President Clinton won't be remembered for soaring, Lincolnesque rhetoric--even top speechwriter Michael Waldman admits that: "Clinton does not leave a long trail of chiseled phrases," writes Waldman in his memoir POTUS Speaks (POTUS is the acronym used in White House memos for President of the United States). "Frequently his speeches read like what they are: transcripts of a highly persuasive man trying to win a listener's agreement." That's right on target. Clinton's best-known phrases have been either embarrassments ("that depends on what the meaning of is is") or clichés repeated with numbing frequency ("Let's build that bridge to the 21st century"). Yet Waldman hails Clinton for "transforming the way a president uses the bully pulpit to lead," by adapting to the current media environment in which 24-hour cable channels dictate how the news is made, packaged, and delivered.
Waldman, who worked for Clinton from 1992 to 1999, is an unabashed supporter: "I was proud to work for Clinton, proud of what he accomplished for the country. For all his mistakes, I think that Bill Clinton was not only a successful president, but an important one." In other words, this is no kiss-and-tell memoir of the type that haunted the Reagan administration. Instead, it is the story of how an administration built its rhetoric around its policies, as told by a key player and an apologist. Waldman describes, for instance, how Bob Dole inspired that phrase about building a bridge to the 21st century: during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in 1996, Dole said he wanted to "be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action"--i.e., the past. Waldman also recounts a few hilarious anecdotes, such as what happened when he saw Robert McNamara and Ira Magaziner--the failed gurus of the Vietnam War and the Clinton health-care plan, respectively--meet in the White House mess. Another example: "Every few days, in the morning staff meetings, [economic advisor] Gene Sperling would issue a cryptic report on the fluctuations of a currency. 'The Thai baht took a big hit today,' he would announce.... The staff would nod gravely, as if we knew whether there was, in fact, a Thai baht." POTUS Speaks is simultaneously loyal and revealing--a neat trick. It's an entertaining account of the Clinton presidency told from an insider's perspective. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
In this lively and entertaining memoir of his seven years of service in the White House as a speechwriter for POTUS (President of the United States), Waldman does not move much beyond the by now familiar story of the roller-coaster trajectory of Clinton's presidency. He does note that Clinton likes to talk and is good at it, which is not news, but Waldman (Who Robbed America?) goes on to discuss how Clinton used his verbal skills to create a "bully pulpit," employing presidential speeches as a means to change public opinion and push public policy and to institute other changes Waldman finds both numerous and significant. An unabashed Clinton admirer, he mentions the scandals of the presidency, but does not dwell on them. In the end, the reader does not see much beneath the surface of the man. Of interest, though, is Waldman's humorous description of the speech writing process: it is hectic and disorganized, finished at the last minute, and even presidential speech writers, we learn, get writer's block. In all, this is an enjoyable read. (Oct.)
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