Bernard A Weisberger. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
ON the afternoon of 16 January 1993, Bill Clinton left the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion for his final jog through the familiar streets of Little Rock. This time he carried a shoebox containing the pet frog of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Chelsea. At her request, when he reached the Arkansas River, he released the creature onto the marshy bank where, Chelsea said, it could escape the impending move to Washington and live “a normal life.”
Four days later, Clinton stood on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, placed one hand on his grand-mother’s King James Bible, and was sworn in by Chief Justice William Rehnquist as the forty-second president of the United States. His normal life was over, but the life he had been yearning for since adolescence had begun. The fable of American democracy is that anyone can grow up to be president and Clinton, unlike most, believed it to be true not as a general proposition, but about himself. He had, from an early age, shaped his life and career around that singular desire. In a letter to a friend after his first year of college, he wrote that he was about to embark on a road that he hoped would “put a little asterisk” by his name “in the billion pages of the book of life.” At noon on a brilliant winter’s day nearly three decades later, the asterisk was assured. He could not have foreseen that his two-term Presidency as well as his name would pass into history with an asterisk—as the second Chief Executive to be impeached, tried, and acquitted by the Senate.
What assessment of President Clinton would accompany that asterisk? The judgment of history was far off and unknowable when he first took office. In a sense it remained nearly as uncertain even four years later, after he had been reelected to a second term, the first Democrat to achieve that extended status since Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was still more so when he left office in January of 2001. Clinton’s White House days repeated the contradictory themes of his career: a counterpoint of hope and disappointment, discipline and chaos, urgency and delay, moral preaching and questionable behavior, lessons learned, forgotten, and relearned. His presidency after one term seemed essentially unresolved. It was neither the personal and policy disaster that his opponents constantly predicted, nor was it as substantively noteworthy as his allies incessantly hoped.
In tone and substance, Clinton’s first four years as president can best be described as two distinct subterms of two years apiece. The first subterm (1991-1994), during which Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House, was ambitious if diffuse and ended with a political loss—the Republican majority in Congress—that ranked among the most traumatic of Clinton’s career even though his name was not on the ballot. During the second sub-term (1995-1996), Clinton resurrected his presidency and ensured himself another four years in the White House by skillfully handling his changed circumstances. He became a diminished yet increasingly popular president dealing with a powerful but increasingly reckless Republican Congress; here defining himself in contrast to the Republicans, there working in ideological concert with them, whichever better suited his political needs.
His comeback was an impressive display of political deftness and willpower, but it was not without cost. Clinton began his second term in 1997 with lowered expectations and a modest agenda. Throughout his mercurial first four years in the White House, two things remained constant about Clinton: his political survival skills and his need to display them after getting into trouble. In his most difficult times, one could see the will to recover and the promise of redemption. In his best times, one could see the seeds of disaster. The pattern would be intensely and dramatically repeated in the four years that followed reelection. That is how it always was with Bill Clinton. There are repetitive themes in his life and career, cycles of loss and recovery, that go a long way toward resolving the mysteries of an ambiguous man and explaining his performance as president.
Loss and Hope
Bill Clinton’s life has been defined more by loss than triumph. The first loss occurred before his birth, when his biological father, a traveling salesman named William Jefferson Blythe, was killed at age twenty-eight in a car accident. William Jefferson Blythe III was born three months later on 19 August 1946 in the small town of Hope in southwest Arkansas, where his mother was staying with her parents. In later years the son would, in his campaigns for president, enjoy the poetry of portraying himself as the man from Hope, but that was largely a myth. No one named Bill Clinton ever lived there. He was known then as Billy Blythe.
His early years were dominated by two strong women who fought for his attention and represented the competing forces that would shape his life. His mother, the young widow Virginia Dell Blythe, was irrepressible and fun-loving. His grandmother, Edith Cassidy, who took care of him for long stretches while his mother studied nursing in New Orleans, was temperamental and frustrated by her position in life. She regimented her grandson’s days with metronomic discipline. He would carry both the freewheeling optimism of his mother and the stubborn will of his grandmother into later life.
Most of his childhood was not spent in Hope but in Hot Springs, only fifty miles up the road but an entirely different world, a resort town nestled amid the pine-covered mountains of a national park, with vaporous spas, nightclubs, and the largest illegal gambling operation in the South. He moved there at age five with his mother and stepfather, Roger Clinton, a failed auto dealer and alcoholic. The relationship between Roger Clinton and Bill’s mother was tempestuous, marked by divorce and remarriage and sullied by Roger’s frequent drunken rages in which he would physically or mentally torment Virginia. Despite that, when Bill was fifteen he took his stepfather’s name and became William Jefferson Clinton.
Without diving too deeply into the opaque waters of psychoanalysis, it is apparent that Clinton’s status as the oldest son, the guardian of his mother and younger brother (also named Roger) against the unpredictable outbursts of an alcoholic stepfather possibly molded his personality in ways that resurfaced in his career as a politician. In moments of self-reflection, Clinton later attributed this propensity to avoid sharp conflict and please all sides to his constant attempts to bring peace within a dysfunctional family.
The racier side of Hot Springs was counterbalanced by religion and education. Although his mother was more likely to attend the racetrack, Clinton took refuge from his family troubles in the Park Place Baptist Church, to which he walked alone on Sunday mornings. And in a state ranked near the bottom in education, Hot Springs High, which Clinton attended from 1960 to 1964, shined as an exception. It provided excellent courses in mathematics, science, music, and foreign language. Its principal, Johnnie Mae Mackey, who taught her charges to be God-fearing, patriotic, and civic-minded, viewed bright and ambitious Billy Clinton as her prime disciple.
It was under her tutelage that the best-known moment of Clinton’s early life occurred. In the summer before his senior year, he was sent to Washington as one of two Arkansas delegates to Boys’ Nation, a mock political convention sponsored by the American Legion. There, in the Rose Garden of the White House on a July morning in 1963, Clinton met President Kennedy. Their handshake was captured in photographs and newsreels and later came to symbolize the transfer of power and ambition from one generation to another.
The handshake was no mere accident. On the bus ride to the White House that morning from the Boys’ Nation dormitories at the University of Maryland, Clinton stood out among his peers as the boy who kept pestering the chaperon with questions about whether they would have their pictures taken with the president. When the bus stopped at the back gate, it was Clinton who won the barely controlled race-walk to stake out prime handshake position at the front of the crowd at the Rose Garden.
But that calculating element in the youthful Clinton was balanced by a streak of idealism, most evident in his dealings with the thorny issues of race relations. The Boys’ Nation representatives convened in Washington during one of the seminal periods of the American civil rights movement. Only one month later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and deliver his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. While most of his schoolmates were still stuck in the prejudicial traditions of Jim Crow and supported resistance to integration, Clinton was an exception, taking a strong civil rights stance and refusing the entreaties of fellow southerners to go along with his regional confederates.
After his week in Washington and his handshake with JFK, “Billy” Clinton returned to Arkansas determined to realize his mother’s prediction from his toddler days that he would some day be president of the United States.
The World’s Fight
For Bill Clinton the turbulent years that shook the nation from Kennedy’s assassination to Watergate—1963 to 1974—were likewise an era of turmoil and transition. He began it as an establishment-oriented student politician at Georgetown University and ended it as a boy wonder law professor and congressional candidate in northwest Arkansas. In between, he ventured to England as a Rhodes scholar to be trained as one of the “best men in the world’s fight” and faced the toughest moral dilemma of his life to that point: how to deal with the military draft and the war in Vietnam. It was near the end of that era, while at Yale Law School, that he met his future wife, Hillary Rodham, who would replace his grandmother and mother as the strong woman in his life and play a central role in his political rise.
Clinton’s career as a student politician at Georgetown was a curtain-raiser with foretastes of the future. Though an outsider in the predominantly Catholic, upper-middle-class, East Coast school in 1964, he quickly adapted to the system and won over his classmates. He was elected president of his freshman class, then of his sophomore class. But in his junior year, running for president of the student council, he was rejected in favor of a more “populist” candidate.
In his dealings with Vietnam and the draft Clinton behaved like thousands of college students of that era, who adopted different strategies to avoid service in an unpopular war. But as a young man with national political aspirations, he felt pressure to explain in detail every maneuver he made during those anxious days. It turned out that he was better at escaping the military than in leaving an unambiguous account of his actions.
Only 2.2 million of the approximately 8 million young men who served in the armed forces during the 1960s entered the ranks through the Selective Service System. It is hard to pinpoint what percentage of those who volunteered were motivated by patriotism or by more mundane motives like restlessness, or what percentage of those who found ways to avoid conscription were simply seeking to save their skins rather than voicing principled opposition to the Vietnam War. What is certain is that thanks to student deferments, the draft operated unfairly and unequally, with most of the conscripted ranks drawn from lower-income young men from inner cities and farms who did not go to college.
Clinton’s own perspective on Vietnam was shaped during his final two years at Georgetown (1966-1968), when he worked as a junior clerk at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then chaired by Senator William J. Fulbright of Arkansas. By then, Fulbright, once close to President Lyndon B. Johnson, had broken from LBJ after concluding that the president had deceived him into supporting the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution expanding the U.S. role in what was essentially a civil war pitting anti-Communist South Vietnam against Communist Viet Cong rebels and Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese armies. By the time Clinton arrived on Capitol Hill, Fulbright had become one of the war’s most pointed critics, claiming that the United States had no moral or practical reason to be in Vietnam save for the “arrogance of power.” The senator was an imposing figure and young Clinton became his disciple and his apostle in resisting the steady escalation of the war. He read hundreds of articles and reports on the American role in Southeast Asia, wrote term papers at Georgetown criticizing Johnson’s manipulation of Congress and defending conscientious objection to the draft. By February 1968 his convictions were to be put to the test. The Johnson administration changed its draft policy and eliminated virtually all deferments for graduate students when Clinton was only months away from commencement at Georgetown and had just won a prized Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford University in England for two years of graduate work.
Meantime the war itself was reaching a critical point. The growing casualty lists were fueling a rising antiwar sentiment that was as much practical as moral. Voters were beginning to doubt that the enterprise was worth its human and economic costs, and their skepticism peaked during the Tet Offensive, an uprising of the Viet Cong inside of key cities throughout South Vietnam thought to be secure. Though the U.S. military “defeated” the offensive, the images of fighting on the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon went far to convince a swelling tide of demands for an end to the failed adventure.
Although Clinton was vulnerable to the draft as soon as he graduated from Georgetown, his draft board in Arkansas delayed calling him and allowed him to sail off to England. This was not unlike the treatment accorded to most of the thirty-two Rhodes scholars in 1968, who were granted temporary deferments despite the new, tighter policy. Others failed induction physicals because of minor ailments that nevertheless left them fit enough to go abroad and begin their studies. Clinton spent most of his two years (1968-1970) enjoying Oxford and holiday trips to Europe, but preoccupation with his draft status and its impact on his future dogged him throughout the experience.
It was a difficult time in his life. He did not receive a degree at Oxford (until the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in civil law in 1994) but did manage to remain a civilian and a two-year student. He first received a draft notice in the spring of 1969 while in England, returned to Arkansas that summer and, with the help of Fulbright aides and others, persuaded the admissions staff of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at the University of Arkansas Law School to accept him that fall, which entitled him to a reserve deferment that overrode his induction call. Like many contemporaries he was conflicted between opposition to the war and guilt about not serving in Vietnam, where other young Americans were dying. In his case there was the added factor of a strong desire to return to Oxford, and he allowed that to prevail. By the time his name went into the pool again, a three-month freeze on calling up new recruits was in effect, giving him breathing space. He took part in London antiwar demonstrations in the autumn of 1969 and lucked out in December when, in the next draft lottery, his low number (311) guaranteed that he would probably never be called.
Clinton immediately—and unwisely, as it turned out—wrote a letter to Colonel Eugene J. Holmes, director of the ROTC program at Arkansas, thanking the officer for “saving” him from the draft and detailing his inner struggle. He opposed the war on principle, but open resistance to the draft or a plea for conscientious objector status would harm his “political viability” and undercut his life’s ambition. His letter, he said, would explain “how so many fine young people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military.” The letter, written when he was only twenty-three, resurfaced in 1992 when Clinton was a presidential candidate. It was pounced upon by opponents, who gave it a politically damaging twist that would haunt his campaigns and administrations, calling it evidence of an ambitious, manipulative young man who had disdain for the military.
Fall and Rise in Arkansas
Clinton was only thirty-two when he entered the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock in January 1979, the youngest governor in the nation since before World War II. Two years later he left office in defeat as the youngest ex-governor in American history.
It all happened so fast. From Oxford he attended Yale University Law School, receiving his degree in 1973, then returned to Arkansas to teach law at the University of Arkansas Law School (1973-1976). In 1974 he launched his elective career with a run for the U.S. House seat in Arkansas’ Third District, nearly upsetting a veteran Republican. Elected state attorney general in 1977 and governor two years later, he was the instant golden boy of Arkansas politics. But with a stunning defeat in his reelection, he suddenly became only a bright young man with a great future behind him. That is, until he made the first of his signature comebacks.
Clinton’s first presidential term can only be genuinely understood with this prologue: his fall and rise in Arkansas. There are clear parallels between Clinton’s first term as governor and his first two years as president, and even more striking similarities in the way he reinvented himself and recovered from the trauma of those two experiences.
He began his governorship with a pent-up idealistic agenda that left him open to the charge of trying to do too much too fast and not focusing on a few major issues. Symbolically he failed to keep one of his earliest promises: that state legislators would have his budget proposals on their desks the first day of the legislative session. His efforts at compromise often ended with both sides angry at him. He had difficulty selling his accomplishments to the voters. He governed during a period of Arkansas politics dominated by angry white men eager to pounce on presumed offenses. Because he pushed through a modest hike in fees for car licenses, for example, he was characterized as a big-tax liberal, arrogant about the plight of the average Arkansan.
He did not have a chief of staff and there always seemed to be some confusion about lines of authority in the governor’s office. He constantly fumed at his staff for his own lack of discipline. During his reelection, against an unprepossessing Republican opponent, Frank White, he complained vociferously that his record was being misinterpreted. But after White trounced him, Clinton apologized, said he had been taught a lesson, and went about reshaping his political image to make it more acceptable to the voters.
That 1980 defeat reawakened the trauma of earlier personal losses, but also the sense of loss as being a challenge to overcome. Clinton was now determined never to suffer through such a setback again. From then on, he would become obsessive about raising money and responding to attacks. He developed a brutal metaphor to explain how he would respond in the future: if your opponent is pounding you with a hammer, he said, take out a meat cleaver and cut off his arm.
Whatever guidance to personal behavior he drew from the episode, Clinton also read a larger meaning into the political events of 1980. That year, which saw Jimmy Carter lose to Ronald Reagan, was the culmination of a long, downward spiral for the Democratic party. Clinton had begun as a liberal, first supporting Robert F. Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination (tragically cut short by Kennedy’s assassination); and two years later, while at law school, serving as the coordinator for the Senate campaign of antiwar Democrat Joseph D. Duffey; and in 1972 serving as the Texas state coordinator for Senator George McGovern’s presidential campaign. Both Duffey and McGovern were soundly beaten by the desertion of traditional blue-collar elements of the Democratic coalition, who found the candidates to be too liberal and elitist. And Clinton’s Arkansas defeat coincided with the Democratic party’s most telling loss, when President Jimmy Carter was beaten by Ronald Reagan. The 1972 and 1980 defeats sent Clinton further down a pathway he had explored with Duffey after that failure, namely a search for a “new politics” by which Democrats could hold some progressive beliefs and not be rejected by an increasingly conservative electorate.
Hillary Rodham, a classmate at Yale Law School whom Clinton married on 11 October 1975, was essential to his personal and political recovery. Both a feminist and an outspoken social advocate, she would remain to the left of Clinton on most political issues. But she was also a practical and effective political operator in her own right. When faced with a choice between ideological purity and political advancement, she would almost always follow the course that benefited her husband’s career. Their relationship, one of the more complicated of modern First Couples, went through different phases over the decades. The first lasted from the time they met at Yale in 1970 until 1980. Their attraction from the start was political and intellectual. They shared a passion for literature and politics and agreed that programs and ideals were useless without power to implement them. They quickly realized that together they could get places that they both wanted to go. Still, in their early years together in Arkansas, Hillary played only an occasional behind-the-scenes role in her husband’s career. While he was successful, she was free to pursue her own interests as a lawyer and proponent of children’s rights issues.
But after Clinton’s gubernatorial defeat in 1980, their relationship entered a second phase during which she became politically indispensable to him. She boosted his morale during his two-year exile, brought in pragmatic advisers who would rework his message, and was his top strategic and legal adviser, family breadwinner and investor, and his most dependable governmental aide. She played a major part in his comeback against White and the decade of administration that followed.
The elements of that comeback—a makeover of Clinton’s political style—were clearly illustrated not only in the campaign but in the ensuing reelections that spelled ten years of power in Arkansas. His central triumph was an education reform package that Hillary, as chairman of a state task force, put together in 1983 and shepherded through the Arkansas legislature, where her direct manner, in vivid contrast to her husband’s easygoing vacillation, impressed veteran state pols. Clinton became known as the education governor, not only in Arkansas but among his gubernatorial colleagues around the country, and the accolade helped him become a national figure during the 1980s as he prepared his inevitable run for the presidency. Throughout that era, the personal relationship of Bill and Hillary was at times tumultuous, but the political partnership was unfaltering as Clinton came to have an implicit faith that whatever his wife did would turn out right. When, later on in the White House, that faith was disappointed by failure in a sterner test, it pushed the marriage into still another, uncertain stage.
During his long second act as governor (1983-1993), Clinton relied on a four-person brain trust—himself, Hillary, chief of staff Betsey Wright, and political consultant Richard Morris—to develop a mode of government that resembled a permanent campaign. Clinton decided never again to push a major initiative without first testing public support and then selling the program. He and Morris were constantly polling the Arkansas electorate to see how voters would respond to different rhetorical arguments. They also kept trying to circumvent the state-house press corps and using television advertising, leafleting, and telephone banks to build popular acceptance for their proposed measures, and place pressure on state lawmakers.
Along with these tactical changes, Clinton shifted his political emphasis to centrist issues that attracted mainstream support. Morris pushed him to follow his natural instincts and adopt a strategy that Clinton would employ from then on whenever his political future seemed tenuous: co-opt the Republicans on their issues (especially crime, welfare, and taxes). He abandoned years of ambivalence on capital punishment and carried out the death penalty, which was overwhelmingly favored by Arkansas voters. He initiated programs in Arkansas to move welfare recipients into the workforce. At Morris’s urging, he became more willing to pick fights, especially with traditional friends and interest groups who were losing public favor. He angered Arkansas public school teachers by forcing them to take competence tests, which they considered belittling. But Clinton, though holding no animus toward teachers, had correctly concluded that the use of such tests was the only way he could receive the necessary corporate and voter support for his educational reforms.
Although the competence tests were seen by some blacks, including Clinton aides, as an indirect attack on black teachers, Clinton consistently attracted stronger black support than any candidate in Arkansas history. He appointed more African Americans to state boards, commissions, and agency posts than all his predecessors combined. His empathetic personality worked well in the black community, as did his facility with scripture and his love of gospel music. At Yale Law School Clinton had been comfortable sitting at what became known as the black table in the cafeteria during the black power era, and as a law professor at Arkansas, he was popular with black students by virtue of his approachable nature and his willingness to help many of them who had struggled on probation. But he understood the complicated role that race played in modern Democratic party history. Black voters were an essential faction in the Democratic coalition, yet there was a line beyond which an increasing number of white voters left the party if it seemed too much money and attention was being devoted to social programs associated with blacks and poor people.
Clinton attempted to reverse that trend as he entered the national political realm. Rhetorically, he argued that race was an artificial issue that had been used historically by segregationist southern Democrats and was now being employed by Republicans for political advantage. The real problems were economic. And to attack those, he helped lead a coalition of centrist Democrats, many from the South, in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), of which he had been a founder in 1985. The goal of the DLC was to develop new policies, or at least revise old ones so that the party could lure back a white male majority by making itself more pragmatic and moderate. Clinton became chairman of the DLC in 1990 and used it as his unofficial precampaign vehicle as he traveled and politicked nationwide after announcing that he was a candidate for president on 3 October 1991.
The theme he developed was one of opportunity and responsibility—the government should provide citizens opportunities to succeed, but individuals had corresponding responsibilities to work and contribute to the civil good. This was an effort to link progressive programs to the traditional American ethos of work and fairness, and to shift the Democrats’ focus from questions of justice and equality to opening the pathways of economic advancement. That theme became the philosophical foundation of his presidential campaign and the framework for proposed programs ranging from welfare reform to voluntary national service. He called his idea of publicly provided opportunity wedded to private responsibility a “New Covenant.” The phrase alarmed some aides by its righteous tone but pleased Clinton, who seemed equally comfortable cursing (in private) and citing scripture. And in fact the theme proved to be a winner, helping Clinton to win both the nomination and election of 1992.
