READING BILL CLINTON
12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
President Clinton has published a new book, Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century (Times Books, $ 16.95). By all accounts, it had a remarkably brief gestation, a few months from conception to birth. You can't blame him for wanting to get it out as quickly as possible. Presidential campaigns are traditionally heralded by books: Every four years the shelves at Crown and Borders fairly groan beneath the candidates' authorized biographies, their memoirs, their comprehensive statements of vision, the thin, paperbacked collections of their bon mots. But what would an earnest voter find today on a search for published Clintoniana? There's James Stewart's Blood Sport, an account of Arkansas land-flips and S&L hanky-panky. Or Bob Woodward's The Choice, which shows the president's wife channeling Eleanor Roosevelt, who used to be dead. Or Roger Morris's Partners in Power and R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.'s Boy Clinton, which implicate the president in drug-running and . . . well, worse.
To balance the scales against this mountain of abuse, the president now offers his little wisp of a book, weighing in at slightly less than a box of Raisinettes. It's 178 pages long, though if you adjust for typesetting inflation it is probably closer to 75, and if you further adjust for the inflationary effects of throat-clearing, repetition, and wheel-spinning, you can peg the final count somewhere below 50. On the dust jacket President Bill Clinton is listed as sole author, and the White House has circulated a photocopied page of manuscript, dark with presidential scratchings, to prove that the president labored over every word. In the acknowledgments he gives generous thanks to an improbably named "public policy consultant," William E. Nothdurft, "who was primarily responsible for helping to draft this book," and who, if I know the Clintons, will never be heard from ever again.
Between Hope and History is a politician's book -- part philosophizing, part policy-wonking. All politicians' books are ghostwritten nowadays, and so readers must strain to hear beneath the paid-for and polished prose the whisper of the putative author's true voice. But what is the president's true voice? The only piece of prose I know to be Bill Clinton's and Bill Clinton's alone is the famous 1969 letter to Col. Holmes, in which the future president thanked the old soldier for "saving me from the draft." It shows him to be a stylist of some gifts, a man who prevaricates with great elegance and even charm. But the voice we have grown used to over the last three years is the voice of his speechwriters. In his speeches, the president's original impulse toward straightforward prevarication is obscured by the mundane fudging and hedging of a committee of bureaucrats and political consultants and pollsters.
And this, alas, is the voice we hear in the pages of Between Hope and History. Some of the fudging can be credited to the president himself, of course. Note, above, the acknowledgment of William E. Nothdurft. Given the contretemps over the unacknowledged ghostwriter of Mrs. Clinton's book last year, the president was compelled to give Nothdurft's existence a nod. And you can easily imagine the sentence as it was presented to the president for editing: . . . William E. Nothdurft, who drafted this book. A simple declarative phrase, not imputing authorship but acknowledging essential assistance -- and a phrase, moreover, that's true. But perhaps it offended the vanity of a statesman who would prefer sole credit. So a presidential commendation: who primarily drafted this book. Better. But still too strong? After all, whose name is on the cover? Then this: who was primarily responsible for drafting this book. Hmmm -- a furrow of the brow, a bite of the lower lip. The fellow is getting paid, isn't he? What more compensation should he want? A few more scratches of the pen, and: Nothdurft, who was primarily responsible for helping to draft this book. And there the president let it lie. From a statement of fact to a phrase approaching the nonsensical: It is the Clinton style distilled to its essence.
But the book offers few fudges so small and straightforward as this. More often, the prevarications are multileveled, Escher-like, almost hallucinatory. It is the work of a committee of trimmers, each of them adding and subtracting, layering and revising in emulation of their boss and master. The result, as a matter of prose, will be familiar to students of Clinton's speeches. Lincoln brought to presidential utterance a lawyerly terseness with a twist of biblical eloquence. FDR brought the soaring platitude, Kennedy the annoying reverse parallelism. Bill Clinton will be noted for the overstuffed sentence -- the sentence as train wreck.
The Clinton sentence signifies a man trying to say so many things at once that he ends up saying nothing at all. Often this involves an endless series of participial phrases, allowing each member of the committee to get in his licks: "strengthening our nation's families, protecting our environment, caring for the elderly, keeping our streets safe . . ." Often it is simple and direct, as in this, which is, please note, a single sentence. