tragic in retrospect: Had Clinton not been crippled by the matter of Monica Lewinsky, for instance, he might have been able to see through Social Security reforms before the Republicans got their fingers into the coffers. And that’s another theme: how steadily, corrosively damaging the whole sordid Lewinsky affair was, how clumsy Clinton was in handling it. Harris portrays a presidency in constant crisis, but also with an undeniable grandeur as Bill Clinton worked his charms on even the toughest opponents and urged a greater vision of America on those who listened.
A complement and corrective to the Clintons’ own memoirs, full of surprising turns that do much to explain the recent past--and the unfolding political present.
Veteran Washington Post reporter Harris traces the emotional highs and lows of a presidency with an excess of both. The book takes off after the disastrous (for Democrats) midterm elections of 1994, in part because of the arrival on-scene of a volatile Newt Gingrich and consultant Dick Morris, who is portrayed as quite sleazy. As the political wars over Whitewater and Lewinsky heat up, Harris's behind-the-scenes reporting pays dividends: he finds Gingrich boasting to Clinton, "Mr. President, we are going to run you out of town" and Clinton angrily denouncing the 1998 impeachment attempt as "a fucking coup d'état!" to a blank-faced, unsympathetic Al Gore. According to Harris, "the stereotype of Clinton as a supremely guileful and deceptive politician was essentially wrong." Instead, he views Clinton as an insecure, needy man whose frequent shifts in direction and self-destructive behavior reflected not cunning but utter lack of self-control. He also sees Clinton as growing in strength, self-confidence and wisdom over his eight years in office, and praises his courage in responding to the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. On terrorism, Harris offers a mixed verdict, crediting Clinton with recognizing the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda and expanding U.S. efforts against it while acknowledging the inadequacy of those efforts.
By Jeff Greenfield
By historical standards, President Clinton’s presidency ended the day before yesterday, but book-length assessments have long since begun to appear. Read Joe Klein’s The Natural, and you’re examining a presidency that, on the domestic front at least, accomplished large things with incremental tools such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Read Legacy by National Review editor Rich Lowry, and you’re dealing with a pathologist’s report on a fatally flawed man and message. Open Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars—if you can lift it—and there is Clinton as heroic figure, struggling to fulfill his promise while under withering, mendacious assault from ideological zealots driven to frenzy by Clinton’s political skills. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Clinton administration has been painted both as a study in dereliction and—by former National Security Advisor Richard Clarke—a presidency far more alert to the dangers of al Qaeda than the Bush team.
Washington Post reporter John F. Harris, who covered the White House during Clinton’s last six years, has made the most ambitious effort thus far: to chronicle the Clinton years in the context of the era’s political trends and to connect the successes and failures of his presidency back to his character. It is a scrupulously fair-minded book, with plenty of ammunition for both Clinton’s admirers and detractors. And if you’re like me, you’ll put the book down with the sense that you have read a modern reworking of a tragedy with a special Clintonian twist: The hero’s flaws do not bring him down (he’s earning, and is loved by, millions), but instead help put the party he led in its most perilous state in decades.
Bill Clinton arrived on the national scene after the Democrats had suffered three consecutive presidential defeats—losses that came in large measure because, as the young Arkansas governor told the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in 1991, “too many of the people who used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we are talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline.” Much of The Survivor charts the serpentine course Clinton traveled in trying to pursue policies that reflected this conviction. Harris is particularly impressive in chronicling the fight between the liberal populist inclinations of some on the president’s team (Labor Secretary Robert Reich, political aides George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala) and the more centrist views of those aides who came from the financial establishment (Lloyd Bentsen, Clinton’s first treasury secretary, and Robert Rubin, the president’s chief economic advisor and later Bentsen’s successor). Years after his 1993 tax and budget proposals squeezed through Congress--by a margin of one vote in each house—the American economy was in the best shape in its history. The Republican warnings that the budget was “a one-way ticket to recession” (Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas) and “a job killer” (then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.) were proven spectacularly wrong.
