Books: Nigel Hamilton's New Clinton Bio

For British scholar Nigel Hamilton, to turn new ground when every inch of the Clinton presidency has already been plowed nearly into dust by dozens of aides, journalists and historians (not to mention Bill and Hillary themselves in the combined 1,500 pages of their respective best sellers) is the challenge. And "Mastering the Presidency" (Public Affairs), Hamilton's account of Clinton's first term, falls far short. Hamilton chides Clinton in his prologue for his own "somewhat calendrical memoirs" (the 42nd president's doorstopper came in at 957 pages), and then proceeds to mimic the president's style for the next 700 pages. Hamilton brings to his second volume of what will presumably be a three-part work on the man he persists in calling "the big Arkansan" neither the intimate detail of those who lived the madness, nor the wider, penetrating insight of the historian. Washington Post writer John Harris presented a far more supple understanding of Clinton two years ago in his volume, "The Survivor." It's as if Hamilton, who earlier produced a widely respected trilogy on British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, is determined in this case merely to add his log to the pile.
What a shame. Early on, Hamilton offers some tantalizing groundwork on the reportedly tense relationship between Hillary and Al Gore, starting with the First Lady's attempted land grab of the Vice President's West Wing office and coursing like a virus through the rest of the Clinton presidency. Within weeks after Clinton took office, Hamilton reports, Hillary and Gore were duking it out over the role of "co-president." It was "a struggle of Othello-like proportions, involving suspicion, rivalry and downright skullduggery—fought out between two characters, of the same age, who were individually among the most upright, honest and noble souls of their generation."

Now there's a story. The rivalry, which intimates say continues on the eve of the 2008 campaign, would make a fascinating thread to pull if an author were intent on making news, but Hamilton does little to oblige the reader. Hillary and Al, each drawn by what could be done "for and through" Bill Clinton—and each ultimately to be betrayed by him—pop up throughout the book competing for the big Arkansan's attention on their pet projects: Hillary on health care, and Gore on deficit reduction, the North American Free Trade Agreement and a more muscular foreign policy in the wake of the Soviet Union's demise. But Hamilton's Bill Clinton is a curiously hollow character—eternally whipsawed by the competing agendas of his co-presidents, but too paralyzed by indecision, disorganization and a pathological aversion to conflict to put a stop to it.

Clinton's first chief of staff, Mac (the Nice) McClarty, a kindergarten pal from Arkansas, is no help either in managing a White House that at times seems more like backstage at the second-grade play than the inner core of world's mightiest government. There are staffing nightmares galore (Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, Lani Guinier, Jocelyn Elders), unintended battles (gays in the military, the White House travel-office firings), personal tragedy (the deaths of Vince Foster, Hillary's father and Bill's mother in the space of a few months) and military disaster (Somalia) that keep the young administration in a state of perpetual imbalance and exhaustion. Through it all, the big Arkansan does manage some notable achievements: his 1993 deficit-reduction package, the passage of NAFTA and, following initial missteps, the relatively bloodless occupation of Haiti. The affable and competent Leon Panetta, Clinton's director of the Office of Management and Budget, takes over as chief of staff, bringing focus and order to the White House operation. Clinton is finally on course.

Health-care reform is a different story. Here Hillary, whom Hamilton claims to admire, emerges as a tragic, overreaching figure who starts what is virtually her own administration, replete with an organizational chart, legions of staffers both inside and outside the White House, and a war room. In racing to complete what would become an impossibly complex proposal to overhaul a $900 billion sector of the American economy, Hamilton makes it clear that Hillary cannot but fail. The self-righteous, politically tone-deaf First Lady, unable to get her husband's attention, wrangles with Congress, the insurance industry and skeptics within the administration, with only the scarcest of guidance or cover from the president. Hamilton renders Hillary a "lonely lady at the helm" one moment, a "charioteer" careening out of control the next. (Perhaps not unsurprising for a biographer whose talents were more evident with "Monty" and the British Army on the battlefields of World War II, Hamilton resorts often to unintentionally comical military imagery, especially when describing the "fusillades" and "barrages" of the "mullahs of Republicanism" who will soon try to take over.)

Once Hillary presents her doomed proposal to Congress and Democrats, and Clinton manages to lose both Houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, Hamilton clears Bill and Hillary from the stage, and yanks out Newt Gingrich, the egomanical, newly elected Speaker of the House and the equally maniacal political consultant Dick Morris. For the next 200 pages, these cartoonishly rendered clods will help Clinton reposition himself in the "vital center," eventually setting the stage for his 1996 electoral landslide against Bob Dole.

But lurking beneath each moment of political triumph, any reader of Clintonalia knows, are Bill's demons. Hamilton devotes vast swaths of the book to Troopergate, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and, of course, Monica—more perhaps than to the above-the-waist defining moments of the Clinton presidency. Some of these chapters read as though passages from a Barbara Cartland novel have fluttered into his manuscript. Witness this scene, on the fateful evening of Nov. 15, 1995, when Clinton and the 22-year-old Lewinsky begin their affair: "Monica's flirtation climaxed when, standing by the doorway, out of sight of any colleagues but the president, she turned her back, and lifting her jacket, showed her thong and her ample, naked upper cheeks, like a chimpanzee—an act of primal teasing and promise of sexual submission the president could not ignore."

After a groping session in George Stephanopoulos's empty office, the primatologist reports, "the president returned to the residence and to Hillary "feeling guilty but aroused, too." Confirmation of this state is nowhere to be found in Clinton's own richly quoted memoirs, or in the even more prurient, taxpayer-funded Starr report, but by this point, Hamilton has taken us where no presidential biographer has trod before. Throughout the book, cheesy dialog is dished up from a mélange of memoirs (volumes by Clinton, Hillary, Stephanopoulos, Morris and Gingrich, not to mention Andrew Morton's "Monica's Story" are quoted so exhaustively, their publishers may want to file for royalties).

Less comical, but historically more relevant, are chapters dealing with the other turning points of the Clinton comeback: battles with the Republican Congress over the balanced budget, with his fellow Democrats over welfare reform and with isolationists in his own cabinet over the U.S.-led intervention in Bosnia by NATO forces. Hamilton does an admirable job laying out the poisonous advances of Al Qaeda in the mid-1990s, starting with the first World Trade Center bombing and proceeding to the destruction of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia while the country's national-security agencies seem incapable of connecting the dots and the GOP Congress stalls Clinton's antiterrorism proposal. (Former FBI director Louis Freeh is given an especially savage review.)

As Hamilton renders Clinton, it is tempting to imagine a kite, bobbing and weaving, veering perilously close to power lines and trees until it catches a gust of wind and rockets to the sky. In "Mastering the Presidency," these gusts come in the form of crises: the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, the subsequent government shutdown and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, where the president finds his voice in perhaps the most stirring speech of his presidency. Through it all, we are left to wonder who the real Clinton is. Hamilton tries mightily, but doesn't fully explain the forces that allowed the doughnut-scarfing law professor of the book's early chapters to become the confident, worldly peacemaker whose "energy, optimism, knowledge, intellect and connection with ordinary Americans" propelled him to a second term. For that, we presume, there is volume three.