The Age of Bill and Hillary Clinton
News that Hillary Clinton unleashed her secret weapon—husband and 42nd President Bill Clinton—finally arrived this week. Following his first solo appearance at a campaign rally in New Hampshire on Monday, Mr. Clinton spoke twice, about national security and economic growth, before crowds in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, Iowa on Thursday. For many, his return to the campaign stage likely stirred memories of a more prosperous and secure time in the United States. Bill Clinton’s 1990s was a democratic gilded age. It also was a decade of dramatic social changes, technological revolution and spectacular political scandal. Leading this investigation of America during “The Age of Clinton” (St. Martin’s, 2015) is author and historian Gil Troy, who captures both the electrifying political charisma and unrealized promises of our first baby boomer president. Only four weeks from the Iowa Caucuses, Troy’s near-comprehensive chronology of the decade shaped by Bill Clinton provides timely insight into the Clinton family, his leadership and the Clinton legacy. Below is an edited transcript of RealClearBooks’ conversation with Gil Troy.
Q: Did the “Age of Clinton” end with the election of George W. Bush, is it beginning again with the emergence of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or did it never end at all?
Clintonites would be quick to point out that George W. Bush was not “elected”: The Supreme Court selected him. Indeed, Al Gore not only won the popular vote in 2000, but on that morning, more Florida voters woke up intending to vote for Bill Clinton’s vice president. Still, regardless of what you think about the 2000 election outcome, the peace and prosperity that characterized the Clinton era ended dramatically on September 11, 2001 – and many Americans woke up the next day wondering why they had wasted the opportunities afforded by that 1990s interregnum.
So, yes, in some ways the “Age of Clinton” ended abruptly, tragically with Osama Bin Laden’s mass murders – let alone the economic crash of 2008. Today, even Hillary Clinton seems to be running away from key parts of the Clinton legacy, including Bill Clinton’s necessary, justified fight on crime and his lifting of regulations on Wall Street, as epitomized by the repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall act.
On the other hand, the “Age of Clinton” has continued, not only because Bill and Hillary Clinton have continued to dominate headlines, but because of many of the defining phenomena of the times persist, especially the rise of the Internet, the spread of the New Age, deindustrialized, highly digitized economy, the growing multiculturalism, the dominance of the celebrity culture, and an unnerving mix of what I call America the functional – all our everyday miracles – and an America that is lost, anchorless, polarized, adrift.
Q: You previously wrote about the Clintons as a commentator in the 1990s. How did your opinions of the Clintons change when you assumed the viewpoint of a historian and placed their legacies in a broader context?
Before writing this book, I had to shift from thinking about Clinton and the period in real time – having lived through the 1990s – and start thinking in historical time. Using the Clinton archives, oral histories and memoirs, along with popular culture sources from the time, helped me start seeing the administration from the inside out and not just through the headlines. Moreover, benefiting from my technique of telling the story of Clinton and the 1990s, organizing the book by chapters focusing on 1990, 1991, etc., allowed me to see the Clintons in the context of the 1990s. As a result, I could better appreciate what Bill Clinton tried to do, more clearly see the obstacles he faced and also track just what went wrong.
My big “aha moment” with Clinton as president came from reading the memos, writings, and, most particularly, the oral histories of moderate, Third Way, New Democrat advisers from the DLC, the Democratic Leadership Council (which was founded in the 1980s), like Al From and Bruce Reed. Starting to see what one aide called the “connective tissue” in the Clinton story, I concluded that Clinton was as ideological a president as Ronald Reagan, with a take, an approach, he kept to surprisingly consistently while governing, although not always, of course. Clinton’s centrism was not just a poll-driven, finger-in-the-wind push for popularity; it was a longstanding, thoughtful attempt to resurrect liberalism after the failures of the Great Society and the triumph of Reaganism. Many people ask me if Clinton was ultimately more a moderate Republican than a liberal Democrat. I argue that no, he was and remains a centrist liberal, understanding that the only way to revitalize liberalism was to fight crime, reform welfare, ensure prosperity, defend core American values, and then try to make government effective, expansive and interventionist, within limits.
At the same time, seeing both Clintons in the context of the 1990s, I could appreciate their sensitivity to all the cultural, economic and technological changes taking place – while also condemning their moral blind spots even more harshly. They derailed an important conversation about traditional values and liberal Democratic centrism that was obscured by minor scandals, major defensiveness and intense partisanship.
Throughout, I tried not to be too affected by the false nostalgia for Clinton in the Age of Obama, or be seduced by Clinton’s infectious exuberance. Still, it is important to appreciate his love of people, politics, policy-making and the job of being president, in all its frustrations and glories, especially given the contrast with a tired, frequently fed-up Barack Obama. Even many Democrats in Washington who like Obama and agree with his policies sigh when I tell them about my book (and show them the book cover of a young, alluring, James-Dean-like Clinton). They – and many voters – miss Bill, in all his Pig Pen-like sloppiness, because – at his best – he combined, in Peanuts terms, a Linus-like wisdom with a Snoopyesque charisma.
Q: According to a recent column published by The Daily Beast, film director Steven Spielberg once said, “It was as simple as this: The [20th] century either was going to produce the baby boomers or it was not going to produce the baby boomers.” To what extent are the Clintons representative of their baby boomer generation?
