Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bill Clinton, Happy Warrior

Perhaps it's silly to record reactions to a book while you're still reading it, particularly early on. But what's a blog for? I want to flag an early snapshot of Bill Clinton from Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes that in one sense runs counter my general impression of the 42nd President -- though I suspect that it captures a complementary, not contradictory aspect of his personality and presidency.

My snapshot memory of the Clinton years is of a couple careening from crisis to crisis, with Clinton generally on the ropes and often red-faced with rage against his multifarious tormentors, from the media to the "vast right wing conspiracy" to the Gingrich Congress (the last is where my error may lie).  I sometimes think of him in concert with the Phillies' closer of the early nineties, Mitch Williams, a.k.a. "Wild Thing," who would generally struggle through his inning with lots of walks, hits and other fireworks but usually get the job done (until he didn't; his two blown saves cost the Phillies the '93 World Series).  On the other hand, there was the post-impeachment dictum, "If Bill Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk."  By the end of his tenure the loathesome Gingrich was down, and his scummy successor as Speaker Bob Livingston was down, and Dole was down, and the deficit was down, and crime was down, and income inequality was briefly down, and it really was, briefly, a kindler, gentler America than in the Reagan years. But still it was a wild ride.

No doubt Clinton can nurse a grudge with the best, and one generally doesn't think of him as a Zen master of detachment. But this, from Branch's earliest discussions with the new President in 1993, also rings true -- and explains much of Clinton's success:
Clinton said Dole spoke of the oppositions's job not as making deals but rather making the president fail, so he could be replaced as quickly as possible. In fact, he said Dole himself started running for president within ten days of Clinton's inauguration. "every time he goes to Kansas," remarked the president, "he stops off in New Hampshire on the way."

This was the first of many times that President Clinton spoke matter-of-factly about political warfare. He never begrudged survival and ambition in politicians, whether friend or foe. Indeed, he reveled in calculations from opposing points of view. These human assessments were among many intersecting factors that made politics so enthralling to him--including trends, accidents, strategy, communication, and precise election returns by district. He loved politics so much that he could speak almost fondly of his own defeats, seemingly because he had a prime seat to examine them in retrospect (p. 8).
As an introvert, I regard homo politicus as almost another species.  Of those with the ego and resilience and appetite for constant social interaction required to win elective office, I recognize that many are sleazy, and many are stupid, and most are narcissists, and that those with the incredible ego required to succeed on the highest level are generally going to bring some pretty intense personality dysfunctions into the mix.  But there is still something awesome (in the original sense of the word) about the capacity and passion for political combat.

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