(The centrality of this budget is so seared into the conservative mind that, to this date, you can induce group angina in the editorial board room of The Wall Street Journal by suggesting that Clinton’s 1993 proposals helped convince the financial markets that the United States was serious about deficit reduction, and thus helped set the table for the economic boom of the 1990s. “No! No! It was the GOP takeover of Congress!” they will insist, without mentioning that the post-1994 Republican majority didn’t repeal a single one of Clinton’s tax hikes on the affluent.) Yet, probe deeper into the budget victory, and you see the groundwork and the conditions for political disaster. On one level, the new president knew full well that the country was deeply suspicious of politicians in general, and particularly fed up with partisanship.
(Even so tone-deaf a politician as the first President Bush knew; during his 1989 inaugural address, he literally reached out his hand to Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright as he promised an effort at bipartisanship.) Nearly one-fifth of the electorate had given its presidential votes in 1992 to Ross Perot despite clear evidence that he had left the Earth’s gravitational pull. But before Clinton and his team had learned how to find the White House mess, the chances to claim the Perot vote and stake out the middle had been kicked effectively away.
Clinton’s accommodating, I-agree-with-whomever-I-just-talked-to personality—rooted, Harris suggests, in Clinton’s childhood struggles with his alcoholic stepfather—meant that he was not about to take on congressional Democrats by making reforms to the welfare and campaign finance systems his first orders of business. A disastrous transition, one of the worst in history, had made the deeply divisive battle over gays in the military the first issue his administration tackled. The dominant political influence of Hillary Rodham Clinton—a sign of the respect Bill Clinton accorded her judgment, and/or of the debt he owed her for “standing by her man” during the Gennifer Flowers affair—made the president determined to name a woman attorney general, which in turn led to Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood each withdrawing her name from consideration. And within days of his inauguration, Clinton had decided to make health care his key domestic goal and put Hillary in charge of it—a series of decisions that had even more disastrous results.
Part of the problem, Harris says, lay in stark political fundamentals: With the federal deficit ballooning, Clinton faced “a collision between the expansive promises he made in his dream days as candidate, and the cramped possibilities that awaited him as President.” But that dilemma was exacerbated by Clinton’s own faulty political judgment. In Harris’s words: “[Clinton believed that] by doing bold things and quickly, Clinton would build support even among people who did not support him or his agenda…as it happened the most ambitious items on Clinton’s agenda, raising taxes and expanding health coverage, were the ones for which he had the hardest time garnering Republican backing in Congress. Thus a President who urgently needed to build support with independent voters instead set off on a course that stamped him as a hard-core Democrat.
Reading The Survivor is to be reminded of the sheer chaos that at times seemed to swamp the White House, from the superficial (sloppy dress, “boxers or briefs?,” chronic tardiness, all-night pizza pig-outs) to the problematic (a $200 haircut on Air Force One, the Whitewater and travel office dustups) to the tragic (the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, one of Hillary Clinton’s closest friends). It is also to be reminded of the extraordinary skills that Clinton brought to the office: a supple mind that grasped both the gravity of arcane financial issues (the Mexican peso, the Russian ruble) and the need to act. Here, and even more dramatically in Robert Rubin’s In an Uncertain World, you see a Clinton who rebuts the notion that he moved only with the political winds and the polls. Moving to shore up foreign currencies had no political upside and carried with it huge political risks. But move he did, and the world’s economic health was the better for it.
Most significant for me is how Harris charts the darker side of the Clinton years. With no ideological axe to grind, and with full appreciation for Clinton’s skills and achievements, Harris recounts the events that made possible a Republican to challenge the Democrats’ claims on the White House even after eight years of peace and prosperity—events that, he sometimes says and sometimes suggests, are rooted in the man himself.
