When does history begin? Journalists often call their work “the first draft of history,” but when does that work pass from draft to final version? It’s a problem that Sean Wilentz has had to confront as the general editor of the American Presidents Series from Times Books. The goal of the series is to produce a concise biography of every president of the United States. With the publication of Bill Clinton this week, author Michael Tomasky brings the total of volumes to 42, covering every chief executive from George Washington to George W. Bush.
At some point between Washington and Bush, though, we make the transition between history and punditry. Where that line is drawn is as much a matter of sourcing as it is of authorial approach. None of the American Presidents books are meant to be the product of deep original research. Instead, they are distillations of the lengthier scholarship repackaged for a mass audience. The series is a throwback to the multi-volume sets that were published in the early twentieth century, and should be a resource in libraries for years to come.
This is not a criticism: Many presidents have not had a full-length biographical treatment in decades, and refreshing those out-of-print works for a modern audience is useful. The series has also often enlisted the efforts of serious historians knowledgeable in the era. But for biographies of modern figures, it raises questions.
Is It History Yet?
The distinction between history and journalism starts to fade at about the 50-year mark. John Kennedy’s biography is written by a history professor, Alan Brinkley. Lyndon Johnson’s book in the series is by a journalist, Charles Peters, who has also written some historical works. The authors of the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford volumes are also by journalists with experience at long-form history. By the time we get to Ronald Reagan, the shift away from history is complete: his biography is by Jacob Weisberg, the editor-in-chief of Slate. Similarly, Tomasky, the author of Bill Clinton, is an editor and contributor to several left-wing journalistic publications.
The shift from historian to journalist does not represent any decline in writing quality—good craftsmen of the language may be found in both fields—but it does betoken a chance in focus. Even though many earlier volumes in the series were not written after years of research in a president’s archives and collected papers, they were all written based on works of some other author who had been up to his elbows in primary source documents.
Reading a subject’s own words and those of his contemporaries is essential to a true scholarly biography. With more recent presidents, these resources are still uncollected, classified, or just unread. The result must be an inferior work, one based on the more readily available opinions of outsiders and pundits, rather than the facts that can be discerned from the papers of a president and his administration.
To say Tomasky is guilty of this implies a culpability that he does not deserve. Any author writing a biography of a living subject, especially one who is still active in the nation’s politics, will be encumbered by the same limitations. The Clinton library exists, but not everything he wrote has been collected there, nor have the writings of his friends and appointees. While some of his wife’s e-mails were recently hacked from her private server and published, even those do not tell the whole story. It will likely be decades before that story has any chance of being told completely.
A Matter of Perspective
There is also a difference in how writers tell the story of a politician whom they have covered in their journalistic career. Bias in journalism is a constant topic of discussion, especially during an election season. The perception that the vast majority of the press was biased toward Hillary Clinton was a significant factor in how people assessed the campaign and certainly contributed to her defeat at the hands of the candidate the media reviled the most, Donald Trump.
That journalists have a bias is not unnatural; anyone who spends his life covering politics is bound to have an opinion on it, just as people in any line of work have opinions about their jobs. But when that bias transfers over to a purportedly neutral work of history, the scholarship suffers.
Any book about an active political figure written by an active political journalist is bound to take one side or the other, and this book is no different. Tomasky is pro-Clinton, and it shows. That’s to be expected. No politically inclined person who lived through the Clinton years is likely to be neutral on the man and his accomplishments in office. Even the remove of 16 years does not diminish the fervor for or against him, because Hillary Clinton has remained an active politician in the days since. His record is intertwined with hers and was a point of contention in the 2016 election. Democrats’ love for Hillary reinforced their love for Bill; Republicans’ disdain for her stoked their distaste for her husband.
Tomasky’s choice of source material affirms his political sentiment. The two most cited works are Clinton’s own 2004 autobiography, My Life, and an extremely favorable biography by another journalist: John Harris’s 2006 book The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House. Tomasky, who was also the author of a favorable book on Hillary (Hillary’s Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign), does not make much of an effort to include contrary viewpoints, and a perusal of his bibliography bears this out: the only source significantly critical of Clinton is the Starr Report, which even a favorable biographer could not possibly ignore.
This is, perhaps, inevitable. Many of the books unfriendly to Clinton are extremely so, as the Right suffers from the same one-sidedness as the Left in their assessment of Clinton. While those books might have been useful in presenting a balanced view of the 42nd President, it is perhaps too much to expect for a Clinton partisan to incorporate material he spent years refuting. If that is the case, however, it merely drives home the fact that we should not expect a balanced look at Bill Clinton until those who lived through his presidency are no longer the ones telling its story.
With all that said, what does this book say about Clinton and his presidency? Tomasky frames Clinton’s political life as one balancing progressive intentions with the need to win over an electorate that is closer to the center than he is. In that, he begins to get at Clinton’s essential nature. Tomasky is right that Clinton is a pragmatist, that he was willing to move himself and his entire party rightward to get elected. This was the end Clinton aimed at and achieved, and it is described well in this book. But it needs a deeper analysis of the means Clinton used to achieve that end.
