David J. Maraniss
ON the afternoon of 16 January 1993, Bill Clinton left the Arkansas Governor's Mansion for his final jog through the familiar streets of Little Rock. This time he carried a shoebox containing the pet frog of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Chelsea. At her request, when he reached the Arkansas River, he released the creature onto the marshy bank where, Chelsea said, it could escape the impending move to Washington and live "a normal life."
Four days later, Clinton stood on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, placed one hand on his grand-mother's King James Bible, and was sworn in by Chief Justice William Rehnquist as the forty-second president of the United States. His normal life was over, but the life he had been yearning for since adolescence had begun. The fable of American democracy is that anyone can grow up to be president and Clinton, unlike most, believed it to be true not as a general proposition, but about himself. He had, from an early age, shaped his life and career around that singular desire. In a letter to a friend after his first year of college, he wrote that he was about to embark on a road that he hoped would "put a little asterisk" by his name "in the billion pages of the book of life." At noon on a brilliant winter's day nearly three decades later, the asterisk was assured. He could not have foreseen that his two-term Presidency as well as his name would pass into history with an asterisk—as the second Chief Executive to be impeached, tried, and acquitted by the Senate.
What assessment of President Clinton would accompany that asterisk? The judgment of history was far off and unknowable when he first took office. In a sense it remained nearly as uncertain even four years later, after he had been reelected to a second term, the first Democrat to achieve that extended status since Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was still more so when he left office in January of 2001. Clinton's White House days repeated the contradictory themes of his career: a counterpoint of hope and disappointment, discipline and chaos, urgency and delay, moral preaching and questionable behavior, lessons learned, forgotten, and relearned. His presidency after one term seemed essentially unresolved. It was neither the personal and policy disaster that his opponents constantly predicted, nor was it as substantively noteworthy as his allies incessantly hoped.
In tone and substance, Clinton's first four years as president can best be described as two distinct subterms of two years apiece. The first subterm (1991–1994), during which Democrats controlled both Congress and the White House, was ambitious if diffuse and ended with a political loss—the Republican majority in Congress—that ranked among the most traumatic of Clinton's career even though his name was not on the ballot. During the second sub-term (1995–1996), Clinton resurrected his presidency and ensured himself another four years in the White House by skillfully handling his changed circumstances. He became a diminished yet increasingly popular president dealing with a powerful but increasingly reckless Republican Congress; here defining himself in contrast to the Republicans, there working in ideological concert with them, whichever better suited his political needs.
His comeback was an impressive display of political deftness and willpower, but it was not without cost. Clinton began his second term in 1997 with lowered expectations and a modest agenda. Throughout his mercurial first four years in the White House, two things remained constant about Clinton: his political survival skills and his need to display them after getting into trouble. In his most difficult times, one could see the will to recover and the promise of redemption. In his best times, one could see the seeds of disaster. The pattern would be intensely and dramatically repeated in the four years that followed reelection. That is how it always was with Bill Clinton. There are repetitive themes in his life and career, cycles of loss and recovery, that go a long way toward resolving the mysteries of an ambiguous man and explaining his performance as president.