Some of the most fascinating sections of the book deal with the Clintons’s one-time political Svengali, Dick Morris, after the 1994 mid-term debacle gave Congress to the Republicans and threatened Clinton’s political future. Morris—whose identity was hidden from most White House staffers and whose advice and memos bore the name “Charlie”—is here portrayed as the man who accurately calculated that Clinton “was masterful at tactical maneuvers, but only average as a strategic thinker.” It was Morris who advised Clinton to “triangulate, create a third position, not just in between the old positions of the two parties, but above them as well. Identify a new course that accommodates the needs the Republicans address, but does it in a way that is uniquely yours.” That, says Harris, armed Clinton with the confidence to face down the Republicans over the 1995 government shutdown and begin his successful fight for a second term.
We also see Clinton (wretched cliché approaching) “growing” in office, particularly in his role as commander-in-chief. When faced with the Serbian aggression in Bosnia in 1993, he dispatched Secretary of State Warren Christopher on a feckless mission to “persuade” the NATO partners to do... something. It took the pleadings of General Shalikashvili, Richard Holbrooke, and Anthony Lake to push Clinton into acting. By the time Kosovo threatened to explode in 1995, it was Clinton who was shoring up his wavering staff by telling them, “Folks, let’s remember what the plan is and why we did this.”
Throughout the book, Harris attempts to explain Clinton’s presidency in terms of his character—its strengths and weaknesses. His instinct to wait as long as possible before making a decision and his hunger to establish all sides of an argument served him well in his economic decisions. But that same instinct, what Harris calls his “passivity,” repeatedly deflected him from settling the Paula Jones case--which would have nullified Ken Starr’s efforts. This line of inquiry begs several other questions. Why did Clinton throw the White House open to so many disreputable characters in pursuit of needless gobs of campaign finance—especially when it was clear by early 1996 that Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) was not going to pose a real risk to reelection? Maybe because back in 1980, then-Gov. Clinton, confident of reelection, coasted through the final days and was unseated, almost ending his political life at age 34. Even before the country learned the name Monica Lewinsky, the fund-raising stories had cast a cloud over the White House that would grievously damage Al Gore’s campaign (aided, of course, by Gore’s unerring capacity to inflict even more grievous wounds on himself).
And why would a man whose presidential campaign had almost imploded in a sex scandal risk everything for a few furtive moments with a woman young enough to be his daughter? For one thing, Harris more than implies, it was not the first time in his presidency that he had run such a risk.
“An abundance of other rumors echoed,” he writes, noting that several aides took it upon themselves to keep him from temptation: “When Clinton gravitated toward an attractive woman in a crowd, or vice versa, [one aide] would try to angle his way close to make sure he was in the line of sight of any cameras.” Maybe, Harris suggests, it was the isolation that the White House imposes on any president, one felt particularly by an individual who loved nothing more than to join old friends on the spur of the moment for a late-night supper. Or maybe someone who spent his whole life believing he was smarter and shrewder than anyone around him, and who had survived all threats, believed himself invulnerable.
While it is not an explicit part of Harris’s theme, I came away from his account more convinced than ever that--whatever the case for or against impeachment--it is impossible to regard Clinton’s behavior as a “private matter” in any reasonable sense. Put aside the legalities, and Clinton’s comic manipulation of language to argue, in essence, that while Monica Lewinsky was having sexual relations with him, he was not having sexual relations with her. (Note to married men everywhere: Do not try this argument at home.)
Apart from making the Oval Office the punch-line of countless dirty jokes, the scandal threw the White House into a struggle for political survival at a time when the dangers from a growing international terror network were rising. Harris shows that the Clinton White House was very aware of Osama bin Laden—but he also shows that Clinton’s famed ability to “compartmentalize” was substantially mythical. He and his top aides were consumed by scandal and impeachment; at what cost we may never know.
Beyond these points, Clinton needed a united Democratic Party to survive impeachment, and that meant relying on the congressional Democrats whose appetite for, say, entitlement reform, was non-existent. That meant that any attempt to shape long-term solutions to Social Security and Medicare with centrist approaches that challenged both parties—became politically untenable.
