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.