Bill Clinton aspired to be another Franklin D. Roosevelt, someone whose presidency historians would rightly view as epochal. John F. Harris, who covered the last six years of Clinton's administration for the Washington Post, concludes in The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House that he fell considerably short of that mark. But Harris credits him with being more effective and courageous than his detractors admit. The drama in Harris' account, though, proceeds less from Clinton's clashes with his avowed enemies than from the irresolvable tensions between his worthy ambitions for the nation and his own flawed character. Intelligent, hardworking and driven though he was, it is clear that Clinton's chief survival trait was his resilience.
Because he grew in political wisdom during his eight years in office and emerged triumphant into a generally prosperous society, it is easy to forget that Clinton floundered pathetically during the early months of his first term so much so that Time magazine depicted him on its cover as The Incredible Shrinking President. The villains at this point were not the partisan Republicans in Congress but Clinton's conflicting support team and his own indecisiveness. Then there was the increasingly skeptical press to deal with. When the Republicans won the House of Representatives in 1994, his prospects really began to look grim. But gradually, as Harris demonstrates, Clinton started showing traces of leadership and resolve. Disregarding the polls, he came to the aid of Mexico when its economy was collapsing. He intervened, albeit with excruciating caution, to stop the bloodbaths taking place in the former Yugoslavia. He fought the tobacco industry and protected vast stretches of federally owned land from development. It wasn't exactly the New Deal revisited, but it wasn't such a bad deal, either.
Harris is especially adept at creating close-ups of Clinton and his advisers at work. He deftly sketches in the context of the moment and then summarizes with bits of recorded or remembered dialogue the essence of each encounter. Instead of keeping his readers behind the rope, figuratively speaking, he takes them by the elbow and drags them into the thick of the action. In one very telling scene, Clinton and his priapic Rumpelstiltskin, Dick Morris, discuss what it will take to move the standing of his presidency from borderline third tier (as Morris sees it) to first tier. Apart from his analytical skills, Harris also has a real gift for the apt phrase. Describing the election-night euphoria that accompanied Clinton's 1992 victory, he says, [I]t was as if somebody had flicked a switch and turned off gravity in Little Rock. When he reviews the incident in which Monica Lewinsky flashed her thong underwear at the commander-in-chief, he wryly observes, Somehow, he interpreted this delicate signal as an invitation.