Bill Clinton: The 42nd President, 1993-2001
American Presidents Series
by Michael Tomasky
Times Books, 208 pp.
Bill Clinton rescued his party from near obscurity a quarter century ago. Democrats would be wise to closely examine the lessons of his tenure as they set out to rebuild after the devastating 2016 elections.
At this moment in early 2017, Bill and Hillary are taking a no doubt much-needed hiatus from the political limelight. But as the 2016 campaign showed, Bill Clinton's legacy as president still shapes our politics. Along with Barack Obama's presidency--which was, in domestic policy, essentially an extension of Clinton's--it will be a reference point in the Democrats' debates about how to regroup and go forward. Michael Tomasky's Bill Clinton, the latest volume in the American Presidents Series of Times Books biographies, deserves to be widely read, for its insights about the recent past--and the near future.
Tomasky's is the best short biography of the forty-second president we have. Clinton's rich life and momentous presidency would seem to defy encapsulation in 150 pages--the typical length of books in this series--but with his economy of prose, Tomasky manages to hit most of the big moments and air most of the key debates. He moves chronologically through Clinton's life (the pre-presidential years deftly shoehorned into one chapter, the 1992 campaign into another), covering foreign policy and domestic policy, scandal and pseudo scandal. He does so with a literary style that is fluid, engaging, judicious, often witty, sometimes barbed, and above all deeply informed.
The only significant objection I have to this book is that it's too short. Like other entries in this series (to which I contributed a biography of Calvin Coolidge), it's a wonderful introduction to a subject with whom you want to familiarize yourself but don't want to read 500 pages about, like Martin Van Buren (or Calvin Coolidge). Yet I'd love to read a Ron Chernow-sized Clinton biography by Tomasky. A book this short necessarily requires cursory treatments of some subjects that, given the continuing interest in Clinton, cry out for more depth. On the other hand, I can assign it to my undergraduates--and count on them to read it.
The prolific Tomasky--who also edits Democracy, writes a column for the Daily Beast, and contributes long essays to the New York Review of Books--has been a reporter and leading journalistic voice of left-liberalism for more than two decades. His own politics probably fall to the left of Clinton's, but he shares with the former president an appreciation of the pragmatism necessary for politicians to succeed, especially in our times. Tomasky isn't the type to prod or provoke liberal orthodoxy from a self-consciously centrist position, but neither does he wax indignant about politicians' betrayals of their principles or carry a torch for a lost '60s liberalism. It's a sensibility well suited for offering clear-eyed evaluations of a figure like Clinton.
In Bill Clinton, Tomasky doesn't advance any penetrating new thesis about his subject. But his clear-headed judgments, his ability to assess Clinton critically, even at times harshly, but always fairly, is itself something of a novelty in a literature dominated by shrill polemics...