Clinton prevailed in the primaries that year not only by his ideas, but because he proved to be an indefatigable campaigner with a gift for connecting empathetically with his audiences. It allowed him to triumph even as revelations came out in the press about his sexual infidelities, a curious land deal in Arkansas known as Whitewater, and his long-ago effort to avert the draft. And Clinton was willing to counterattack by using negative advertising against his opponents and making promises that he could not keep.
During the general election campaign against President Bush and independent candidate H. Ross Perot, a billionaire entrepreneur from Texas, Clinton’s advisers posted a sign at their headquarters in Little Rock that became a daily mantra—”The economy, stupid.” While offering centrist “new Democrat” proposals on welfare and trade, Clinton sounded a classic populist message of economic disparity. During the 1980s, he argued, only the wealthiest Americans continued to enjoy real growth in their annual income; for the middle class and poor, the Reagan era had been one of losing ground. Clinton hammered at the burden of the $4 trillion national debt and promised to cut the yearly deficit that swelled it—while also promising a middle-class tax cut and more investments in education, infrastructure, and jobs programs to promote income growth for average American workers. Clinton’s diffuse economic brain trust was actually split between “deficit hawks,” who warned him that he had to cut the deficit above all else, and those who urged measures to jump-start the economy with a spending program focusing on jobs. Clinton was convinced he could do both.
Actually, less than half the electorate voted for him. He won with 42.95 percent of the vote, compared with 37.40 percent for Bush and 18.86 percent for Perot. Yet as he prepared to take office, the country’s mood was turning somewhat optimistic: 1992 recorded growth in gross domestic product and decline in unemployment, signaling the end of a recession during Bush’s term. But there was still unease over such trends as the lure of cheap labor overseas, the unequal exchange of manufacturing jobs for low-paying service jobs, the economic drain of interest payments on the huge debt, and the rising cost of health care. Clinton vowed to focus on these economic issues “like a laser beam.” Much of the nation thought he would succeed. With Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress after twelve years of divided government, it seemed likely that he could.
Inside the White House
When he moved into the Oval Office, Clinton brought with him busts of his favorite presidents to gaze on daily—Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. If JFK was Clinton’s model for youthful optimism and style, FDR was the one whose whirlwind opening “Hundred Days” had set a standard for swift administrative and legislative action that Clinton hoped to equal. He intended to enact an economic package within the first three months. Then, at the end of his own Hundred-Day Dash, he would unveil a universal health insurance plan that could define his presidency and assure his place in history.
To emphasize with alacrity the speed with which he would move, Clinton issued a set of executive orders immediately after his inauguration. One imposed lobbying restrictions on members of his administration after they left government—a modest opening gesture to the larger, popular, and nonpartisan cause of lobbying and campaign finance reform. The others were in the more controversial realm of abortion. Following through on his pledges as a pro-choice candidate, he lifted the Reagan and Bush moratorium on federal funding for fetal tissue research, suspended the “gag rule” prohibiting patients in federally funded family planning clinics from receiving abortion information, and directed the Department of Defense to allow privately financed abortions at U.S. military facilities.
These executive orders were among the few matters that went according to schedule early in the Clinton regime. His economic and health care proposals would languish incomplete or unattended until late in 1993. And part of the reason for that was because these central policy issues were quickly overshadowed by minor tempests that swept away the traditional “honeymoon” of harmony between a new president and the press and the public. Why did this happen? To some extent because of an initial failure of the baby boomer president and his staff (much as they seemed at home in the information age) to understand and to manage public opinion effectively.
The first defeat came early in the morning of Clinton’s second day in office when he announced that his nominee for attorney general, Zoë E. Baird, had withdrawn her name from consideration. Several days earlier, news articles had revealed that Baird, who was being asked to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official, had knowingly broken the law herself. She and her husband had failed to pay taxes for a Peruvian couple they had hired as household help. A minor flap in itself, the episode signaled larger problems.
To meet his campaign promise of high ethical standards in a new, multiethnic, and representative Cabinet that “looked like America,” Clinton had privately committed himself to selecting the first female attorney general. When interviewed before her selection, Baird told Clinton aides of her predicament with the housekeepers. They considered the matter insignificant then and later. But the revelation evoked a loud public outcry and the White House and Congress were besieged with calls from angry citizens. Baird’s withdrawal became a political necessity.
The lasting significance of this personnel disaster created by sloppy staff work was that Clinton began to lose control of his public image in the face of attacks. The outrage against Baird was fueled by conservative radio talk show hosts who had emerged as influential forces in the American political debate, chiefly Rush Limbaugh, an articulate former disc jockey whose daily syndicated program was hugely popular. Limbaugh was a strong supporter of President Bush, but also, somewhat inconsistently, the voice of middle-class disenchantment with the federal government. To his dismay, many of his followers had joined the Perot movement and helped cost the Republicans the election. The election of a Democrat, however, gave Limbaugh an opportunity to fuse the antigovernment sentiments of his listeners with his own political agenda. Clinton became his target. He portrayed the president and his allies as liberal elitists who claimed to be saviors of the working class while misusing their household help. Baird’s infraction was cited as the inevitable product of feminism and affirmative action that Limbaugh’s constituency despised.
Ironically, Baird was a corporate lawyer with moderate political instincts, largely unknown to feminist activists. But her nomination was used by conservative denouncers of Clinton as “proof” that his campaign was a centrist was a pose and that once in power he would revert to his true liberal nature.
Clinton’s history makes clear that he was not a liberal posturing as a moderate. His moderation as a student politician and his liberalism on race and Vietnam were equal and competing aspects of his ambiguous political personality. But this inner conflict, plus his need to conciliate and please people, his tendency to see both sides of any issue, and his equivocating style all fed the argument that he lacked authenticity and conviction.
Clinton was also weakened at first by his handling of another issue that dominated the news coverage soon after he took office: gays in the military. Here history conspired against him. Since the year of Clinton’s birth, the presidency has been virtually reserved for veterans. Truman—an artillery captain in 1917-1918—was the subduer of Japan, Eisenhower was the military titan of D-Day. Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan had all worn the uniform, while Kennedy and Bush had barely escaped heroic death in combat.
Clinton, in contrast, had protested the Vietnam War and avoided service. Military leaders looked on skeptically when he entered the White House. How would this new commander in chief, who once spoke of “loathing the military,” treat the armed forces? It might have been easier for a celebrated veteran, not a perceived draft dodger, to lift the ban on gays in the military. But Clinton had latched on to the growing debate. College students had been protesting their schools’ sponsorship of ROTC units that enforced the ban on gays. Several returning Gulf War veterans, including a Medal of Honor winner, announced that they were gay, and the discriminatory policy (already questioned by some on grounds of high administrative costs for small results) had been challenged in court and seemed on the verge of being overturned. And some questioned whether it was worth the administrative expenditure of millions to drum a few thousand gays out of the ranks.
Clinton’s campaign response to questions on the subject had been that the military’s emphasis should “always be on people’s conduct, not their status.” He was a firm supporter of gay rights and the first major presidential candidate to hold a gay fund-raising event (in Los Angeles in 1992). He pledged that as president he would end the ban. Immediately after taking office he tried to keep that promise, not fully anticipating the strenuous negative reaction that would elicit from the Pentagon and Congress. Soon, this secondary issue was overshadowing his economic agenda.
