It’s time to take Bill Clinton, his presidency, and his times seriously. Historians dithered before getting right with Reagan, letting their political and intellectual disdain discourage thoughtful scholarship for over two decades after his inauguration. Then, suddenly, there was a Reagan love-in, with even some liberal historians writing surprisingly admiring books about the man and his times. The media’s obsession with both Clintons’ character flaws, fed by Bill and Hillary Clinton’s characteristically Baby Boomer self-righteousness masking self-indulgence, have disappointed and distracted too many chroniclers. Hillary Clinton’s ongoing political saga has added more confusion. She simultaneously evades and embraces her husband’s tenure, let alone her own complicated track record in the 1990s. Approaching the twenty-fifth anniversary of Clinton’s campaign launch, with Hillary Clinton running yet again for president, with illuminating Clinton papers and oral histories now being released, it is time to examine Clinton clearly, seeing through the clouds of his own inconstancy and the constant media barrage, assessing his vision, his policies, his achievements, and his – and their — synergy with the 1990s.
Bill Clinton was an extraordinarily talented politician who dominated the 1990s, just as Ronald Reagan dominated the 1980s, and Franklin Roosevelt dominated the 1930s. Not all presidents define their times culturally as well as politically; these three leaders did. And perhaps even more than the 1930s and the 1980s, the 1990s was a time of breathtaking transformation as computers became increasingly networked and portable, taking this revolution viral.
But just as the 1990s was a decade of peace, prosperity, pluralism, and progress, it was a time of growing political polarization, creeping anxiety, and some serious misfires. Americans watched silently as the Rwandan genocide occurred and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict careened from hopes of peace to years of terrorism and violence, this time despite substantive American involvement. Bill Clinton, like George W. Bush and much of the rest of the country, failed to take seriously the threat of Islamist terrorism and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, missing opportunities to quash that terrorist, or at least inhibit him. Economically, the income gap grew as the Wal-Martization of America’s workforce continued, with more double-income families running out of money long before they ran out of month. In this Democratic Gilded Age Wall Street cowboys gambled boldly, as a well-intentioned push to democratize home ownership burdened many poor people with mortgages they couldn’t afford, which then threatened the economy when those risks were multiplied exponentially through derivatives. And socially, culturally, ideologically, Americans seemed lost, missing the ideological clarity and confidence they enjoyed during the Cold War era.
Ulimately, historians will have to decipher the Clinton conundrum, namely, how could such a talented politician leave so many Americans feeling they achieved so little when he accomplished so much during this time of great potential? In parallel, the American communal conundrum is how did a society so rich and so free appear so lost and so unhappy?
The cultural changes Clinton advanced and surfed undermined his political agenda. The new world he, his wife, and their peers helped spawn was so foreign, he paid an exorbitant political price.
Trying to understand Clinton without studying the politics, culture, technology, and society that shaped him—and which he shaped—is like looking through night vision goggles, even the enhanced ones sharpened by photocathode technology breakthroughs in the late 1990s. You think you see the subject clearly, but you need daylight and peripheral vision to appreciate the landscape fully. This book’s central assumption is that we can best understand Clinton and the 1990s by overlaying the story of his presidency on the broader story of the decade, viewing the two together, to see what stands out.
Particularly sensitive to the changes taking place, Clinton would describe his primary achievement as “He had to make America work in a new world.” Characteristically for Clinton and his age, this statement sounded more like a challenge partially unfulfilled, than a program fully realized. More concretely, his speechwriter Jeff Shesol says Clinton showed that “Government did not have to be big for it to be a catalyst for positive change in people’s lives.” Clinton’s ideological guru from the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, Al From, says Clinton “saved progressive politics, all over the world, by modernizing it.”
Here, then, are the historian’s challenges. To understand that “new world” and what Bill Clinton tried to do, and actually did, to “make America work”; to understand Clinton’s vision of government and of liberalism and assess his track record in the context of those ideals; and, more broadly, to get a grip on the 1990s, trying to understand what was going on during the period and how it shaped American life today. These and other questions will hopefully yield insight into the deeper mysteries we need to address about the promise of America, how this country succeeded – and how it failed – as Americans enjoyed this period of peace and prosperity, but, the day after 9/11 wondered, what happened, did we squander an opportunity to improve our countries as we were learning how to log in online into the virtual world and often tuned out of the real world.
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution for the fall of 2015. His latest book — his tenth — is The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015).