Archive for Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Clinton always bouncing back

June 8, 2005


Come on. Admit it. You miss him, don't you?

The hair. The red nose and the nibbled lower lip. The gravely Arkansas drawl.

You miss his gang, too: Webb and Dick, Little George and the Ragin' Cajun, Gennifer and Paula and that sloe-eyed brunette in the blue dress and all the girls he'd loved before. Admit it: You even miss Hillary, don't you?

Oh, he's still around (and she certainly is); you can see him on the news, recovering from heart surgery or raising money for tsunami victims. But it's not like it was before, not in the good old days when hardly a day would pass that he wouldn't amaze you or amuse you or enrage you. Or sometimes all three.

Now, thanks to John F. Harris, you can relive those glorious days of yesteryear when Bill Clinton, love him or hate him, bestrode the world's stage, an outsized and outrageous Colossus. Harris' book, "Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House," (Random House, $29.95) is the best account yet of those eight years - way better than Clinton's own 957-page doorstop, "My Life," or Hillary Rodham Clinton's bland "Living History."

Juicy parts first: Yes, the Monica Lewinsky affair is covered and covered in perhaps more detail than some readers will find appropriate. Then again, lack of appropriateness was the problem in the first place, and Clinton's battles to survive the Lewinsky affair dominated his second term.

Harris even provides an explanation of why Clinton didn't think he was lying when he said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman ... Miss Lewinsky." According to the "official definition of sexual relations" that a judge had approved for depositions in the Paula Jones case, what Lewinsky did was sexual relations for her but not for him. Sure it was bogus, but Clinton was a master of finding the open seam.

Weirder, for a man with as prodigious a memory as the president's, was his explanation for first referring to her as "that woman" when they had been, shall we say, extraordinarily close: "I blanked out on her name."

Indeed, as his book's title indicates, Harris believes that Clinton's entire presidency was a tribute to his survival skills. Harris recalls a moment during the budget crisis in the winter of 1995-1996, when the president was eyeball-to-eyeball with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich: "Clinton asked the Speaker, 'Do you know who I am? I'm the big rubber clown doll you had as a kid, and every time you hit it, it bounces back.' He paused, as though pondering the significance of his own words. 'That's me - the harder you hit me, the faster I come back up."'

Harris writes later of the "blurring of function and dysfunction in the Clinton style. Voluminous appetites got him in trouble. Voluminous appetites carried him out of trouble. No president had a greater capacity for the work of politics and governance - it was often hard, even physical, work across long hours and multiple time zones - or any greater emotional and intellectual attraction to his job. Clinton was not a conventional figure in his lifestyle or psychology. But, across a lifetime, he had settled on personal and professional habits that worked effectively when he most needed them to - the essence of the survivor's ethic."

Clinton, Harris writes, worried a lot about his own legacy, studying the lives of previous presidents to see how some became great and others became Franklin Pierce. Ultimately, Harris concludes that Clinton's political instincts failed him there. Great presidents dare greatly, and Clinton was too political an animal to take great risks. Bosnia, Rwanda, national health care, terrorism - all were issues that confronted Clinton, and he backed away from them.

But he is not finished yet. His vice president, Al Gore, ran away from him in 2000 and lost the presidency, even as Hillary Rodham Clinton was being elected as a Democratic senator from New York. Now, Sen. Clinton is preparing a run for the presidency in 2008, surrounded by her husband's loyalists. As Bill Clinton did in 1992, Sen. Clinton is staking out ground as a Democratic centrist, lately holding hands on a health care proposal with none other than Newt Gingrich himself.

If Bill Clinton can help the wife he betrayed become the first woman elected president, it would be his ultimate vindication. The harder you hit him, the faster he bounces back up.

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His e-mail address is


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