To win the Arkansas governorship and later the presidency, Clinton was required to communicate two contrary ideas to the electorate simultaneously. To moderates who distrusted the Mondale-Dukakis strain of 1980s Democratic policymakers, Clinton’s message was that he was different. He was a New Democrat, one who had made peace with capitalism and jettisoned the radical ideas of the hippie generation. Young as he was, Clinton portrayed himself as the grown-up in the party. Tomasky tells this story well, detailing Clinton’s role in the establishment of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of politicos who agreed with Clinton’s ideas about the party.
But winning over Democrats nationally required convincing the party’s still sizable left wing that this moderation was just the means to an end. Clinton was still the progressive who was too liberal for Arkansas voters when they turfed him out of office in 1980. He nodded at moderates, but winked at progressives. And, to give credit where it’s due, Clinton had the charm and skill to pull it off. To liberals who were tired of losing, a liberal who pretended to be moderate sounded like a winning proposition. They made a virtue of necessity; his mendacity was a part of his charm.
As Tomasky demonstrates, whether he intends to or not, lying was a part of Clinton’s deal from the beginning. Even in his student days, Clinton’s method of avoiding the military draft was paradigmatic of his future conduct: a series of shifting stories and legalistic choices, none of which violated the law but which, taken together, had more than a whiff of dishonesty. Bill and Hillary Clinton continued this pattern, spending three decades telling the American people why whatever they had just been accused of was technically legal.
Democrats may have bought it, but Republicans surely did not, and the Clintons’ serial prevarications—and the fact that they kept getting away with it—drove conservatives to distraction. Tomasky blames this divide on news media obsessed with attacking the Clintons, a point that would send any right-wing reader into peals of laughter or groans of outrage.
But whatever the cause, he diagnoses the effect correctly: Clinton’s presidency was divisive, and gave rise to the opinion-journalism complex that we have today. Clinton inspires equal parts admiration and disgust, sometimes both at once. Until we reach a point where people can discuss him while leaving their feelings out of it, this stark division of opinion guarantees that we will not see a balanced biography of Clinton in his lifetime, and likely for many years thereafter.
The Rise and Fall of Clintonism
In assessing the fate of Clinton’s New Democratic policies, Tomasky is more clear-eyed. Clinton pulled the Democratic Party up from its Dukakis-era nadir by appealing to things that motivate the average American. He took a party that thought weekend furloughs for murderers was a sensible policy and changed it to one that was tougher on crime than many Republicans. Representing the creators of the New Deal and the Great Society, he preached a policy of “ending welfare as we have come to know it.” While receiving the votes of thousands of union workers, he endorsed free trade with low-wage countries.
Clinton put a new face on the Democratic Party, and it worked. Although his tax increase and proposed healthcare bill led to the Republicans taking Congress for the first time in four decades, his commitment to other centrist policies (along with a booming economy) were enough to avoid defeat in his 1996 reelection campaign.
More than that, it was enough to redefine the party. Buoyed by an inflating tech stock bubble, market-based solutions were all the rage among a group that once looked upon Wall Street as the root of all evil. Even today, Democrats have to act as though they want middle-class tax cuts, smaller government, balanced budgets, and a strong national defense—all pages out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook. Clinton left office in 2001 with his party in much better condition than he found it.
Sixteen years later, almost nothing remains of Clinton and the DLC’s efforts. The DLC itself disbanded in 2011. Its archives are now held by the Clinton Foundation. That, at least, is fitting; Clinton was the only one who could successfully strike the balance the New Democratic ideal required. Only he could project sincerity amid the untruthfulness required to bridge that gap. Combining progressivism and moderation necessitates a degree of believable obliquity (an article on Clinton requires use of the thesaurus entry for “lying”) that few, if any possess. New Democratism is inseparable from Clintonism.
Even Clinton’s wife’s ill-starred campaign proves the point. Where Bill could unite the party through charm and equivocation, Hillary was forced ever leftward to satisfy fringe elements. When not defending her idiosyncratic IT practices, she spent much of her campaign denying the principles her husband had popularized.
As Tomasky explains in his epilogue, “The campaign and its result also constituted a repudiation of Bill Clinton.” Hillary “took positions at odds with her husband’s stances in 1992 and 1996, on race and criminal justice, banking, regulation, and especially trade, in an effort to blunt the criticisms that came from the left in the form of Bernie Sanders … and from the right in the form of populist Donald Trump.”
Tomasky cuts right to the heart of the problem with Clinton version 2.0: the reboot “fixed” all of the things that had made the original successful. Here, at last, we begin to see the long view of the historian. Clintonism may reemerge under some more talented successor in 2020 or 2024, but for now, it looks destined to be buried with its creator. It may be that Clintonism is not even an -ism at all, but simply the well-timed emergence of a remarkable practitioner of creditable flim-flam.
For the ultimate judgment of history on that point, we will have to wait. In the meantime, Tomasky’s Bill Clinton is a readable condensation of the left-leaning consensus on Clinton. For the generation that does not remember him as president, this slim volume will serve as an introduction to the man who temporarily changed the Democratic Party, and with it, the nation.