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The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House Hardcover – May 31, 2005
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The Survivor is the rare book with positive recommendations from both liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Brit Hume of the Fox News Channel. The author, John F. Harris--who covered the Clinton presidency as a political reporter at The Washington Post for six years--finds the perfect balance for his subject, writing with point-blank frankness about Clinton's impressive strengths and many weaknesses and painting an utterly fair portrait of one of the most charismatic and enigmatic political figures of the last 50 years. Harris at times is harsher to Clinton than many of the president's critics were and at other times, as in the case of his impeachment, is far kinder. He occasionally editorializes on the motivations of the Clintons, that ultimate power couple: why their marriage was not (despite public opinion) a sham based on political opportunity; how Bill's upbringing contributed to his willingness to take risks (sometimes to his great harm); and how "permanent Washington," including the presidential press corps, was determined to teach these Arkansas outsiders a lesson in the administration's rocky early days.
Harris peppers the book with both fact and anecdote, moving swiftly from subject to subject. The Survivor shows Clinton's growth as a leader throughout the eight years of his presidency, and how his personal failings almost brought them to a close. Far from being a milquetoast summary of events, The Survivor is a gripping read set behind the scenes in the West Wing. Harris has crafted a brilliant book with writerly style and with an eye on history. The Survivor is one of the best political titles of the year, and--like its subject matter--may be appreciated even more as time goes on. --Jennifer Buckendorff
From Publishers Weekly
In clear, workmanlike prose, veteran Washington Post reporter Harris traces the emotional highs and lows of a presidency with an excess of both. The book takes off after the disastrous (for Democrats) midterm elections of 1994, in part because of the arrival on-scene of a volatile Newt Gingrich and consultant Dick Morris, who is portrayed as quite sleazy. As the political wars over Whitewater and Lewinsky heat up, Harris's behind-the-scenes reporting pays dividends: he finds Gingrich boasting to Clinton, "Mr. President, we are going to run you out of town" and Clinton angrily denouncing the 1998 impeachment attempt as "a fucking coup d'état!" to a blank-faced, unsympathetic Al Gore. According to Harris, "the stereotype of Clinton as a supremely guileful and deceptive politician was essentially wrong." Instead, he views Clinton as an insecure, needy man whose frequent shifts in direction and self-destructive behavior reflected not cunning but utter lack of self-control. He also sees Clinton as growing in strength, self-confidence and wisdom over his eight years in office, and praises his courage in responding to the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. On terrorism, Harris offers a mixed verdict, crediting Clinton with recognizing the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda and expanding U.S. efforts against it while acknowledging the inadequacy of those efforts. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW.
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As Harris stated, Bill Clinton came to office in 1993 with high ideals and lofty goals, but that idealism led to problems for a president not yet fully mature in the workings of Washington politics. Harris points out that Clinton was of two minds politically: one side supporting the noblest and most idealistic of goals and trying to implement those ideas; the other was more realistic and understood that you can't get everything you want. This second side won out and helped Clinton mature into his presidency and most importantly, helped him to achieve some very notable accomplishments. Clinton's first years were marked by overly ambitious goals which resulted in numerous setbacks, culminating in the Republicans taking control of Congress after the 1994 election.
But Clinton's ability to overcome obstacles and emerge even stronger became quite clear during and after the showdown with Republicans over the government's shutdown, the impeachment scandal, and his ability to still get things done on both the domestic and foreign fronts even during his last years in office when most presidents wonder into obscurity. Harris still points out the mistakes and missed opportunities of his presidency.
Harris also provides us with valuable insights into how the president worked. For example, how he had to weigh every angle to a question of importance, considering every possibility or consequence of a decision. This can be both a strength and weakness. He worked long hours, but not on a strict, disciplined schedule. As Harris also astutely observed, he possessed an activist mind and conception for the role of president, yet constantly displayed a more passivist approach to actual governance in terms of leading the way on an issue and in trying to shape events. As Harris mentioned, he was a natural peacemaker and liked consensus and conciliation over conflict.
Another plus to this book is the detailed look at some of Clinton's inner and outer circle of advisors and cabinet members, people like Al Gore, Lloyd Bentsen, Dick Morris, Robert Rubin, Robert Reich, Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, Harold Ickes and so many others who came and went during his two terms. But of course the most obvious person to focus on is his wife. Hillary shared his obsession for politics and its possibilities for achieving and advancing their set of political values. Perhaps because of this strong common bond and natural respect for the other's abilities and talents were they able to endure the challenges to their marriage, on his part for his unfaithfulness due to his propensity for succumbing to temptation, to put it politely.
Harris's book is extremely well written and very insightful. Clinton was one of the most charismatic political figures of the twentieth century and he continues to be an active force. Bill Clinton endured incessant struggles, yet emerged stronger and more confidant; he was a survivor. While not an academically rigorous book in ways, it still provides enough information to give you a good, balanced picture of the Clinton presidency and the characters who were involved. A good read.