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The Survivor by John F. Harris

The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House - John Furby Harris

”There’s no reason to suppose that a man who caused so much debate in his own time will have a settled and stable reputation in posterity. ‘History,’ said the historian Pieter Geyl, ‘is an argument without end.’”

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Just let me explain!

William Jefferson Clinton was breaking his first campaign promise just as he was beginning to warm his hard won seat in the Oval Office. He had said on the campaign trail that he was going to offer amnesty to Haitian refugees. On paper it seemed like an easy promise, a compassionate promise that would send the right message to his base and stick a thumb in the eye of his predecessor. 

Until he watched the film. 

The CIA brought him satellite footage of what was happening in Haiti as word of his election spread through the population. People were cutting down trees and tearing apart their homes to build rafts. The analysts were projecting that tens of thousands of Haitians would die trying to reach the shores of America. If your getting a sinking feeling in your gut about right now that would be very similar to the way Clinton felt. The best of intentions with the worst possible results. 

John F. Harris doesn’t pull any punches. He brings to light every misstep, every blunder, every indiscretion, and even takes the doors off the closets and lets the skeletons rattle around the room. From glancing at some other reviews I know that some Clinton supporters thought this was a biased book. I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt that Harris related the facts without judgment, without political color, without rancor. Like most presidencies the early days of the Clinton administration are rocky and a lot of that has to do with the fact that every president arriving in Washington, flushed with victory, thinks that the world is at his feet. 

It doesn’t take long for them to realize that it isn’t just a matter of snapping the fingers. 

This book did make me think about our expectations for each new president. We are asking someone to come in and basically run the largest company in the world. The thousands of people that have been running it suddenly find themselves out of a job and now the new president has to replace those people. He has to reward his supporters, the people who sweated blood to get him elected, and he has to balance those reward appointments with people who hopefully know how to keep the Department of Labor or the State Department or the Department of the Interior running. Doing something like this to a major corporation every four to eight years would severely cripple their ability to compete. It would be crazy. 

In January of 1993 ex-governor of Arizona Bruce Babbitt walks into Bookman’s Used Books in Flagstaff, Arizona wheeling a dolly filled with boxes of books. Even before he dropped that stack on the floor in front of my counter I knew I was going to buy every single book. He was in an ebullient mood. I knew he had been shortlisted for a cabinet position and one of the things people do when they get ready to move is sell books. “Going somewhere?” I asked caught up in the irrepressible energy coming from him. He laughed and said. “Bill called. I’m going to the interior.” I gave him a high five and I wish someone had been there with a camera. I talked him into signing all the books because I could sell them for more with established providence and could therefore give him more for each book which he was all for. It was only later after his nervous energy had left that I realized that I had just had a brief brush with history. 

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Bruce Babbitt. He reads.

”The test of a first-rate intelligence,” Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Candidate Clinton had passed Fitzgerald’s test with ease.”

One of my all time favorite politicians is Lloyd Bentsen. He served as Secretary of Treasury under Clinton and was generally the old man in every meeting. He had his own take on Clinton. 

A year into the job, the Treasury secretary sat in his office one day reflecting on the eight presidents he had known, and concluded that Clinton was in some respects the smartest. ‘I think this fellow is a step above in the way of being able to correlate and see how it all works together,’ he mused. But Bentsen added that this talent for seeing multiple dimensions of a problem could be a curse.’He also has difficulty making decisions,’ More seriously, he believed Clinton’s incessantly political nature was self-defeating.

Once his staff did get a decision from Clinton they tried to keep him from talking to people who might change his perspective. He was always asking everyone for their opinion about anything from the economy to the latest polling data. He always wanted more information. I can appreciate a president who is willing to change his stances on issues given new information. The presidents that scare me are the ones that even when faced with a mound of evidence to the contrary will not change their position. 

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Bill I can get you re-elected. I’m the KING maker.

Dick Morris is an interesting character who magically reappears in Clinton’s life when he needs him the most. The Clinton staff loathed the man. He is the cockroach that loves the muck of political life and will do whatever it takes to insure that his candidate survives. ”He was Clinton’s version of Colonel House to Woodrow Wilson or Harry Hopkins to FDR.” Or if you want the more modern version he is the Karl Rove of Clinton’s election campaign. He is the only man that could force Clinton to just shut-up and listen to him without interruption for thirty minutes. He was a wizard. The man behind the curtain or maybe more appropriately the Man Behind the Darth Vader Mask. (Dick Cheney later stole it.)

”One reason that Clinton found it easy to speak in public was that he was essentially a transparent man. There was a narrow difference between the man at the podium and the man with his shoes off and feet up on Air Force One. Clinton in private was certainly more expressive, more profane, but the opinions and perspective he expressed were the same in both settings. Clinton was, by the standards of politicians, free of artifice.”

Clinton is without a doubt the best speaker of his generation. In front of a crowd he is transformed, plugged in. He instinctively knows what they want, what they are dying to be told, and usually his best lines came from when he left the confines of his speech and let his natural oratory ability take over. I hadn’t really thought about him as transparent or free of artifice. I’ve always thought of him as a man with a big heart, but maybe too political to ever be able to trust his frankness or his sincerity. (He wasn’t called Slick Willie for nothing.) He could screw up and screw up again; and yet, people still loved him. We doubt him on a lot of things, but the one thing that he can’t help even if he tried to hide it is how much he loves people. In the case of attractive, lush women he might just love them a tad bit too much. 

”Mr. President,” Newt Gingrich said, “we are going to run you out of town.”

I think we all know how that worked out. 

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I just want to say one thing about the impeachment proceedings, covered in proper detail in the book, is that what politicians sometimes forget is that WE elect presidents and we don’t want them impeached for reasons that defy reason. An impeachment is for incompetence in the job not for lying under oath about cheating on a wife. How a Whitewater investigation ever stretched into investigating his extramarital affairs is beyond me. Oh and Newt, the first to cast the first stone, what a hypocrite you turned out to be with your own extramarital affairs. Ok... so I’m a little bitter still. 

I do wish that Monica Lewinsky had not flashed her thong underwear at Bill. It was like a matador flicking a red cape in the face of a bull. 

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I bought this book when it was first published back in 2006. It has taken me until now to have the guts to read it. Clinton was the first politician I ever actively helped to get elected. I had come out of the closet as a Democrat (in my neck of the woods that is the same as saying you are a communist) to friends and family. I had a lot on the line or seemingly so then and with each disaster of his presidency I was losing my ability to defend him. He embarrassed me whenever he embarrassed himself. This book was painful, but only because Harris told it straight. I still cling to Clinton’s balanced budget with cuts in spending and a tax increase on the top 1.2% creating a surplus (along with a robust economy), a sight that may never be seen again. He passed this budget bill without a single republican vote. The GOP predicted economic disaster, but then they underestimated not just Bill, but all of us. 

History isn’t finished with William Jefferson Clinton. The tabulations are still being counted. On a C-Span ranking presidents poll in 2009 he is tied for 14th with James Monroe up from 21st in 2000. History will never forget, but sometimes it does forgive.