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First in His Class : The Biography of Bill Clinton ()

Orrin's All-Time Top Ten (or twelve) List - Political

No moment better captured the reasons for my own frustration with Bill Clinton than a single segment of Meet the Press in the Fall of 1996.  In the final discussion segment, Tim Russert spoke with David Maraniss, author of this terrific Clinton biography, and Richard Ben Cramer, author of the great 1988 campaign book What It Takes, parts of which had been reissued as a Bob Dole biography.  For his last question, Russert asked each man what one thing he thought the American people should know, but didn't, about the man he'd written about.  Richard Ben Cramer said that he was truly sorry that people did not get to see what a decent, caring and humorous man Bob Dole really was, that the public perception, though it was Dole's own fault, really did a disservice to the man.

David Maraniss, though I may remember this more harshly than he meant it, said that the public persona of Bill Clinton, as a warm caring, empathetic man was also inaccurate and that he thought it would be better if the American people realized that he was really much colder, more selfish, and more self absorbed than they understood.  I've surely misremembered precisely what the two biographers said but the implication was clear, Bob Dole was a significantly better, Bill Clinton a much worse, man than we understood them to be.   That exchange, along with the PBS special called The Choice, and both this book and Joe Klein's roman a clef, Primary Colors, all combined to leave me with the really dispiriting certainty that, though the true Bill Clinton had been revealed, by impartial or even sympathetic investigators, the willful ignorance of the electorate was about to give us four more years of scandal and posturing.  Sadly, that has proven to be the case.

Now, I'm not so anti-Clinton that I think he's a totally illegitimate figure, as some on the Right admittedly feel.  I think that he would have had a more difficult time getting elected in 1992 if Ross Perot had not decided to pursue his bizarre vendetta against George Bush, but there is no question that President Bush's tepid response to the mild recession and his dutiful but suicidal decision to raise taxes had left him, an already weak political figure, in truly dire straits.  It would have taken a much bolder and adroit approach to the reelection than Bush was temperamentally suited for, to beat back a gregarious, youthful, activist Southern challenger, regardless of his personal scandals.  So that first election of Bill Clinton doesn't bother me much.

But it is just appalling to me that with all we knew about him by 1996, voters actually returned Bill Clinton to office for a second term.  At the depths of the Impeachment, watching his transparent angry denial of ever having sex with "that woman", his weasly testimony or his vituperative initial apology, it was hard to fight off a sense that the American people had gotten exactly what they deserved.   And in large measure, they deserved it because this excellent biography (Gary Wills has correctly called it "The best biography ever written about a president in office.") had presented us with an invaluable portrait of just what kind of man, politician and leader Bill Clinton is and, though Maraniss is fair to a fault, it is hard to believe that if every voter had first read this book, Bill Clinton could have won.

It is particularly remarkable to return to this book in the waning days of the Clinton era and to see how thoroughly his past was prologue.  There's no need to rehearse the events of Bill Clinton's life, they've long since entered into myth, but it is instructive to see how thoroughly his earlier life predicted or shaped the past eight years.

1) The effects of Alcoholism

Bill Clinton's step-father, Roger Clinton, was an alcoholic.  He was, at least, verbally and mentally abusive to Bill's mother on a regular basis, and sometimes physically so.  Bill Clinton, though he towered over Roger by a fairly early age, does not seem to have ever confronted him during the physical altercations.  Moreover, the entire problem was one which the family appears, not atypically, to have kept behind closed doors as much as possible.

Maraniss identifies one abiding influence that he feels this situation had:

    In the literature on children of alcoholics, there is a type sometimes referred to as the Family Hero,
    who plays one of two well-defined roles, either a caretaker and protector of the family or as its
    redeemer to the outside world.  ... As redeemer, the Family Hero is often excused from the family's
    inner burden and dispatched into the world to excel and to return with praise and rewards that will
    make the entire unit feel worthy.  In this role, the Family Hero becomes a vessel of ambition and
    the repository of hope.

As the author pretty clearly demonstrates, young Bill took on just this role within his family and, though Maraniss sort of drops this line of argument, I think you could argue that it is a role that he has inhabited in his personal career.  There is a certain sense in which we all pull for him to redeem something out of the squalid mess that surrounds him, and us.

But this is the other part of the influence of the culture of alcoholism, because Clinton himself is the dysfunctional member of the family.  The experiences of his own family would appear to have taught him that a family will often go to great lengths to readjust their own behavior, expectations and morality, in order to avoid conflict with or over the person who is causing the problems.  Clinton, who is nothing if not intuitive and chameleonlike, has made good personal use of the understanding that no matter how atrocious his behavior, those around him and ultimately even the American people, will find ways to change themselves to deal with it, he is simply not be expected to change himself.

