Boomer triumphant

A British journalist says Clinton will go down in history as a significant leader at a time of enormous change.

By Jonathan Broder

Published October 23, 1996 7:44PM (EDT)

despite President Clinton's warnings against overconfidence, administration supporters and Democrats have all but broken out the champagne. Bob Dole continues to exhibit an almost eerie serenity about his chances, although local Republicans are beginning to abandon ships in droves. To all intents and purposes, the presidential election appears over—much to the chagrin of the Washington press corps, which keeps looking for a stick ("character," Indonesian millionaires) with which to stir up the race.

To many inside the Beltway, fed on a steady diet of vitriolic editorials and best-selling hit books, Clinton's apparent triumph is barely comprehensible. How Clinton came back from the dead (again) and whether the press has somehow missed the story is likely to be prime media fodder over the next several weeks and months. We spoke with Martin Walker, Washington bureau chief of the British newspaper The Guardian and author of the recently-published "The President We Deserve" (Crown).

You use the word "palimpsest" as a key to understanding Clinton's survival and success. Others use the phrase "Teflon president," and compare him with Ronald Reagan's ability to shrug off the slingshots.

Clinton is a protean kind of figure. You can scratch upon him pretty
much whatever you want. If you are a member of the baby-boom generation who grew
up with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, then you see Clinton as pretty much a
typical member of the group and his sins, therefore, as pretty venial.

Which makes him "the president we deserve"?

I titled my book the way that I did because I think he is
extraordinarily typical of post-war America — first in his family to go to
university, first in his family to go abroad in anything but a uniform, like so
many of his generation. Clinton was raised in an America of infinite possibility. He was part of this great meritocratic revolution which made for the world's first mass middle class.

Unlike Reagan, however, there are many Americans who still intensely dislike Clinton.

If you are an older, more military kind of person, you look at Bill Clinton's life and you gasp, "My God, what is the country coming to?" And if you are a Generation Xer, you look at Clinton and think, "By Christ! Didn't those baby-boomers have it easy!"

But there are also baby boomers in the press, like Maureen Dowd at the New York Times and Michael Lewis at the New Yorker, who seem to hate Clinton just as much, if not more.

In some ways, Clinton brought that on himself. He was ridiculously
arrogant toward the media, especially the White House press corps, and so was
Hillary. He thought he could go over their heads by appealing directly to the
American people through Larry King. It doesn't work like that.
Why does he have such disdain for the press corps?

Because of his experience in 1992, during the primaries,
when he felt they had really savaged him over Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers
and his failure to serve in Vietnam. His antipathy was really fueled
during that feeding frenzy.

You attended Oxford with Clinton from 1968 to 1970. So, did he inhale?

He didn't inhale because he couldn't. We didn't have marijuana in those days; we only had hashish rolled into tobacco, and he couldn't take the tobacco. It wasn't for want of trying, but the truth is he didn't inhale because he couldn't.

He's also been accused of being a leftist organizer of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.

He was involved in Oxford politics, but he was not a leader in the anti-war movement in the way that his fellow Rhodes scholars Bob Reich [now Secretary of Labor] and Ira
Magaziner [the leading strategist of Clinton's failed health care plan] were.
We had regular, loose, wide-ranging conversation about all sorts of
political topics around the various common rooms. I remember him not swallowing the popular student line of the day, that the United States was on the brink of a revolution. He would always say, "We always get it right in the end. Look at civil rights." He was very cool, very relaxed around blacks in a way other Americans weren't. He spent a lot of time with the college porter, drinking a lot of strong tea.

Was he then, as he seems to be now, a man of enormous appetites?

He took — how shall I put this — he took a very
healthy part in the social life of the university. He had a lot of friends of
both sexes. He also had a lot of platonic relationships with women. He was big, and he sprawled a lot. He would take up lots of arm chairs. He had huge
charm. He'd tell us about his bloody watermelons that he had back in Arkansas.

He also read a lot. He began reading the poetry of Dylan Thomas and then darted off to Wales to find Thomas' birthplace. He became fascinated with the Spanish Civil War and read [Arthur] Koestler, Hemingway and Hugh Thomas. There were all kinds of books he had to read for his courses, so he came to grips with Locke and Hobbes. He also played a lot of sports. He played a lot of basketball. He also took up playing rugby for the university college team, with more enthusiasm than skill. All in all, Clinton was a pleasant man to have around.

You've followed Clinton, on and off, for 28 years. What marks do you give his performance as a leader?

With Bill Clinton, you've always got to make room for his
initial reconnaissance in force. In other words, his first year or two in
office were, as in Arkansas, pretty disastrous as he learned his way. I think it was because of simple lack of experience in executive management. Clinton has never had a real job, with the exception of doing a little university teaching. Until 1992, all he had run was a state of 2 million people, and now he's running the world's superpower.

