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Monday, June 24, 2024

Nigel Hamilton: The Meltdown — and After


In 2006 Random House said they wouldn’t publish it in this country, while Random House UK said they would, in theirs. ‘It’ was my book, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency.

The reason Random USA refused to publish the book in America was that they insisted I cover both Clinton’s first and second administrations in the same volume. The reason I refused to comply was that I felt Clinton’s second term in office became dominated by the Lewinsky scandal, and that this would completely overshadow what I wanted to narrate about his first term as president, both as historian and biographer. For it seemed to me that the story of how the 1994 midterm election became a judgment on Clinton’s first two years in the White House, but how he then learned to be a successful president of the United States of America, was one that held many lessons — lessons that would be of great public interest as the years go by, and the Lewinsky scandal is forgotten.

Thankfully, PublicAffairs disagreed with Random’s decision, and published Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency in hardback in 2007, and paperback in 2008. If anyone is interested in how a modern Democratic president digs himself out of a seemingly bottomless hole, get ahold of it! I interviewed many of the primary figures in the saga, and I think it is standing the test of time. If the election meltdown next week is as bad as is being predicted, it will be required reading in Washington D.C.!

Ironically, although I received polite letters from former President Clinton while writing the book, he would not give an interview. As far as I know, he has refused to be interviewed by every serious biographer who has ever approached him, from David Marannis to John Harris and John Gartner; indeed, even by the author-compiler of a new work, A Complicated Man, an oral history assembled by Michael Takiff, which comes out this month.

Why the reticence towards serious authors by a man famous for being willing to debate politics with potential voters ranging from taxi drivers to right-wing journalists?

I shall be reviewing the new book — subtitled The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him — in the Internet Review of Books shortly; all I’d like to say here is that Clinton is a very complicated personality, but that the story of how he pulled himself together after the Democrats’ historic defeat in 1994 is one that offers some hope to those of us who are preparing for the worst. As Leon Panetta said to the President, after the magnitude of the ’94 disaster became clear (even the Democratic Speaker of the House lost his seat in ’94), the Republicans were bound to over-reach. And in due course they did — big time.

It certainly wasn’t an easy ride for Democrats, however. Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the 104th Congress, turned out to be not only a loudmouth and a joke, but a complete jerk: a politician his colleagues nicknamed the “bombthrower.” The bomb he threw on December 4, 1994, only weeks after the midterm election, and two days after being personally invited to the White House along with the new Republican Majority Leader of the Senate, Bob Dole, was typical. On NBC’s Meet the Press, the Speaker-elect declared that a quarter of the White House’s personnel were taking drugs!

As I wrote in Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, “The President’s chief of staff, Leon Panetta, who’d attended the Clinton-Dole-Gingrich meeting at the White House on December 2, was outraged. ‘He’s speaker of the House of Representatives. Words matter,’ Panetta declared. As speaker-to-be, Gingrich was “no longer just the minority whip in the House of Representatives, he’s not the editor of a cheap tabloid, he’s not just an out-of-control radio talk show host. He is one of the most powerful politicians in the country, and it’s time he started behaving accordingly. As House Speaker, he is second in the line of presidential succession, behind Vice President Al Gore Jr.’ Gingrich’s outrageous assertions, without names or evidence, smacked of McCarthyism. ‘It started with Jesse Helms,’ Panetta complained [referring to the Republican senator’s recent assertion that President Clinton was “unfit” to be Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces in the view of certain unnamed U.S. generals], “and now it’s Newt Gingrich, in which basically there are reckless charges made, reckless accusations that impugn peoples’ integrity. No evidence, no facts, no foundation, just basically smear and innuendo – the kind of thing that we rejected in this country a long time ago.” (Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, p 379)

Panetta was reminded of the McCarthy era; older folks were reminded of tactics used in the 1930s. They had proven deadly effective in Europe; they had failed to succeed in a United States of America, led during the Great Depression by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Somehow, in 2010, we have to invoke the spirits of President Roosevelt, and of President Clinton, if we are to survive the current recession, with its high unemployment and foreclosure crisis. In my chapter on FDR in American Caesars, I’ve written of FDR’s first term, “FDR’s empathy with the lot of ordinary Americans was the quality that raised him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in June, 1936, a crowd of 100,000, as well as half the population of America who owned radios, listened as the President – who fell on the way to the podium, when one of his leg braces failed to lock tight – was lifted back onto his feet and gave thanks to those who had helped defeat the Depression. Candidly and with humility he acknowledged the mistakes made along the way. “Governments can err. Presidents do make mistakes,” he acknowledged. But there was, he echoed Dante, a difference between “the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted.” As he put it – thinking of former President Hoover, who was currently stomping across the country in an attempt to recast his own bruised legend – “Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” Then, lowering his voice a register, FDR came to the words that would define his presidency: “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is asked. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” (American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, p13).

No more prophetic words have been spoken by a U.S. President. In Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, I wrote that in 1994 “Republicans had had a field day trashing the health care reform bill and other legislative measures involving higher taxation.” But the President’s response, following the midterm meltdown and Gingrich’s wild outburst over White House drug-takers, had been to address at great length, coolly and thoughtfully, a gala audience of the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington – ending with the words: ” ‘The responsibility we have is not to win elections, it is to fight for the people about whom elections are fought. If we fight for them and their children, then the elections will take care of themselves. And if they don’t, we’ll still be doing what’s right. That’s my commitment, and it ought to be yours.’ As the President sat down to thunderous applause, the DLC chairman was heard to exclaim: ‘That’s the Bill Clinton we’ve been waiting for!'” (Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, p377)

Between Roosevelt and Clinton’s experiences in dealing with the lunatic right in America, we have a treasure trove of historical examples. It is up to us to learn from those lessons: and never to lose heart.

Nigel Hamilton will be interviewed about his latest book, “American Caesars”, on C-Span Books’ “After Words” on the weekend of November 6/7, 2010, following the midterm elections. The interviewer will be the distinguished presidential historian, Richard Norton Smith.

From The Huffington Post