Then, in that unique twist, having warped our own souls to accommodate him, we turn eagerly to him to redeem the mess.  This was perhaps never demonstrated quite so clearly as in the State of the Union that he delivered as the whole Lewinsky scandal was breaking.  Even if you hate the guy, and I do, there was something thrilling, albeit soul destroying, about watching him give that speech in those circumstances.  He has that uncanny ability to rise phoenix-like from ashes of his own making and it seems likely that he learned both of these roles largely as a result of being the child of an alcoholic.

2) The selfish ambition

Time and again in his life, Clinton casts aside tradition, societal norms, friends, supporters or peers in pursuit of purely personal goals.  One of the first instances of this was when he ran for class secretary his senior year of high school, though the post was traditionally held by a girl and  he had to challenge a close friend to do it.  That first time he was unsuccessful, but the trail since is littered with many a Dick Morris, Lani Guinier, Harold Ickes, or whomever had to go so that Bill might advance and he leaves the presidency a much weaker institution after having exercised and lost nearly every legal privilege that the office had previously enjoyed.

3) Listening as caring

Whether sucking up to a teacher, scamming a chick, or wooing a voter, Bill Clinton has perfected the skill of seeming to care about people and their concerns simply by listening intently to what they have to say.  Now, there are many instances in the book where he was there to support friends when they needed emotional help, he was by all accounts a doting son and an excellent older brother, and his relationships with Hilary and Chelsea seem to be complicated but genuinely loving; I'd not suggest that he is not capable of caring for others.  It is legitimate though to point out how brutal and callous he is capable of being to even his closest friends and family.  His tendency to direct his rage towards staffers, who obviously are not his peers, is legendary and really inexcusable.  His willingness to play off blocks of voters against each other and to drop a constituency when it's politically expedient is genuinely despicable.  His predatory behavior towards women-- much rumored when Maraniss was writing, now well documented--raises serious questions about whether he views females as anything more than sexual playthings.  And one of the most troubling things about him is his complete lack of friends.  Christopher Hitchens titled his polemic, No One Left to Lie Too, and there was that notorious rainy day where he played 36 holes of golf by himself.  One wonders about a 54 year old man who is as alone as this one.  It is eminently fair to ask whether someone with this mixed legacy really deserves the reputation for empathy and sympathy that he enjoys.  Is the dewey-eyed, lip-biting, glad-handing, good ole boy for real?  How much is shtick and how much is him?  And can even he tell anymore, or has the performance finally gone on so long that the actor is lost in the role?

4) The lack of core beliefs

One of the reasons that Bill Clinton has always been such a good empath may well be that he can easily imagine himself as someone else since he so lightly inhabits himself.  At this late date, if you were asked to write down the three things that Bill Clinton really believes in, what would you put down other than "Bill Clinton?"  A lifetime of horrific behavior precludes the notion that he has any moral core.  Nor can you distinguish any ideology from his public life.  His political philosophy is that of the 51st percenter.  If the 51st person out of 100 polled wants health care, he's willing to socialize medicine.  Let that person change his mind and poof!, health care is gone.  At what point does pragmatism end and mere hollowness begin?

Of course, all this is interesting enough in it's own right; Clinton is an undeniably fascinating character.  But it would all be just a very minor footnote to history if not for the "Permanent Campaign," as Maraniss calls it.  This is essentially a master political gameplan that Clinton and Dick Morris crafted, one set of strategies to rely on both during campaigns and while in office.  In a fundamental sense it is simply the application of political tactics to governance.  There were three original rules to the Permanent Campaign:

    (1)  Means and ends, pragmatism and idealism, have to be completely interwoven.

    (2)  Never rely on the press, the free media, to get your message across.

    (3) Use perpetual voter surveys to shape the substance and rhetoric of policy debates.

To these rules which worked so well in Clinton's first comeback in Arkansas, was later added the War Room, that notorious Clintonian Spin Machine which works to demonize opponents and accusers.

In a very real sense, all you needed to know in 1992 about what the next few years would be like you could have learned from understanding these four tools.  They reflect an intent to politicize everything, a combative attitude, a willingness (heck, an eagerness) to abandon the concept of principles in favor of popular opinion, and, most importantly, a decision to place Bill Clinton at the center of his own campaigns and governments.  To a stunning degree, the career of Bill Clinton has been about getting and keeping elective office, with scarcely a thought given to what to do with that office.  As Maraniss puts it:

    The essential question of his permanent campaign became whether his will to survive would
    overwhelm his convictions.

If the answer to this question was not yet clear when Maraniss was writing, it is certainly clear now.  Clinton's true legacy really amounts to little more than survival.

Nor did they simply learn the broad outlines of a plan that would help them realize this goal.  It's amazing how many devices from these early years of Bill Clinton's career have come back to haunt us.  One of the most obvious is the famous apology that he issued to the people of Arkansas after being ousted from the Statehouse.  Several aspects of the episode are particularly instructive.  First, polling showed that the voters didn't particularly dislike Clinton even after having voted against him.  They had almost a parental sense of ownership and indicated that they wanted to teach him a lesson.  So as he began the next campaign, they filmed the apology ad, very much against Clinton's wishes.  To Morris's horror, clinton's numbers dropped precipitously in the immediate aftermath of the ad, but as the campaign went on, they realized that the apology had made Clinton bulletproof.  When opponents attacked him, the public's attitude was, he's already apologized for that, leave him alone.  It's amazing how closely this whole episode parallels his Lewinsky apology.

