Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Nigel Hamilton's Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency (Public Affairs)

Aug 15, 2007 8:33 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Nigel Hamilton's Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency (Public Affairs)

After taking over 650 pages to narrate Bill Clinton’s first term as president, British biographer Nigel Hamilton gratefully acknowledges the editors who helped produce this “much-shortened” version of the original manuscript. That this big, honking book was once even bigger boggles the mind.

Then again, perhaps the mind shouldn’t be boggled. In his best known work, Reckless Youth, Hamilton took 800 pages to portray John F. Kennedy’s first 30 years, and, in Bill Clinton, An American Journey, roughly the same number to get Clinton from Arkansas to the White House. So his latest book is just another big pile of prose dumped at the busy intersection of history and journalism.

Size wouldn’t matter, of course, if Hamilton proved something new. He doesn’t. His basic argument—that the second half of Clinton’s first term witnessed “possibly the greatest example of self-reinvention as president in office in modern times”--is more asserted than proved and often disappears entirely in the book’s avalanche of details.

Book I, “Paradise Lost,” begins with the Clintons moving into their new home and Hillary throwing tantrums (and lamps), cursing at her husband about office space and co-presidential powers. Then come the “gates”: Travelgate, Troopergate, Nannygate, Whitewatergate, and the other nickel-dime scandals that slimed the administration’s early months. The President seems hapless: trying to make everyone happy, denying access to nobody, and left vulnerable by his genial chief-of-staff, old friend Mack McLarty, whose nickname (“Mack the Nice”) reveals his lack of toughness.

The ultimate disaster, of course, is Hillary’s complicated, ill-fated health care plan. Hamilton, who has a penchant for weird literary allusions, characterizes the working group pushing for it as “similar to the convict-scientists in Solzhenitsyn’s great novel The First Circle, led by an inexperienced first lady and her deputy, a mad, secretive management consultant,” Ira Magaziner.

How could this presidency be saved? By a strong chief-of-staff, says Hamilton. One who could “impose order on Bill’s endless chaos” by taking a “masculine approach” and rejuvenating a demoralized staff that had come to resemble “castrati in the Golden Carriage Palace of the Forbidden City—intimidated into servility by an activist First Lady.” Enter Leon Panetta.

Just like that, the Clinton presidency goes from “Paradise Lost” to “Paradise Regained.” Hillary, “the Red Queen” (we get some Lewis Carroll to go with our Milton), recedes into the background, and Bill goes from success to success. Except, of course, Monica is already there, setting the scene for the next whopping, inevitable tome (“Paradise Re-Lost”?).

I’m not sure anyone should want to read this book. Its only sustained arguments recycle respected journalists such as Elizabeth Drew; Hamilton himself seems capable only of analysis-by-adjective, as in the Magaziner reference or his casual characterization of Barry Goldwater as “half-crazed.” Even the melodramatic gossip is largely recycled.

So unless you’re an aficionado of bad prose and savor sentences like, “To try and bite the gay military bullet prematurely was to risk an early politico-military battle,” you should pass this one up.

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