How did a deft politician let this happen? Clinton underestimated the intense media spotlight the matter would receive as a dramatic story that aroused passionate moral feelings. Then, when the storm broke, his instincts to conciliate and to avert confrontation had the opposite effect and got him into deeper trouble. Seeking to prevent an early showdown with Congress and to avoid more strain on his weak ties with the military, he did not immediately issue an executive order and command the recalcitrant Pentagon brass to change their ways, but instead he gave his staff and the commanders six months to draft a new policy. That allowed time for anti-gay spokesmen to extend the controversy and win over public opinion. Then, when an eventual compromise plan known as “Don’t ask, Don’t tell”—in which gays would not be discriminated against provided they did not announce their homosexuality—was introduced on 19 July 1993, it did little to diminish the un-ease about the new president within the military, and it also strained his relations with segments of the gay community who felt sold out by the retreat. And worse, internal White House polls showed that Clinton’s defense of homosexuals had provoked a sharp decline in his favorable ratings, especially in the South, which turned against him quickly and perhaps permanently.
In his early reluctance to challenge the congressional leadership, Clinton seemed to be guided by criticisms of Jimmy Carter, another southerner who had arrived in Washington as an outsider. It was said in Washington that Carter’s disinclination to engage in political bantering with congressional power brokers had severely hindered his ability to enact his legislative agenda. Yet while seeking to avoid Carter’s mistake, Clinton created a new one of his own. He quickly deferred to Democratic leaders of the House and Senate on several issues, most notably on not pressing hard for swift legislation to reform campaign finance and lobbying. He expected that the public would be less concerned with that popular issue if he and Congress broke a decade of gridlock and enacted major legislation on larger economic issues.
But by that compromise, Clinton surrendered the politically useful banner of the newcomer pledged to change Washington’s perceived patterns of corruption. His unchanging ends-justify-the-means philosophy would get him into trouble again. To the contrary, he would begin his second term amid calls for another special prosecutor to investigate the questionable manner in which the White House and the Democratic National Committee raised money for the 1996 campaign.
From the start of his presidency, Clinton found himself boxed in by apparent contradictions. On the issue that mattered most to him, the economy, he feared that his actions were making him neither a fiscally prudent New Democrat nor a traditional, socially conscious liberal as he was increasingly perceived, but something nebulously in between. “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans,” the president lamented to his economic advisers in April 1993 as his administration moved toward the old-line Republican establishment program of lower deficits, free trade, and supporting the bond market. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich warned that Clinton’s economic program as described was even more backward-looking and made him “sound like Calvin Coolidge.”
The government-activist side of Clinton’s plan for the economy had diminished since he took office, while the deficit-reduction side became more prominent. First he abandoned the middle-class tax cut promised during the campaign at the first notice of larger-than-anticipated deficit projections. Next, a separate stimulus bill targeting money for job training, transportation, and technology was rejected by the Senate. It was the first warning signal that one-party dominance of the White House and Congress would not assure swift and cohesive legislative action.
When the larger economic package of which the stimulus had been a party finally reached a vote in August 1993, most of the spending increases for social programs were stripped from the bill and the administration’s progressive plan to cut the deficit through a broad-based energy tax was abandoned in the face of strong opposition in the Senate. Instead, an increase in the federal income tax—campaigned against by Clinton—was inserted. A proposed increase in the corporate income tax was cut by half, and attempts to tighten tax breaks for U.S. corporations with plants and operations overseas was stopped.
Some progressive taxation elements remained. An estimated nine-tenths of new revenues came from the top 1 percent of the population, while the working poor benefited from the largest earned-income tax credit in history, a redistribution of wealth shifting sharply away from Reagan-era supply-side economics. But the measure as a whole was seen as more of a deficit-reduction plan than a liberal overhaul of the economy, and its amorphous nature made it difficult for the administration to define and sell to the public.
Congressional Republicans unanimously opposed the president’s package, arguing that it raised taxes too much, cut programs too little, and would send the economy into decline. With small defections by liberal and conservative Democrats, the measure barely survived by two votes in the House on 5 August and passed the Senate, 51-50 the next day as Vice President Gore broke the tie.
This first test of the Clinton presidency produced ambiguous results. The predicted slump did not happen. Instead, the deficit shrank, interest rates fell, inflation slowed, home buying and job creation rose—a clear improvement in the nation’s economic health for all Americans. Clinton got the credit, though the positive trend had begun before his term. But he emerged with political wounds. The almost straight party-line vote for the program under-cut his claim to be a centrist. And although most of the tax bite was taken out of the wealthy, as campaigner Clinton had promised, any tax increase irritated voters, many of whom had abandoned Bush precisely because he broke a pledge not to raise them. Moreover, Clinton now looked like an uncertain waverer between competing ideologies rather than a bold activist who would reinvigorate the economy. Polls showed that 55 percent of the voters disapproved of his economic stewardship and his overall ratings dipped accordingly to the lowest levels of any postwar president that early in a term.
Throughout this period, Clinton often lamented to his advisers that he was having difficult reaching the public with his message. But part of the problem lay in the lack of coherent policymaking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, encouraged by Clinton’s own disorganized style. The White House atmosphere he created was the same one in which he had always thrived: a cross between a college dormitory and a think tank, with a constant barrage of interesting people to talk to and policies to debate in a freewheeling, egalitarian style. The emphasis was on raw energy and brainpower more than strategic order.
What discipline there was at the White House came largely from Vice President Al Gore and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Their personalities were more structured than Clinton’s, and they found that they could usually force him to stop deliberating and make a decision. Sometimes they found themselves competing for Clinton’s time and attention. The president’s wife, during the early days of the presidency, usually prevailed.
Losing Health Care
On the fifth day of his presidency Clinton announced that his wife would chair his task force on national health care reform. “Of all the people I’ve ever worked with in my life, she’s better at organizing and leading people from a complex beginning to a certain end than anybody,” Clinton said. And in turning to Hillary to guide this particular initiative, which he hoped would be the defining issue of his presidency, Clinton followed a long-established pattern. Ever since his defeat as Arkansas governor in 1980, he had asked his wife to handle the most important political and policy matters of his career.
But there was no anticipation of the risks in having the nation’s First Lady assume an unprecedented policy role. Would advisers who disagreed with her be reluctant to express their opinions? Would the president himself show less flexibility in accepting compromises in legislation bearing his wife’s imprint? Was Hillary herself endangering her larger effort to redefine the role of First Lady with an upfront role in a risky political operation? Clinton himself ignored such potential problems in the implicit faith that, as in Arkansas, she would succeed.
This time, however, she did not succeed. The health care initiative did not move toward a certain end, but grew increasingly more complex. The debate over it dragged on for twenty months before it collapsed. Clinton was ultimately portrayed not as he wished to be—the victor over rising health care costs who provided insurance coverage for all Americans—but as a big-government liberal who tried to dictate and restrict medical choices.
The White House set up the Arkansas model of a legislative campaign operation to push health care, with a “war room,” a paid advertising effort, a grass-roots organization, and bids for corporate support. But the opposition this time, including insurance coalitions, the small-business lobby, and congressional Republicans, bested him at every turn. They conducted a more expensive and effective advertising campaign and developed a grassroots movement of their own, again relying on the conservative-radio-talk-show network.
