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A look through the keyhole

The Clinton Wars: Sidney Blumenthal, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 822 pp., $30

May 18, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a Times political writer in Washington, D.C.

When Al Gore ran for president in 2000, Bill Clinton was the invisible man. Gore seemed so spooked by Clinton's scandals that he ran away from his successes. But Clinton's name is springing more easily from the lips of the Democrats seeking his old job in 2004. Most of the leading Democratic presidential candidates are portraying their plans for the economy as a return to Clinton's agenda; even Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who led an unsuccessful revolt from the left against the 1997 balanced budget Clinton negotiated with congressional Republicans, is touting his work for the initial economic plan Clinton squeezed through Congress in 1993.

This Clinton revival may partly reflect the fact that the Democratic candidates are now focused on appealing to Democratic primary voters, most of whom still regard Clinton as a hero. But surely another factor is the contrast between Clinton's economic record and the performance of the two presidents named Bush who bookend him. In Clinton's eight years, the economy created nearly 23 million jobs and the number of people in poverty fell by 7.7 million, the largest reduction since the boom years of the 1960s. Through the four years of the first President Bush and the two-plus years of his son the economy gained fewer than 240,000 new jobs (or just 1% as many as under Clinton), and the number of Americans in poverty increased by 7.8 million. Under Clinton, the government's fiscal position improved every year and by 2000 Washington had achieved its largest budget surplus ever; this year, George W. Bush will almost certainly break the record for the largest deficit ever, a dubious mark now held by his father. Many factors beyond the three presidents' policy choices may explain the disparity. But it's a good bet that whoever wins the Democratic nomination will try to frame the 2004 presidential election as a choice between a Clinton strategy linked to prosperity and a Bush record of tougher times.

Yet it's also clear that many Americans associate Clinton far less with such economic successes -- or other policy achievements such as the reform of welfare and the movement toward peace in Northern Ireland -- than with moral failures, particularly the affair with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky that led to his impeachment by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (and Al Gore's coolness in 2000). The effort to balance those competing ledgers has dominated the steady flow of memoirs and studies already appearing on Clinton's presidency -- from insider tales by George Stephanopoulos and Dick Morris to journalistic assessment by Haynes Johnson, David Halberstam and Joe Klein. The Clintons' own efforts to shape their place in history are approaching, with Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoirs due out next month and Clinton's effort expected next year, just in time for the presidential election. Amid that flood of words from Chappaqua, the likely prominence of the comparisons between Clinton and Bush in the 2004 race and the already escalating buzz about a possible Hillary Clinton 2008 presidential campaign, it's guaranteed that the struggle to define Bill Clinton's legacy will continue for years -- with the results affecting not only the verdict of posterity but more immediate judgments by the electorate as well.

Onto that treacherous field steps Sidney Blumenthal, a former journalist who joined the White House staff in Clinton's second term, with "The Clinton Wars," an epic-length brief for the defense. Blumenthal has grand ambitions: He has crammed between these covers a journalistic account of Clinton's first term, an insider's report on his second, and an historian's effort to fit all of these events into the longer sweep of American politics. It's difficult to imagine that either Clinton will defend the president's record more enthusiastically or unwaveringly than Blumenthal.

In many ways Blumenthal's portrayal is a useful corrective to the tendency among conservatives and even many mainstream reporters to present the Clinton years as only a succession of scandals while slighting his policy achievements and success at dragging to the center a Democratic Party that had lost five of the six presidential elections before his victory. It's easy to forget how far the Democrats had fallen before Clinton showed them a path back to the Oval Office with his New Democrat agenda: In the three elections immediately before he broke through in 1992, the Democrats had won a smaller share of the available electoral votes than in any three-election sequence since the formation of the modern party system with Andrew Jackson in 1828.

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