You can’t come way from this book without a renewed sense of wonder at how one person could fuse sheer cognitive intelligence with unparalleled political skills. Had he been able to run for a third term, Clinton would very likely have won. Had Gore possessed half the political skills of his senior partner, he might have won decisively. Four years after that bizarre election, high-ranking Democrats were still wondering “what if--?” What if a few thousand voters in Palm Beach had marked their ballots accurately? What if Gore had been in the White House on September 11, 2001, defining his administration—and his party—as the protectors of a shaken populace? Yet some facts point clearly to the political consequences of Clinton’s behavior and his inability to redefine his party in a broad political sense.
By the end of 2004, Republicans had won absolute majorities in two successive elections (after six elections when neither party had done so); they had remained in control of both houses of Congress for more than a decade (if we discount the temporary effects of Jim Jeffords’s defection); they controlled a majority of state legislatures, the governorships of the four most populous states (for the first time ever), and as many voters called themselves Republicans as Democrats.
Could it have been different? A prominent therapist once recalled the words of her mother after a long and unhappy marriage: “We could have had such a wonderful life—if only your father had been a completely different person.”
Make it “half a completely different person,” and you have the coda to the tragedy.
Harris, a veteran reporter with the Washington Post, offers a comprehensive look at the first president of the baby boom generation, a man who embodies many of that generation's weaknesses and ideals. Clinton was part of a new breed of Democrats who sought to move the party toward the center in recognition of the changes in political sentiment, particularly in the South. Harris describes Bill and Hillary Clinton as important political figures, smart and ambitious but lacking the political acumen needed to advance their issues and misreading the temperament of the times. Harris explores Clinton's leadership style and how it served him well in some arenas and doomed him to failure in others, as this man of progressive impulses struggled with the limitations of his power and the incredible animus he and his wife provoked in conservatives. He details the pitched battles within the White House as varying factions fought for the upper hand in influencing a president who liked to hear differing opinions. Through two terms in office and a host of scandals, Harris notes that Clinton has managed to survive with high regard among the public because of his "authentically populist spirit" and a genuine connection to the American people. Readers of whatever political posture should enjoy this absorbing look at a compelling political figure.
"John Harris has written a fascinating account of the downs and ups of the Clinton presidency. The Survivor is fair-minded, well informed, absorbing in narration, mature in judgment." --Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
“John F. Harris is the most lucid writer in American political journalism today. One reads his work and knows that he has it exactly right, like a fine tailor producing well-fitted suits. I love reading Harris for his deep and rewarding insights, especially when he writes about Bill Clinton. In The Survivor, he shows once again that he has the perfect measure of a very contradictory man.” --David Maraniss, author of First In His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton
"John Harris has an unmatched eye for detail, and it's all here in a way no one else has chronicled the Clinton years. This is the work of a superb reporter who was an eyewitness to an entire Presidency (and I should know-- I had to compete against him covering the Clinton White House!) Of all the correspondents I remember from the blur of our lives together covering President Clinton (the sometimes-chaotic West Wing, the dizzying around-the-world travel on Air Force One . . .), John Harris is the one I would have chosen to leave behind the benchmark piece of work on what those eight years meant to the nation." --Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor, NBC Nightly News
“John Harris reaches a generally favorable verdict on Bill Clinton, but there is no lack of evidence that could lead to a different conclusion. It's all here, with fascinating fresh detail. A good book and a good read.” --Brit Hume, Washington Managing Editor, Fox News Channel; Anchor, Special Report with Brit Hume
"John Harris tells the real story of the West Wing during the Clinton years, with the clear-eyed insight, humor, and verve of one of the nation's top political reporters. Thankfully, he leaves all political spin at the door." --Gwen Ifill, Moderator and Managing Editor, PBS's Washington Week