Month by month the national fervor for health care form faded. At the beginning, polls showed two-thirds of the public supported Clinton’s effort, and congressional action seemed inevitable. By the end, public support had dropped below 50 percent and Republicans were opposing health care reform legislation “sight unseen.” What happened? The opposition campaign was only one factor in the defeat of health care, a saga in which everything seemed to go against the Clintons.
Hillary Clinton was distracted for several crucial weeks early in the process by the illness and death of her father on 7 April 1993. She decided not to reveal the names of the five hundred experts—including doctors, economists, sociologists, and regulators—who, in working groups, molded the plan as members of a task force. Thus, even though she held public hearings around the country and kept in constant touch with Congress, there was an overriding sense that the plan was being concocted in utter secrecy. The staff director of the undertaking, Ira Magaziner, an old friend of Clinton’s from his Rhodes scholar days, correctly understood that delays could be fatal and warned him that health care must be handled quickly to get passed at all. But it was not handled quickly. First it was put off for the economic battle over the summer. Then, in the fall, it was delayed again so that Clinton could concentrate on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a tariff-lifting pact with Mexico and Canada signed on 8 December 1993. It was not until 1994 that Congress began considering Clinton’s proposal. By then, much of the public pressure for reform had disappeared. The economic recovery that Clinton helped foster worked against him: people were less fearful about losing their jobs and health coverage, while the inflation rate in health care costs fell to a record 5 percent low during the debate.
The Clinton team had started with two central health care goals. One was to contain and eventually lower health care costs for average Americans, who were spending about twice as much money for medical care and health insurance as people in other developed nations. This would be done through government-regulated “managed competition” among insurance groups and health care providers. The second objective was to guarantee health insurance for the 20 million Americans who did not have it. Clinton made the tactical mistake of emphasizing universal coverage—he would accept nothing less—over cost containment. That opened the door for his opponents to attack the plan as a liberal social welfare program.
By the time congressional committees considered the Clinton proposals in 1994 they had become embodied in a 1,342-page bill, whose very length became a symbol of bureaucratic bulkiness. Conservative spokesmen were persuading the public that it forced Americans into an inefficient government-run system. Clinton could not find enough votes in his own majority party to move the measure through either chamber, and uncompromising Republicans increasingly came to embrace the strategy of denying that there was a health care crisis.
In September 1994, one year after Clinton had delivered a well-received speech to Congress on the need for his Health Security Plan, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine quietly pronounced it dead. Republicans and Democrats both said they would use the defeat of health care to their advantage in the November midterm elections.
If the Arkansas model failed Clinton in the health care defeat, it was part of a larger pattern of troubles stemming from his past in Little Rock that soon began imposing itself on his administration. Death, scandal, and charges of lawbreaking struck heavily at the Arkansas friends that he brought east with him.
One afternoon in July 1993, Vincent Foster, Jr., the deputy White House counsel, was found dead in a park across the Potomac River in Virginia, a bullet wound in his head. He had committed suicide, an apparent victim, according to a note found in his briefcase, of depression induced by job pressures and the poisonous political atmosphere of Washington. Foster had been a neighbor of Clinton’s in Hope, and a close friend of Hillary’s at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, where they both worked. Though his death was several times investigated and ruled a suicide, right-wing Clinton critics found enough mystery in the circumstances surrounding the case to shroud it with a lingering afterlife of conspiracy theories.
Other Clinton associates who followed him to Washington fell under the shadow. Webster Hubbell, Jr., general partner in the Rose Law Firm, took a post in the Clinton Justice Department, but left in disgrace after a year to face trial and conviction for double-billing Rose clients. A White House aide and a member of the legal counseling staff were forced to resign for relatively minor ethical lapses. And those old Arkansas associates who stayed at home did not all escape, most notably Clinton’s successor as governor, Jim Guy Tucker. Tucker and two former aides from Clinton’s gubernatorial years were indicted (and Tucker convicted and forced to quit office) in an investigation that might not have begun had not Clinton become president—an investigation that bore the simple label of “Whitewater.”
The name was that of a real estate development scheme along Arkansas’ White River, and the original investing partners in 1974 had included Bill and Hillary Clinton. By the time the undertaking went broke it had involved questionable dealings that surfaced during Clinton’s first term, provoked reactions from the White House that were denounced as presidential wrongdoing, led to congressional hearings, and finally obliged Clinton to ask for a special prosecutor. Whitewater flowed from Bill Clinton’s past into Washington and its churn and roar became the incessant background noise of his time in office. After seven years, many individual state and federal trials, millions of words of court testimony and media polemic, and the expense of millions of dollars by the special prosecutor’s office, no basis for indicting either the president or the First Lady was found. Yet the questions persisted: Had the Clintons done anything venal? Or were they persecuted by the exaggerated charges of political enemies who simply hated them?
The two major lines of inquiry were concerned with what happened in Arkansas, and what went on inside the Clinton administration when the story broke and federal regulators zeroed in on the various people and institutions involved. The Clintons were brought into the deal by an old friend, James McDougal, who later ran a savings-and-loan company, regulated by a Clinton appointee at the state level, and represented by the Rose Law Firm. McDougal and his wife, Susan, made most of the payments, though the Clintons were equal partners. The Clintons did lose money when the project went sour in the 1980s, but the unresolved question was whether or not they profited indirectly from the cozy relationship with McDougal, who used his Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan firm as a personal piggy bank until it folded in 1989. Did he divert some of its funds into the Whitewater partnership—and into Clinton’s 1984 reelection campaign?
Once Madison Savings and Loan was bankrupt, federal regulators began to examine its connections to the Rose Law Firm. The names of both Clintons appeared in referrals sent up to the Treasury and Justice Departments in Washington. Treasury officials disclosed the contents of the referrals to White House aides. Though the Clintons were not targets of the regulatory probe, the disclosures were improper in that they could lead to an illegal cover-up by presidential command. That was what triggered the call for a special prosecutor.
Each time the issue seemed to be receding, it reappeared and confronted the Clintons with new questions. What role, for example, had Hillary Clinton played as a lawyer for the Rose Firm in dealing with Madison Guaranty? Critical billing records were missing—until, one day in August 1995, they were discovered by a file clerk in the residential portion of the White House. How did they get there? When the story became public, Hillary declared that she had no idea. She was subpoenaed before a federal grand jury—a first for a First Lady.
Whatever the ultimate result of the entire Whitewater probe, it left a stain on the Clinton presidency when combined with other ethical questions that hung over his past. There were his sexual indiscretions, both alleged and acknowledged. There were reports that Hillary, with inside advice from a friend, parlayed $1,000 into $100,000 in the commodities market. There was the discovery in the basement of the White House of FBI files on hundreds of Republicans. There were charges of impropriety in the firing of White House travel coordinators. All these, assiduously boomed into the public ear, left a segment of the public doubting the moral rectitude of these two prominent figures who came of age in the 1960s. And they cast shadows on Bill Clinton’s better side, his calls for compassion and common ground in American society.
