Bill Clinton’s reputation has waxed an waned for three decades, and now he finds himself in another slump. The #MeToo reckoning caught him in its morally urgent net, his policies on crime and welfare are widely seen as having worsened our problems of racial inequality, and, frankly, Hillary’s defeat caused many to question whether the Clintons had been as unequivocally good for the Democratic Party’s prospects as was once assumed. Coming before #MeToo but sooner after the 2016 election than we stand now, Michael Tomasky’s slim biography of Bill Clinton remains an important read for those trying to understand this pivotal figure in post-Cold War politics.
Bill Clinton begins with a lovely rundown of Clinton’s early years. I would have liked to have seen more about how Clinton’s upbringing in rural Arkansas shaped the future president, but Tomasky does make shrewd observation about how Clinton’s youth indicated the personality America would come to know. Tomasky proceeds to a savvy and concise treatment of Clinton’s campaign for the presidency. The author also does fine work explaining the context of Democratic Party politics in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. To be brief, it was quite bleak.
By the time Clinton ran for president, Democrats had lost five out of the last six presidential elections. Reaganomics had revolutionized domestic policy in the United States and a broad anti-government mood pervaded the American electorate, making the prospects for a revival of liberalism seem grim if not impossible. Tomasky, a rock-ribbed progressive who got his start in this time period, lays out the sense of crisis that gripped national Democrats. Millennial liberals (of which I am one) would do well to appreciate just how dire the situation had gotten when Clinton and his New Democrats resolved to make their mark.
Two other themes run through Tomasky’s book. One is an examination of the extraordinary challenges conservative obstructionism posed to the Clinton presidency. The rise of talk radio and the radicalization of the Republican Party under Newt Gingrich erected unprecedented obstacles for Clinton. Running alongside this focus is Tomasky’s admiring chronicle of Clinton’s many achievements, particularly in the economic and foreign policy spheres. After two decades of economic and national-security failure, it is hard to disagree with Tomasky’s positive assessment.
Throughout the book, Tomasky writes gracefully and insightfully, even if he is a touch too gentle in dealing with Clinton’s flaws. He does not excuse the Monica Lewinsky scandal by any means, but he also fails to reckon fully with the damage Clinton did to Lewinsky’s life. For a writer known for his steely moralism, this is a shortcoming that tars Tomasky’s whole book. Peculiarly, Tomasky does not analyze the financial regulatory policies that Clinton signed off on in the waning years of his presidency, which the former president himself has acknowledged became contributing factors to the 2008 financial meltdown.
But in the final analysis, Tomasky has written a strong evaluation–and appreciation–of William Jefferson Clinton. The fact is that Clinton saved the Democratic Party from, in Tomasky’s words, “permanent minority status.” It is also a fact, however, that Clinton failed in the area of personal integrity, and the reevaluation that he has faced in the last four years is well warranted. Clinton had one of the most successful and complicated presidencies in American history. This fine book serves as an early historical interpretation that all Democrats should take to heart.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.