Having been born in 1946 and 1947, Bill and Hillary Clinton are classic baby boomers, part of America’s post-World War II demographic bulge. Moreover, their experiences, separately and together at Wellesley, Georgetown, Oxford and Yale in the 1960s and early 1970s, steeped both Bill and Hillary in the social, cultural, and political revolutions they eventually would personify. Inspired by civil rights and feminism, infuriated by Vietnam, horrified by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, terrified by the urban riots, they were radicalized. With their characteristic arrogance, they and their allies would universalize their assault on tradition as generational. Actually, they were an elite minority. Even in 1992, polls would show baby boomers split regarding the Clintons – and in 1994, another baby boomer, Newt Gingrich, would lead the Republican takeover of Congress representing conservative boomers.
In The Age of Clinton I call high-achieving revolutionaries like the Clintons “The Adversarial Insiders.” When the literary critic Lionel Trilling described the “adversary culture” in 1965 as the “legitimization of the subversive,” these Guerilla Careerists did not seem destined to become America’s new establishment. By conquering universities, the media, the courts and the Democratic Party, these modernists transformed America. Building on the 1960s’ rebellions, the 1970s’ implosions and the 1980s’ recalibrations, these Adversarial Insiders made American democracy more horizontal—more accessible, less hierarchical, more informal, less bigoted. Their opponents, Provincial Outsiders, more rooted in their local contexts, preferred America’s solid provincial past to its quicksilver cosmopolitan present.
Still, as the first baby boomers to live in the White House, the Clintons represented the changing of the generational guard – to be followed by George W. Bush, their fellow boomer, and Barack Obama, born just as the boom was ending. All three of these presidents and their wives are far more progressive than earlier presidents – note how comfortable the Republican George W. Bush was with African-American advisers such as Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. In the Clintons’ case, because they were liberal politically and modern culturally, they thrilled many of their fellow Adversarials, while enraging other baby boomers like Gingrich who had been fighting “McGoverniks” like them for decades.
Q: In reading “The Age of Clinton,” there appears to be an undeniable strain of political optimism and idealism that Bill Clinton inherited from Ronald Reagan. What personal or ideological qualities did the two men share?
Bill Clinton ran for president promising to save America after 12 years of Reaganism under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. However, many of Bill Clinton’s successes as president reflected many lessons he learned from Ronald Reagan – and some remarkable similarities between the two. Personally, both Reagan and Clinton were fluid, charismatic, master politicians who knew how to woo the American people – and use their wives sometimes as lightning rods to attract hostility their husbands would have otherwise attracted. Reagan was more distant, Clinton more primal, a better friend. Reagan was more down-to-earth, and Clinton more cerebral, although Reagan was the more memorable orator.
Politically, both men understood that when they were in office, their job was to be president of the United States, not president of a particular political party. Both played to the center sometimes, even if it meant alienating their core constituents. Reagan’s Cabinet was more moderate than conservatives expected and he disappointed conservatives by not eviscerating the budget as well as negotiating with the Soviets. Clinton was more centrist than some liberals wanted – fighting crime, reforming welfare and deregulating Wall Street. Many of these moves were keys to their respective successes, in stimulating the economy and maintaining popularity.
Finally, it was Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan who announced “the era of Big Government is over,” because Clinton learned during the Reagan years that Americans did not want a government that was too big, and they learned that there was not a government program to solve every problem, especially the cultural and ideological challenges America faced. The Age of Clinton begins with Clinton bringing his Reaganized liberal message to African-American preachers in Memphis in 1993, saying we need to solve problems from “the inside out,” meaning within our families and communities, not just from “the outside in,” meaning government. The preachers applauded enthusiastically.
Q: How does the current generation of American students perceive the legacy of President Bill Clinton?
Many students have vague, fond recollections of Bill Clinton as the president from America’s pre-9/11, pre-crash period of peace and prosperity. Many of their parents miss Bill, his energy, his exuberance – even if they disagreed with him politically. In this campaign, some on the left have started denouncing key parts of Clinton’s legacy, even compelling Bill Clinton himself to distance himself from his crime bill – which I think is a mistake because I consider it an important element in resurrecting progressivism by improving the government’s credibility. Still, some of the appeal that Hillary Clinton is trying to tap into is a warmth and nostalgia for Bill Clinton, the Clinton years and the 1990s.
And then there’s Monica, and the whole legacy of scandal. Last year, while writing this book, I turned to a colleague, saying, “I’m frustrated. Bill Clinton made astute statements about family, work, community, responsibility and freedom. Yet the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal upstages, eliciting snickers when I quote his talks about values.” This colleague advised: “Challenge your readers. Push them to move beyond their prejudices!” Thus, I began the Age of Clinton with this challenge. Clinton’s behavior was “immoral” and “disgust[ing].” It was “wrong” for him, “wrong” for his “family, and wrong for” Ms. Lewinsky. He “hurt the presidency and the people” by his “misconduct.” It “was no one’s fault but” his “own.”
These words were not taken from the Starr Report, Fox News or any Republican’s impeachment speech. They are quotations from pages 773, 774, and 776 of Clinton’s memoir My Life. Richard Nixon spent two decades trying to undo the damage of Watergate, knowing his one-line obituary would be “first American president to resign.” Clinton’s moral and legal failures were not as spectacular. Still, modern readers must compartmentalize, just as the American people did. Ultimately, the majority of Americans accepted Clinton’s argument to judge his presidency by his public record. I make no such request beyond challenging us all to move beyond the quick smirk, sneer, or cheer, and see both Clintons in all their dimensionality, in the complicating context of the 1990s. Ultimately, the book argues that it’s time to take Clinton and his times seriously – and it tries, as the first book by a historian looking at the Age of Clinton to trigger and shape that conversation.