In his nearly hourlong acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1992, Clinton devoted all of one minute to foreign affairs. During his first year in office, he held no regularly scheduled meetings with his foreign policy team, headed by the terse and phlegmatic secretary of state Warren M. Christopher. Global issues were often regarded by the White House as undesirable interruptions of the domestic business at hand rather than the essential burden of the leader of the free world.
All the same, foreign policy imposed itself on the Clinton administration and, despite typical periods of disarray and contradiction, he scored more diplomatic successes than failures as he matured in office.
Clinton was not, as his critics charged, unknowledgeable in foreign affairs. He had graduated near the top of his class at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, studied European political systems while at Oxford, and spent two years reading documents and monographs as a clerk to the Senate Foreign Affairs committee. Even as governor of presumably provincial Arkansas, he visited Europe and the Far East twelve times on trade missions.
But even such preparation was hardly adequate to handle the problems of a new, post-cold war era dawning in the world when Clinton entered office. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, unimaginable ten years earlier, there was no longer a clear enemy in opposition to which the United States could define itself and its position in international affairs. The United States and its allies struggled to establish the “New World Order” foreseen but not realized by the Bush administration, without the benefit of clear rules of engagement. It was, as some described it, a period of international deregulation.
In an effort to place the Clinton foreign policy in a cohesive framework, his advisers struck on the theme of a doctrine of “enlargement” to replace the cold war-era doctrine of containment. The goal of enlargement would be to spread democracy and free markets around the world. The doctrine embraced free trade as a tool of foreign policy, and stressed multilateral peacekeeping efforts and international alliances in which the United States would play an important but not singular role. At a time, however, when nationalist and isolationist factions were growing in both political parties, implementing the new doctrine was easier said than done.
There were crises on every continent during Clinton’s first term. In Europe, Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin, the United States’ choice as the best hope for stability and democracy in that country, moved aggressively against nationalist movements in neighboring states of the Commonwealth of Independent States that had succeeded the old Soviet Union. Moreover, he challenged American support of the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe by the enlistment of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia into its ranks. This move converted the old anti-Soviet alliance into one with a broader mission of guaranteeing peace and representative government throughout Europe. Carrying out the change over Yeltsin’s opposition while keeping him “onboard” as America’s friend was a tricky, but successfully executed, mission.
In Somalia, U.S. troops on a humanitarian mission to combat famine were ambushed in 1993 and 1994 by warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid’s gangs, who dragged the bodies of dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu. In Haiti, leaders of a military dictatorship refused to step aside and reinstate democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whom they had ousted in 1991. They relented only on the eve of an American invasion, succumbing to the diplomatic persuasion of former president Jimmy Carter, who seemed for a time to be a semiofficial, one-man State Department. Carter also helped Clinton to move toward an agreement with North Korea to freeze activities that indicated possible progress by the little nation, still a totalitarian state defined as “rogue” by the major powers, toward building nuclear weapons.
But it was the bloody war in the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian aggression in Bosnia, that dominated the foreign policy arena during the 1993-1996 period, and Clinton’s handling of it showed both his initial ambiguity in the international arena and his evolution into a world leader.
He started as a hard-liner, at least rhetorically. During the spring and summer of 1992, as Bosnian Serbs began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, driving Muslims from their homes and towns, Clinton accused President Bush of “turning his back” on basic human rights by not taking strong action in defense of the overmatched Muslims. When he was president, Clinton said, he would push the United Nations, with military support from the United States, to do “whatever it takes” to end the slaughter.
Four months into his presidency, Clinton attempted to persuade America’s allies in Europe to agree to provide arms to the Bosnian Moslems, lifting an arms embargo that had been placed on all sides in the dispute, and to carry on air strikes against the Serb positions in the Bosnian hills around Sarajevo. The Europeans balked, fearful that such action would escalate the war and further endanger UN troops there. Clinton receded, unwilling to take uni-lateral action, but grew increasingly frustrated as the war dragged on for two years, with the Bosnian Serbs overrunning three of the UN-protected “safe areas,” Gorazde, Srebrenica, and Zepa.
The sight of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees fleeing the Serbs sent what one official called “a jolt of electricity” through the White House. Clinton, persuaded that all previous policies were failures, took a new tack. He began attending Bosnia policy review meetings for the first time and fought off congressional pressure to lift the arms embargo, having changed his mind and considering it “the wrong step at the wrong time.” Instead, he pressed a twofold plan of military and diplomatic pressure. He pushed NATO to begin major bombing attacks on the Serb positions until they pulled back their artillery. On 8 September 1995, Serb and Bosnian foreign ministers met in Geneva, joined by officials from neighboring Croatia, a third force in the war which actually helped the peace initiative by weakening the Serbs.
In their first meeting in two years, the parties discussed an American plan to apportion territory based on what was called “objective reality.” Two months later, the adversaries were brought to the United States for peace talks held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio. After three weeks of intense discussions brokered by deputy secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, all sides agreed on a compromise that called for a unified capital of Sarajevo, a national Bosnian government, and ethnic substates within it. As part of the agreement, the Clinton administration promised to send a substantial force of American troops to Bosnia to help keep the peace. This part of the deal was challenged by Clinton’s political opponents in Congress, who argued that Bosnia was both too dangerous and too peripheral a place for American forces to be stationed. But Clinton prevailed, with some bipartisan support from the Republican Senate majority leader, Robert Dole.
The naysayers proved wrong. The peace held, however tenuously, and the American presence there was so quiet that it went almost unreported after the first few weeks. Bosnia was barely part of the debate during the 1996 election, and it returned as an issue only very briefly afterward, when Clinton announced that he would not be pulling out the American troops after one year, as he had at first promised.
There were two areas, however, in which Clinton stood tall and unwavering, and showed maturing leadership. From 1993 onward he showed a determination to do what was possible to bring peace to two tormented regions—northern Ireland and the Middle East. With regard to the first, risking the displeasure of the British government, he accepted visits from Gerry Adams, the leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and by such a conferral of legitimacy, helped bring the IRA and the Ulster Protestants to a cease-fire. He followed this up by dispatching a special envoy to moderate ensuing talks looking toward a permanent peaceful settlement. Likewise, he encouraged and endorsed, though did not broker, a significant peace accord achieved in Oslo, Norway, between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Since the Irish peace talks did not reach fruition until 1998—and since the Oslo accords were under-cut by tragic developments in 1995 and afterward—the full account of these admirable moves belongs with the story of Clinton’s second term.
Revolution and Reinvention
Though he was not on the ballot in 1994, Clinton considered the off-year congressional elections a referendum on the first two years of his presidency. If so, it was a disaster, for he was soundly rejected, as was his party, which lost control of the House and Senate for the first time in forty years.
It was a transformational election that in its sweep took political experts by surprise and yet was a long time coming—the culmination of a slow decline by the Democrats that began when the issues of race and war started to tear apart the New Deal coalition. Clinton had for a long time been working to refashion the party in a more centrist and forward-looking mode to prevent the anticipated fall. But as it occurred on his watch, he was held to blame. Republicans had nationalized the congressional elections, running against Bill and Hillary Clinton as the symbols of big government, and offering their own “Contract with America” that promised tax cuts, welfare reform, a balanced budget, and laissez-faire deregulation of the business world and the environment.
