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Nigel Hamilton

Nigel Hamilton

Posted: October 18, 2010 11:10 AM

Lessons of 1994

What's Your Reaction:

Okay, I'm disappointed with our president. But not for the reasons you think. I'm his biggest supporter in Somerville, Massachusetts, population, 76,460. Plus quite a number of dogs, including ours: a Golden Doodle. And no, it's not because President Obama accepted Senator Kennedy's gift of a Portuguese Waterdog in preference to the clearly superior Golden Doodle (retriever-and-poodle mix). No, it's because, in the New York Times Magazine yesterday, President Obama is quoted as reading a number of presidential biographies that shed light on midterm mishaps that afflicted almost all his predecessors. (And no mention of my 2007 book about President Clinton's wild, first term, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency!)

The contracted manuscript, which was to be Volume 2 in succession to Bill Clinton: An American Journey, was rejected by my editor at Random House. This was because I insisted it should deal only with President Clinton's first term, leaving his second for a final volume. I argued that the Lewinsky scandal and the president's impeachment, which blew up in Clinton's second term, would completely overshadow the story -- and lessons -- of his first term in office. The publisher -- for financial reasons -- objected, and in the end we parted ways: mammon having beaten principle.

Fortunately a chance meeting at a farewell party in NYC for my wonderful agent Owen Laster permitted me to meet, in person, another great New York editor: Peter Osnos. He was clutching a wine glass, and when we shook hands, his glass shattered! It seemed -- I hoped -- propitious, in the same way that flinging ones glass into the fireplace and declaring one for all, and all for one, was propitious for D'Artagnan and his fellow musketeers. Peter had received the manuscript, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, from my agent, and had sent it to a consulting editor -- a former editor of Atlantic Monthly -- whose judgment he deeply respected: Bill Whitworth. If Bill thought it should be published, Peter declared, hand on heart, he would publish it.

Well, Bill did think so -- and PublicAffairs, which Peter founded, duly published the book in hardback in 2007, and paperback in 2008. At its center is the great November meltdown of November 1994, when both houses of Congress were lost to the Republican party, and Newt Gingrich -- one of the most egregious of modern attack-politicians -- became Speaker of the House of Representatives. I had interviewed a number of Clinton Administration cabinet members and White House and staffers, and was fascinated by the story of how, since the midterm election was considered very much a referendum on his presidency, complete with ads morphing photos of congressmen into photos of Clinton -- Bill Clinton had failed to foresee the magnitude of the disaster coming.

At the post-game bull session, Clinton refused to take any responsibility for his party's defeat. "I was present with him at the first meeting to evaluate what happened,'" remembered Henry Cisneros, the Housing Secretary. " 'And he was the maddest I have ever seen him. And somebody -- I think it was [Leon] Panetta -- dared to suggest that it was at least partially his fault. And he said, 'Goddamit, I've worked my ass off! You treat me like a damn dog! Like a mule! You trot me out every day, and all I'm doing is what you're telling me to do! And if you're telling me it's my fault, then it's your fault, because you're the ones who're putting out there, exhausting me, spending all my time... I never have time to think, I never have time to reflect, I never have time to strategize -- you just treat me like a pack mule!' I mean, he exploded!'"

"George Stephanopoulos [Clinton's director of communications] bit his tongue, knowing how the White House staff had been unable to stop Clinton from campaigning! 'He crisscrossed the country to raise money for the party, and appeared at rallies and fund-raisers for any Senate candidate who would have him,' Stephanopoulos recalled. In fact the President 'was not above calling in personally to radio talk-shows, and arranging satellite hook-ups with news stations across the nation, on his own. If his staff couldn't get the message out,' Stephanopoulos explained his boss's determination to convince voters his Administration was on the right track, 'he'd do it himself.'"

It hadn't worked -- for reasons I explained in my biography. But the consequences of defeat bear thinking about, if a similar meltdown awaits us this November. And since mine is still the only multi-volume biography of President Clinton yet published, why is President Obama not reading it?

The story of how Bill Clinton went into a deep funk, fired his co-president, Hillary, and took on Republican political strategist Dick Morris as his secret Rasputin in the White House, is extraordinary, in retrospect - but even more than Clinton's relationships with others it was the story of how Bill Clinton came to terms with himself as a leader, and how to change the public perception of his presidency, that is at the heart of the book. "Mastering the Presidency" is the subtitle -- and for a good reason. There are lessons there that our 44th President might well learn -- and take heart from. I will even sign a copy if he asks for it!

Nigel Hamilton is the winner of the Whitbread Prize for Biography, and the Templer Medal for Military History. His Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency is published by PublicAffairs. His latest work, American Caesars, Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, was published by Yale University Press last month.

 

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