By any measure, the American and British political and journalistic establishments are growing more and more intertwined every year. Andrew Sullivan, one of the large fraternity of American-based British journalists, recently wrote, for example, that Blairism is not merely influenced by late Clintonism: ‘It is late Clintonism.’ He is right. Both have adopted the rightwing rhetoric of their opponents; both have advocated curfews for teenagers; both of them now occupy a similar place on the political (or perhaps apolitical) spectrum.
Yet distinct differences in national style remain – and The President They Deserve is a good argument for why we should hope they persist. Martin Walker, the Guardian’s Washington correspondent, is left-wing by any British standard, and the author of some dubious commentary on the Cold War. But he is an outsider in America, and was therefore able to produce this non-partisan account of Bill Clinton’s election and first terms which neither makes tiresome excuses for Clinton’s manifest flaws, nor is so hysterical in its condemnations as not to recognise any of Clinton’s achievements. Although there isn’t much new information, the book is balanced and fair, and Walker sprinkles the text with gossipy details of the sort that will entertain the growing number of readers who hate politics.
But it is not only Walker’s outsider status that makes The President They Deserve interesting. In recent years, American political writers (indeed, all American writers) have become obsessed with psychological issues at the expense of almost all else. The most important books about Clinton to date reflect this: look, for example, at Bob Woodward’s recent account of Hillary Clinton’s flirtation with the paranormal, her ‘chats’ with Eleanor Roosevelt and others. Psychological explanations of political behaviour are so common that even Bill Clinton himself has latched on to them. This, after all, is the president who once justified a military action by saying: ‘I feel good about the bombing.’
British writers, on the other hand, tend to be far more interested in sociology than psychology. To put it more bluntly, they are interested in class, a subject that frightens or perplexes many Americans. Walker is no exception. He begins this book with the most thorough sociological definition of Bill Clinton that I have read to date, and ends it with an explanation of why Bill Clinton was ‘in his flaws and sensual weaknesses, his readiness to put off hard decisions until it was almost too late, fondness for spending and his casual approach to debt, utterly typical of the American of his day’. He was, writes Walker, the ‘archetypal postwar American’.
But while many have observed that Clinton does indeed belong to that postwar generation which benefited enormously from the extraordinary rise in living standards that took place in the United States between 1945 and 1975, Walker goes further. In fact, Clinton also belongs to a much smaller, but very distinct, subset of that generation: namely to the ‘progressive’ – but not radical – group of Ivy League lawyers and academics who first became interested in politics at the time of the Vietnam War. Not hippies, and never revolutionaries, they juggled conventional careers with leftish political concerns, smoked marijuana once or twice, sent their children to similar types of schools (private but co-educational), vacationed in similar places (Martha’s Vineyard), and acquired similar tastes. Their style is so distinct that it is possible to close one’s eyes and imagine the sort of house a friend of Bill Clinton’s would live in: the clean, modern furniture, the ‘ethnic’ trinkets acquired on trips abroad, the espresso machine, the CD collection filled with early 1970s rock music, nothing too expensive-looking but nothing too tacky either.
Some of the friends of Bill Clinton were so similar in their tastes and outlooks that when Bill Clinton became a presidential candidate, they became the Friends of Bill (or FOBs), a group of active supporters in different states and in different parts of the Democratic Party. Large numbers of FOBs worked on the campaign; large numbers later served, in one form or another, in the White House.
But it was not only matters of taste that united them. Raised in a society whose wealth was increasing rapidly, they were possessed of an almost automatic belief that things would go on getting better. In America, as everywhere else, government was seen as an important tool in the struggle to ensure that things went on getting better. There are friends of Bill Clinton who more or less dedicated their lives to this belief, of whom Hillary Clinton is perhaps the most prominent: she gave up a potentially lucrative career as an East Coast lawyer to move to Arkansas and marry Bill, whose political future she believed in.
Unfortunately, by the time the Friends of Bill had successfully propelled Bill into the White House, the political and economic climate had somewhat changed. Many ideas that seemed good in the 1970s had begun to appear, by the early 1990s, quite the other thing. The costs of pensions and state-funded Medicare insurance were spiralling out of control. Welfare programmes designed to help the poor had created welfare dependency. The budget deficit was well into figures of inconceivable size. Much of what the Clintons had expected to be able to do in office therefore proved impossible.
In the event, the conflict between the activist principles advocated by his friends and the economic facts of life he discovered while in office proved to be the defining struggle of the Clinton presidency, sometimes described as the struggle between the left and right halves of Clinton’s brain. It has resulted in a number of odd disjunctions. You wouldn’t know it from the political controversies that have dogged his administration – over gays in the military, or female attorney-general appointees with illegal aliens for nannies – but his first term will probably, in the cold light of history, be remembered for the President’s expansion of free trade, in the form of the NAFTA and GATT agreements. That, and the entry of the word ‘Whitewater’ into the American political vocabulary.
Over the past year, the right half of Clinton’s brain has appeared to win. Clearly, the extraordinary turnaround in the President’s popularity that has taken place in recent months is partly due to his hiring of more and better professional consultants (‘old, bald, fat white guys’), and partly to the political mistakes of the Republican Party (the nomination of Bob Dole). But a large part of his success will probably be attributed to his clever and timely adoption of many of the policies of the Republican Party, along with some of their rhetoric.
In recent months, Hillary Clinton has attempted to turn herself into an advocate of ‘the family’, even calling for sexual abstinence for teenagers. Equally, the President now appears to have turned against the social milieu that created him, declaring himself a believer in smaller government, welfare reform and balanced budgets. Just a touch of partisan annoyance creeps into Walker’s prose when he writes that ‘the leaner, meaner government was not what Clinton set out to achieve, nor was it a new domestic order to be proud of’. But it may prove to be an electoral winner. Only during Clinton’s second term – which at the moment he looks likely to win – will we find out if, this time, he really means it.