As the 104th Congress that began in 1995 concentrated on the conservative agenda shaped by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the tactical and intellectual general of the Republican revolution, there was a temptation to dismiss Clinton as inconsequential while media attention focused on Congress. A presidential news conference in April was deemed worthy of coverage by only one major television network, and Clinton was reduced to proclaiming in answer to a question: “The president is relevant here.”
But he had already started to put together a comeback plan, reading books on presidential leadership, getting opinions from hundreds of people, and watching videotapes of popular predecessors, including Ronald Reagan, in top form, all to gauge where and how he had failed. Still, during that troublesome spring for Clinton, Speaker Gingrich and his self-styled revolutionary agenda of shrinking government remained at least temporarily preeminent. His every move was observed and analyzed by the press. On the constitutional see-saw of balanced powers, Congress was up and the president was down.
But within a year, the Republican revolution had dissipated. By the time Clinton rode by train from Washington to Chicago in August 1996 to accept his party’s uncontested renomination, he seemed miraculously transformed and energized, busting with confidence and in full roar. He seemed, at last, to feel at home in the White House. He had practiced the salute of commander in chief to the point where he could snap it off briskly at any time, even when no military people were in sight.
During the final months of his 1996 reelection campaign against the Republican challenger, Bob Dole of Kansas, the former Senate majority leader, Clinton was confident of winning a second term and already pondering his place in history. He said in an interview that he had finally grown into the job and learned how to play the instruments of power: legislation, executive action, the bully pulpit. To succeed, he said, “a president has to use all those things… and know when it is appropriate to do which… that is a lesson I’ve learned from my defeats as well as from my successes here in the last four years.”
But there were elements other than the education of William Jefferson Clinton to account for this extraordinary return from the political dead. The first was luck. Clinton always seemed to benefit immeasurably from the frailties of his enemies. When he was down, the people who put him there always seemed to sink quickly themselves. The man who defeated him in Arkansas in 1980, Frank White, had quickly fallen from political grace, reminders of which helped to snap Clinton out of his postelection depression.
Newt Gingrich came to serve the same purpose. His tenure as Speaker was marked by strategic blunders and verbal gaffes, and each misstep helped Clinton to recover standing. The Republican takeover of Congress, in fact, might have been a blessing in disguise for Clinton. It took him off center stage as the focus of all anger and disappointment and made Gingrich and his agenda the targets of discontent instead. It was a gift to Clinton, said Democratic senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, “and he took it and used it very well.”
The second post-1994 change was the return of Richard Morris, the consultant who revived his career after the 1980 gubernatorial defeat. The call went out again to Morris, at first using a code name, in late-night telephone conversations, then more openly. Morris insinuated himself back to the center of Clinton’s career and began reshaping his presidency.
The basic strategy that Clinton and Morris developed this time echoed their work in Arkansas: move to the ideological center and frustrate Clinton’s conservative opposition by taking away traditional Republican issues. As part of this plan, Clinton restored his promise of a middle-class tax cut and began offering his own balanced budget proposals. Though some congressional Democrats lamented that Clinton’s budget-balancing surrender would force unacceptably harsh cuts in programs, the political effectiveness of the move soon became evident. Thereafter, Clinton, seemingly immunized against such complaints, and could wage the debate not on whether to balance the budget but how to do it.
Morris was a fractious presence in the White House at first, with many of the more progressive aides dismayed at the power of this Republican-leading Rasputin. But his stock rose as it became clear that his advice was helping Clinton regain his equilibrium. Morris’s “triangulation” plan—whereby Clinton established himself as a moderate third point on the political triangle between liberal Democrats and revolutionary Republicans—paid off in a way that reconciled even some of those very Democrats.
The president also managed to define himself as a contrast to Congress. He would work with Gingrich and the Republicans, but within boundaries. He would seek compromises on welfare reform and budget cuts, moving rightward, but would use his veto power when the Republicans pushed too far in cutting funds for Medicare, Medicaid, education, and preserving the environment. After never using his veto power during his first two years in office, he suddenly discovered it. As budget-cutting appropriations measures reached his desk, he vetoed several of them until they were revised to his liking. He also vetoed the Republicans’ omnibus reconciliation bill to balance the budget in seven years, arguing that it cut too much from federal programs protecting the poor and elderly while providing a tax cut to the wealthy.
The Republicans had been operating on the assumption that Clinton would inevitably relent to their conservative agenda. But they underestimated his political will and overestimated their own public appeal. Clinton’s resistance to the harsher aspects of the Gingrich revolution steadily boosted his popularity, as Gingrich would learn when the crunch came at the end of 1995. On two separate occasions, first in November and again in December, House Republicans voted to shut down the federal government in an effort to force Clinton to accept their budget. They assumed that the antigovernment mood was so prevalent across the land that their tactic would be popular. It was instead disastrous. Reports of workers losing their jobs and popular national parks closing dominated the nightly news. Gingrich then partly self-destructed, most prominently by whining about alleged personal slights while attending the funeral of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and during the flights there and back. He admitted the role of personal pique in forcing the government shutdown. He became a target of ridicule and his best friends in the House, who once saw him as their irreplaceable leader, began hearing pleas from their constituents to temper their rhetoric and push the outspoken Speaker into the background.
It could be argued that by paralyzing the government the Republicans lost the 1996 presidential race then and there, a year before the election. Forced to back off, their miscalculation renewed Clinton’s confidence and strengthened his relationship with congressional Democrats. It gave him flexibility to hold the ideological center ground, occasionally moving to the left without losing public support, or to the right without losing the progressive wing of his party. The loyalty of this faction was sorely tested late in 1996 when Clinton agreed to a Republican-crafted welfare reform proposal that effectively ended the federal guarantee of public assistance for millions of poor women and children. Two prominent members of Clinton’s health and social services department resigned in protest, but even the most disappointed liberals preferred a conservative Clinton to the Republican alternative.
The 1996 campaign lacked real competition and luster. Bob Dole’s single idea was a promise to cut taxes by 15 percent. The public was skeptical, particularly when Dole himself had built a solid reputation in the Senate as a moderate pragmatist who believed that cutting the deficit made more economic sense than cutting taxes. His election year “conversion” rang hollow; his low-key personality, so useful in engineering Senate cloakroom compromises, failed to capture the public imagination, and he was reduced, in growing frustration, to alternately denouncing Clinton as a liberal and then complaining that the president had co-opted the conservative agenda. Clinton’s superior political and rhetorical skills overwhelmed him, and as always, a dull campaign served to the advantage of the incumbent.
On 5 November 1996, William Jefferson Clinton was reelected to a second term. His margin of victory was wider than it had been four years earlier. He captured 379 electoral votes and 49 percent of the popular vote to 41 percent for Dole (and 8 percent for Perot, who was regarded more as a fringe candidate in his second independent bid for the presidency).
No American politician in modern times had run so far so fast as Bill Clinton. It took him merely two decades to move from his first triumph to his last, from attorney general of a small southern state to the youngest Democrat ever reelected to a second term as president. But on election night, as he stood on the portico of the Old State House in Little Rock in the warm autumn darkness and delivered a long and emotional valedictory speech, the moment evoked not just the romance of a life’s pursuit coming to an end, but the anxiety of an uncertain future.