There are numerous crises like this one, that crop up throughout his life and which he's forced to deal with, and as Maraniss delineates the means he used to cope with them back then, the reader can clearly see what lessons Clinton learned, good and bad.  Considering how chaotic and random the Clinton presidency has often seemed, it's remarkable how completely this history of his life before he ran for President, predicts all of the subsequent events of his tenure in office.   One hopes that Maraniss will continue the story in a succeeding volume, or volumes, and even that he will reexamine some of the incidents of these earlier years in light of all the information that has since been revealed or corroborated.  It is just a terrific book.


Grade: (A-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOKNOTES: Author: David Maraniss Title: First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton Air date: May 7, 1995 (CSPAN)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One First in His Class  By David Maraniss
    -REVIEW: of Norman Rockwell Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery (David Maraniss, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: With Clinton, his past foretold his present problems (David Maraniss, Washington Post)
    -GERGEN DIALOGUE: PORTRAIT OF A PRESIDENT with David Maraniss (Online Newshour, AUGUST 28, 1996, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW: Interviewed July 17, 1996 (PBS Frontline)
    -INTERVIEW: Excerpt from a conversation with David Maraniss (
    -CHAT: Clinton and the Character Question  with David Maraniss (Monday, January 26, 1998, Washington Post Online)
    -CHAT: David Maraniss (MSNBC,10-16-98, Chris Donohue)
    -ARTICLE: Maraniss describes reasons for Clinton's duality of character  (October 15, 1995, Elisabeth Sherwin)
    -ESSAY: Hillary Clinton, Psychoanalyst (Christopher Caldwell, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY: CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; When Fluidity Replaces Maturity (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of FIRST IN HIS CLASS A Biography of Bill Clinton. By David Maraniss  (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of FIRST IN HIS CLASS A Biography of Bill Clinton. By David Maraniss (John B. Judis, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of First in His Class Running From the Start  (Matthew Cooper, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW: of The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al Gore By DAVID MARANISS and ELLEN NAKASHIMA (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE CLINTON ENIGMA: A Four-and-a-Half Minute Speech Reveals This President's Entire Life By David Maraniss (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Lars-Erik Nelson: The Not Very Grand Inquisitor, NY Review of Books
       Communication from the Office of the Independent Counsel, Kenneth W. Starr
       ...And the Horse He Rode In On: The People v. Kenneth Starr by James Carville
       The Clinton Enigma: A Four-and-a-Half-Minute Speech Reveals This President's Entire Life by David Maraniss
    -REVIEW: of The Clinton Enigma: A Four-and-a-Half-Minute Speech Reveals This President's Entire Life By David Maraniss (Bob Minzesheimer, USAToday)
    -REVIEW: of ''TELL NEWT TO SHUT UP!'' Prizewinning Washington Post Journalists Reveal How Reality Gagged the Gingrich Revolution. By David Maraniss and Michael Weisskop ( Phil Gailey, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of When Pride Still Mattered A Life of Vince Lombardi. By David Maraniss (Allen St. John, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss (Geoffrey Norman, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of When Pride Still Mattered (STEVE PAYNE, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: of When Pride Still Mattered (John Chalberg, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW:  Malcolm Gladwell: True Grit, NY Review of Books
       Think Like a Champion by Mike Shanahan and with Adam Schefter
       Rockne of Notre Dame: The Making of a Football Legend by Ray Robinson
       When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss
    -REVIEW : of When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss (Patrick J. Garrity,
    -AWARDS: Winners of the 1993 Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism, Literature and the Arts David Maraniss--National reporting

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: "william jefferson clinton"
    -William J. Clinton  Forty-Second President 1993- (
    -ARCHIVES : Clinton Files (Reason Magazine)
    -FRONTLINE: The Choice '96 (PBS)
    -ETEXTS: IMPEACHMENT OF PRESIDENT WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON (Government Documents in the News, U of Michigan)
    -The Impeachment of President Clinton (North Texas Libraries)
    -Full Coverage : Clinton Accused (Washington Post)
    -Clinton: Impeaching the President (CBC)
    -Clinton in Crisis (Guardian Unlimited)
    -The History Place - Impeachment: Bill Clinton
    -The Committee to Impeach the President
    -REVIEW: Garry Wills: The Real Scandal, NY Review of Books
       Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties by Dick Morris
    -REVIEW : of The Truth of Power : Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House by Benjamin R. Barber ( ALEXANDER STAR, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of 'The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years' by Haynes Johnson (Christopher Caldwell, Washington Post)