I remember very clearly, as a child, being drawn to Bill Clinton. There was something about him– his charisma, his confidence, his energy, his ability to inspire hope– that, even as a second grader, I felt demanded my admiration. I can distinctly remember seeing him on Arsenio Hall playing the saxophone. I must confess that I wanted, with all my heart, to play the saxophone, but I was stuck with the clarinet. All throughout his term, I vigorously defended him. I was even a vigorous defender during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Hillary Clinton once famously remarked that they were the victims of a vast right-wing conspiracy, a comment for which she has since been lampooned by critics for making. I was unafraid, even around ultra-conservative-Limbaugh-die-hard adults, who were much older than me, to quip, “Yeah, there was no right-wing conspiracy. ‘Conspiracy’ implies that it was clandestine. The right-wingers have been pretty open about their attacks.” As I’ve gotten older, the more people criticize the Clintons, the more I love them.
During the brutal 2008 Democratic Primary, Barack Obama was quick to down-play the significance of Bill Clinton’s presidency and the success he achieved for the economy and for world peace. I personally found these attacks on the Clinton legacy to not only be counter-productive, but also, obviously, untrue. That he could make such comments, given that we had suffered through almost two terms of President George W. Bush, seemed ridiculous. One of my favorite remarks from Hillary Clinton, during her campaign, was, “It took one Clinton to clean up after the first George Bush, it’ll take another Clinton to clean up after this one.” President Bush (41) and his predecessor Ronald Reagan had, as Greenspan conceded in his book The Age of Turbulence, “borrowed from Clinton, and Clinton was having to pay it back.” In other words, the so-called “fiscally responsible” Republicans had created such a massive deficit that it threatened to throw the American economy into a major recession– and it forced Clinton to make budget cuts in order to pay down the deficit, which forced him to delay the advances in social programs (education, health care, infrastructure, environment) that he, in his heart of hearts, wanted so badly.
What amazed (and confused) Alan Greenspan (a Republican) was that the Republicans of his time were fiscally irresponsible, while this young liberal democrat named Bill Clinton was pursuing a policy of fiscal conservatism. What also shocked Greenspan, upon meeting Clinton, was Clinton’s grasp of complex and theoretical economics and his understanding of the need to cut the deficit: “Our meeting, which had been scheduled for an hour, turned into a lively discussion that went on for almost three.” He also noted that Clinton “asked a lot of smart questions that politicians don’t ask.” Greenspan wrote that Clinton was “taking a page out of Kennedy’s book,” by surrounding himself with conservative economists. In order to pursue a more fiscally responsible policy, Clinton built a team that consisted of Leon Panetta, Larry Summers, Bob Rubin, Robert Reich, Alan Binder, and several others. Rubin and Summers met regularly with Greenspan to discuss policy and develop new ideas to spur economic growth. The meetings of this team had been described by Bob Woodward in his book The Agenda. According to Woodward, there was “absolute chaos”. It was unstructured and freewheeling: “The arcana of deliberations were torture for nearly everyone but Clinton.” The book depicted a Clinton White House that was “undisciplined” and “indecisive,” but Woodward missed the point entirely.
A person like Clinton, creative and thirsty for information, tended to operate outside of the box. While the policy debates would seem to the outside observer to be chaotic, they were very helpful to not only the President but to his staff, as well. Clinton’s team was comprised of people who didn’t necessarily agree with each other, which was part of the madness. He would encourage them to debate one another, which inevitably would send the meeting into “chaos” as groups of people would break off into their own discussion about the topic. Eventually, someone would halt the debates, call order, and bring everyone back into one discussion group. This “superficial appearance of chaos,” as Alan Binder called it, was actually built on an “underlying logic” that was part of Clinton’s creative process. Robert Rubin also felt that Woodward’s depiction of the meetings as chaotic was overstated: “What might have looked like messy to outsiders [such as Woodward] was actually a process of deliberate open discussion, of smart, committed people engaging in debate as a way of getting to the best decision.” Paul Begala loved the process, saying, “people came in. They argued with passion. They stated their case. The other side stated its case. The President would go back and forth… I thought, that’s the way it ought to be.” Binder argues that the Clinton process was far superior, “because governments make bigger mistakes when the President is kept in a bubble and hears one opinion. Bill Clinton was hearing lots of opinions, sorting out the arguments, and reaching decisions.” The “big mistakes” binder refers to have been evidenced over the last eight years of the Bush Administration.
What I find amusing, therefore, is that President-elect Barack Obama, who criticized the Clinton White House and insisted that Hillary Clinton represented the past, is now following the Clinton blueprint. When President John F. Kennedy asked Robert McNamara to serve as his Secretary of Defense, McNamara demurred, saying “Mr. President, it’s absurd, I’m not qualified.” “Look, Bob,” Kennedy said, “I don’t think there’s any school for Presidents either.” Well, Obama seems to have attended the Clinton School for Presidents. In the last month or so, Obama has surrounded himself with Clinton’s advisors, including Bob Rubin, Larry Summers, Leon Panetta, Robert Reich, Rahm Emmanuel, and many others, including Tim Geithner, who worked with Rubin at the Treasury Department. Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton’s closest and most trusted advisor (Clinton’s Robert Kennedy, if you will), will be Obama’s Secretary of State.
Also amusing to me is the much talked about book Obama read by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals. The media has talked ad nauseam about how this book will influence his decision-making process. Abraham Lincoln, as Obama has done, appointed political rivals to key cabinet positions in order to have robust policy discussions in which divergent opinions were debated until the best decision was reached. Hmmm… sounds a lot like the Clinton process. This is, to be sure, a far better way of crafting policy than was used under the Bush regime, but, again, it is hardly any different from Clinton’s process. It is also, presumably, the way Hillary would have run her meetings.
Though I am excited to see new leadership, and I am encouraged and inspired by Barack Obama, Bill Clinton is still my favorite. If Obama does replicate the Clinton years, you will hear little complaint from me.