Bill Clinton’s presidency through the eyes of those who were there

In November 2014, as I edited my latest book, “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,” the University of Virginia’s Miller Center released the first batch of oral history transcripts from its Clinton Presidential History Project. Shortly after Bill Clinton left the White House, more than 100 Clinton-era staffers, legislators and world leaders offered candid, often colorful, occasionally off-color assessments of both Clintons. Reassured that their recollections would remain buried for at least 10 years, most spoke freely — no one anticipated that Hillary Clinton would be seeking the presidency when the transcripts were eventually released. The gems scattered throughout the interviews reinforced my claim that Bill Clinton was as significant and ideological a president as Ronald Reagan. Given my indebtedness to the Miller Center for its scholarship and fortuitous timing, I approached Russell L. Riley’s excerpts from the transcripts skeptically. Could 400 pages paint as vivid a pointillist portrait as all 400 hours of these interviews did?

Fortunately, Riley has harvested the interviews’ juiciest morsels effectively. Organizing them in a digestible fashion, he groups the excerpts into 34 chapters, divided into five sections. The first section, “Beginnings,” describes Bill Clinton’s unlikely 1992 victory and rocky transition. The next three sections examine the Clinton White House thematically and roughly chronologically. The final section, “Bill Clinton and His Team,” explores Clinton’s voracious intellect, chaotic operating style and operatic personality, followed by chapters devoted to Vice President Al Gore, first lady Hillary Clinton and the White House staff. An epilogue concludes with a few “Observations on the Clinton Legacy.”

The result provides a compelling ticket back to Clintonland and Bill Clinton’s 1990s political rollercoaster. The book risks being history by punch line — although these are the unvarnished sound bites missing from the official documents housed in the Clinton Presidential Library. Hillary Clinton’s friend Susan Thomases recalls warning Bill, “You’re stupid enough to blow this whole Presidential thing over your dick.” Pollster Stanley Greenberg remembers Hillary acknowledging her husband’s wanderings, confessing: “Obviously, if I could say ‘no’ to this question, we would say ‘no,’ and therefore, there is an issue.”

Still, Clinton won. His domestic policy adviser, Bruce Reed, credits the victory to having “a candidate who knew what he wanted to do as president” and “hit perfect pitch.”
“Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History,” by Russell L. Riley (Oxford Univ.)
After the inauguration, the “honeymoon” lasted “ten hours,” one political adviser, Joan Baggett, sighed. Clinton’s first national security adviser, Tony Lake, recalls asking Colin Powell, a George H.W. Bush administration holdover, to describe a typical day. Powell talked of opening the newspaper every morning “and discovering, excuse me, that the Washington Post has been jammed up my ass.” Lake thought, “If this is happening to Colin Powell, what’s going to happen to mere mortals?” Beyond press troubles, Republican Sen. Alan Simpson admits, “[There] were guys in our caucus who were always just out to screw Bill.”

The president made his own messes, too, living what his friend Mickey Kantor calls the “Clinton pattern to get in trouble when he is doing better.” The Monica Lewinsky scandal, while derailing Clinton’s reform agenda, particularly infuriated Donna Shalala, the health and human services secretary and a former university president. She explains: “It was the young person thing. It just hit against every principle I’ve had in my life and the world that I come from.” The scandal also yielded a poignant moment with Gen. Hugh Shelton. A tearful president told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If I’ve caused any embarrassment to the men and women in uniform, I sincerely regret it.”
Voters in 2016 will be intrigued to learn about Hillary Clinton’s role as the “tough,” “smart,” intimidating house disciplinarian — ignoring warnings as her health-care reform effort tanked. Chief of staff Leon Panetta recalls an aide reporting that “the First Lady just tore everybody a new asshole” — although Riley omits Baggett’s devastating memory that “sometimes she’d be in those meetings and I’d think, Please don’t let her yell at me.”

While the snarky and vulgar lines stand out, Bill Clinton enjoyed great moments, too. National security adviser Sandy Berger, recalling the risky $20 billion Mexico bailout, rejoiced that the president was not “simply a political animal.” The staffers convey great pride in their boss, wowed by his passion, persistence, stamina and smarts. They toast Clinton’s achievements, including what economist Alan Blinder calls “the greatest period of prosperity in American history,” a balanced budget, delines in crime and unemployment, welfare reform, NAFTA, and peace agreements in Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

Many aides also emphasize what I argue was Clinton’s salvation: his centrism. As Reed explains, he transcended “the traditional left/right box.” Clinton’s New American Covenant, fusing “opportunity, responsibility, and community,” synthesized the Great Society with the Reagan revolution while convincing most Americans that, whatever his flaws, Clinton was a serious leader. Ultimately, Democratic Leadership Council leader Al From argues, Clinton’s Third Way “reshaped progressive politics all over the world.”

Alas, Riley dodges this debate. His nine-page epilogue remains zoological, classifying staffers’ recollections using Panetta’s framing that “this is a tale of two presidencies,” one of “strong leadership” and one shadowed by Clinton’s “moral failings.” The repudiation of Clintonism from the left and the right in the 2016 campaign suggests that Clinton’s domestic policy demands a more multidimensional reading. Still, Riley, backed by the Miller Center, has made an essential contribution to our understanding of the Clintons and their times — providing potent ammunition for partisans, useful evidence for scholars and juicy historical tidbits for all.