His job wasn't made easier by this bizarre practice you Americans have
of decapitating the entire government every time an
administration changes. You get rid of the top 5,000 decision-makers,
administrators and policy makers and replace them with 5,000 political virgins.
So the government is full of novices. And the president is expected to be up and
running and doing great straightaway. So it took Clinton a year or two to find
his way around the place. He scored some big successes — NAFTA, GATT, the
budget — but he lost some others, like Somalia and gays in the military.

He was also hit by a national security apparatus of questionable loyalty, to the extent
that Gen. Colin Powell, his top man in uniform, went to the brink of
insubordination in questioning gays in the military, a policy upon which the
president had run. Les Aspin was visibly incompetent as Secretary of Defense.
When Clinton managed to get a new national security
team, with Defense Secretary William Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, who
doesn't mind American troops getting their uniforms dirty, things were
transformed. Haiti worked, Bosnia worked, and Clinton became much more comfortable
with the use of force. And he knew his way around foreign policy a lot more. So by
year three, Clinton got it figured out.

He's had to deal with both a Democratic Congress and a Republican Congress. How has he fared here?

What many of us forget about that first Congress is that Clinton ran on
a much more centrist platform. He'd run virtually as a liberal Republican —
ending welfare as we know it, attacking the deficit, middle class tax cuts, more
cops on the streets, more death penalties. He was not nearly as left as
the Democrats in Congress, and that made for huge problems. They wanted to tackle the deficit but save their own spending programs. And Clinton had a pitifully inadequate speaker in Tom Foley and a lot of grumpy old senators like Sam Nunn. He was much more able to work with the Republicans in the last two years than he was with the Democrats. He got the Republicans to sign on to the minimum wage increase! I mean, fucking A!

Bob Dole and others are bemoaning the fact that Americans don't seem to concerned about the "character issue."

They've basically discounted it. First, they see Whitewater, in part, as politically driven by his opponents. They've lived with Whitewater now for four years and they still haven't gotten to the bottom of it and who knows if there's a bottom there to
get to. And a lot of Americans are cynical enough to think that is par for the
course in campaign finance. The second point is that the media has made the
character issue into a synonym for: Are you sleeping around? But for a majority
of baby boomers who look in the mirror and recall their own lives of sex,
drugs and rock n' roll, they discover that they don't look that different from
Bill and Hillary.

The third thing is that there are other aspects of Bill Clinton's character that have been a thumping success. For example, the resilience he showed in the 1992 primaries, when he took hits that no other politician could have taken. He kept on going like the Energizer Bunny. Or the way in which he has stuck firmly to some principles, like affirmative action. He gave a speech last year during the Million Man March, in which he said that racism is
the black man's burden but the white man's problem. He's never shaken from that.
Also regarding the character issue, anyone who has ever been married knows
perfectly well that whereas Bob Dole walked out on his first wife in miserable
circumstances and shacked up with this blonde called Sam and that Newt Gingrich
walked out on his first wife and served her with divorce papers while she was in
a hospital bed, Bill Clinton had a troubled marriage, knuckled down, made it
work with Hillary, and they've raised a fine daughter. So the character
issue plays both ways.

Readers who first see the title of your book think it's going to be another hit piece on Clinton. In fact, you see him as a very significant president.

The bottom line argument that I make in favor of Clinton is that he is in office during one of those extraordinary times when the two fundamental
consensus systems in America have broken down. Domestically, ever
since 1932, the country has been run by the New Deal and then a Great Society
view over the role of government. Reagan attacks that in the 1980s, but a
Democratic Congress sustains it. Then Clinton comes in, and because of the
deficit and the fiscal situation, finds himself putting together with the Republicans what is going to be the new consensus, which I call the leaner, meaner government.

On America's role in the world, there has been, since Pearl Harbor in 1941, a consensus that the U.S. should be the leader of a global military, anti-communist
alliance. With the end of the Cold War, that is no longer sustainable. Clinton, realizing it has collapsed, is establishing a new consensus with the United States as the leader of a global commercial system, the linchpin and guarantor
of a global economy of free-trading democracies. What Clinton will be
remembered for is the great free-trade thrust of his administration.

Quote of the day

Who will buy?

"I'm looking for a woman who's smart and funny and compassionate — and great-looking."

— Thrice-married Oracle Corp. chairman Lawrence Ellison, telling Oprah Winfrey what he is looking for in a fourth wife. (From "Divorced White Billionaire Seeks A Special Female Fan of Oprah," in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal)

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------