Blemished presidency Looking past the myths to reveal the character flaws of Bill Clinton

April 07, 1996|By Gregory D. Foster

The White House, owing perhaps to the tabloid fatigue of the general public, seems to have weathered the acute anxiety its denizens reportedly experienced in anticipation of the recent publication of James B. Stewart's book, "Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries."

That there was such anxiety, though, is reason enough for us dispirited voters to see what the book has to say before the wages of November -- and the cheapened civic sacrament of voting -- are upon us.

If "Blood Sport" does nothing else, its exposure of the arrogance of power, the venality of unfettered ambition, the abuse of public office, and the exploitation of personal relationships commands our attention to the central issue in the coming presidential campaign: the character of the person(s) in the Oval Office.

Beyond that, in getting analytically close enough to the subject at hand to be revealing, while maintaining the personal distance necessary to preserve objectivity, the book succeeds where the other major journalistic attempt of note to explore the character of Bill Clinton -- David Maraniss's year-old pre-presidential biography, "First in His Class" -- fell regrettably short.

What distinguishes the two books is their edge. "Blood Sport" has a sharp edge, reflecting in part its focus, Whitewater, Travelgate, Paula Jones, the death of Vincent Foster. But the subtext is clearly about character. Whatever the book provides in the way of scurrilous detail, more important is the impression it leaves on us -- of a high public official who won't accept responsibility, who relies on protective cover from others, who surrounds himself with political hacks, who seems to care less about actual governing than about the adulation and perquisites of office, whose self-induced vulnerability leaves him unable to call his own shots.

"First in His Class" has a soft edge, also reflecting its focus. But it is an unduly soft focus, given at times to puffery of a sort that is the stuff of myth making. What we get is the smartest, most popular, most goal-oriented kid from the hometown, cosmopolitan enough to give him a running start toward greatness but also just politically corrupt enough for the prize son to consider it unworthy of his destiny.

We aren't treated to those early life episodes that, by their very smallness, speak volumes about how deep-seated and deeply rooted are the flaws in Bill Clinton's character. So we don't learn, for example, about the time he was supposed to escort the district DeMolay Sweetheart to the state DeMolay convention, only, without prior warning or subsequent explanation or apology, to stand her up.

And similarly do we not hear how that woman, like countless others who have been on the receiving end of similar insensitive treatment from Mr. Clinton over the years, would rationalize away his behavior by later observing, "Oh, well, he just had something he considered more important to do." Something he considered more important, indeed.

I grew up with and attended high school with Bill Clinton. Ours was -- and is -- an acquaintanceship, not a friendship. The high school yearbook pictures that show us together as student council representatives are a fitting metaphor for our relationship. We didn't have to read the caption to recognize one another, but the several people who stood between us kept us from shooting the bull. Our acquaintanceship since has been intermittent, casual and entirely social -- all attempts at substantive dialogue being at my initiative, to no appreciable effect.

Given our common roots, I had exaggerated hopes (if admittedly measured expectations) for Mr. Clinton's presidency. Having not yet become completely disillusioned and soured by the president's dismal performance in office and his singular failures of leadership by the time the Maraniss book appeared early last year, I was eager to see how perceptively the author had #F captured his subject.

In other words, notwithstanding this administration's aimless, incoherent, reactive foreign policy, a White House operation that resembled nothing so much as Keystone Cops gone mad, the president's contribution to the implosion of the Democratic Party, the mammoth failure of the centerpiece health reform effort, an economy that has been good only for well-heeled campaign contributors, and a penchant for running and hiding in the aftermath of fiascoes such as Waco, I still hoped against hope that this president might yet measure up to the demand and the opportunity for greatness that the times had presented him.

But I also hoped the Maraniss book might level the perceptual playing field and, by exposing the real Bill Clinton, provide a catalyst for bona fide presidential achievement.

To my dismay, notwithstanding the good read, Mr. Maraniss demonstrated that he had allowed himself to become largely captive of Clinton camp followers in preparing his account. Theirs are the names that fill the book's index.

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