The latest in the excellent American Presidents series explores the life and career of Bill Clinton (b. 1946).
In this entertaining biography of a virtuoso politician whose administration (1993-2001) revived the fortunes of the Democratic Party without reversing the nation’s post-Reagan conservative swing, political journalist Tomasky (Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now, 2014, etc.) shows how his brilliant and charismatic subject aimed at a political career from childhood. After a bruising education in state politics and multiple terms as the governor of Arkansas, he outmaneuvered better-known candidates to win the 1992 Democratic nomination. The first baby-boomer president, he was a New Democrat who aimed to “keep his distance from some ‘old line’ liberal ideas, adapt and modify a few Republican ones, and exist as an independent force separate from both parties.” His success was spotty. Major bills such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, Defense of Marriage Act, and welfare reform were more popular with Republicans than Democrats and remain so. Most Republicans hated his national health plan, and they easily defeated it and then won a crushing victory in the 1994 midterm elections. Despite lofty goals in its “contract with America,” this aggressive Congressional majority became obsessed with Clinton’s spectacularly foolish sexual peccadilloes. Although legislators proclaimed that impure morals rendered a president unfit and the much-denounced “liberal media” shared their outrage, the electorate did not, and Clinton left office more popular than when he entered and remains popular. The author is clearly an admirer but is also painfully aware of Clinton’s failures.
Tomasky’s slim, journalistic account contains few surprises for older readers familiar with that era, but they should wait a generation until the dust settles and scholars determine if Clinton deserves his current respectable rating in the pantheon of presidents.