The Natural

By Joe Klein

In his book Shadow, an account of the American presidency since Watergate, Bob Woodward described a series of men undone by their belief in the “myth of the big-time president.” Presidents since Watergate have inhabited a smaller office, a less challenging job, and had fewer opportunities to effect real change. They wanted to be important, but never had the chance to live up to their full potential, brought down by trivial political scandals in times of general peace and prosperity.

Joe Klein, a columnist perhaps best known for writing a novel (Primary Colors) loosely based on the Clinton years, has written a brief account of Clinton and his presidency that seems to fit Woodward’s analysis. Klein sees an administration haunted by a sense of incompleteness and wasted opportunities. Clinton was an expert politician, a natural, who was unlucky in his good fortune. He was “never challenged in a way that tested his impressive strengths, and the absence of a challenge exacerbated his distressing weaknesses.” Unable to ever become a big-time president, he even had to defend his own relevance in front of national TV (“The President is relevant. . . . The Constitution gives me relevance.”). His was a presidency defined by the “smug, shallow serenity of his time” – a benign interim between the more serious presidencies of the Bush family dynasty.

Klein is no fan of this smug, shallow, serene era, the “affluence and lethargy of the late twentieth century.” Following in the footsteps of such popular ancestor-worshippers as Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw, he sees the Boomers as a race of pygmies following America’s “greatest generation”. Compared to such giants, the children of the Baby Boom were, well, children. Of the generation of political leaders that came to power during the late twentieth century (a group including Clinton, Tony Blair, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush) he has this to say:

Few of these men had done much in life before politics. There was a collective immaturity, a weakness and smallness – of purpose, of spirit, of inspiration – that cannot be coincidental. The cheerleaders and other assorted dilettantes who took power in the late twentieth century seemed poseurs, children playing at adult games, particularly when compared to the generation that had gone before them.

When Klein goes on to suggest that Clinton symbolically embodied his era, you know it isn’t a compliment.

While there may be some truth to some of this – though one may wonder if a war hero like John McCain would have made any better a leader than Bush, Jr. – it is the conventionality of Klein’s assumptions about our degenerate age that really disappoints. Klein is good with sharp personal judgments and behind-the-scenes observations, but in the end he doesn’t have very much that is new to say, and fails to buttress his case with solid evidence.

Was Clinton’s presidency really “misunderstood”? The critique Klein offers is actually quite familiar. Like a lot of personally charming people, Clinton was basically self-centered and irresponsible in his behaviour. As president he was obsessed with style: polls, “spin,” triangulation and the finding of a “Third Way” (“political hermaphroditism” in Klein’s phrase). As a political tactician he was a fast learner, soon becoming peerless. And yet his political success was never something that commanded a lot of respect.

On the other hand – and Klein is always balancing the one side of the presidential report card with the other – Clinton’s accomplishments were substantial. It can be argued, and Klein does put forth the case, “that he had run a serious, disciplined, responsible presidency”:

his domestic policies were not inconsiderable and were accomplished against great odds. He had rescued the Democratic Party from irrelevance and pursued a new philosophy of government that made public-sector activism plausible once more, even in a time of national apathy and skepticism. Moreover, he performed the most important service that a leader can provide: He saw the world clearly and reacted prudently to the challenges he faced; he explained a complicated economic transformation to the American people and brought them to the edge of a new era.

That America’s new era has gotten off to a rocky start was hardly Clinton’s fault. Whether his successor, an even less impressive product of the same generation, will become a big-time president is material for another story.

Review first published May 19, 2002.

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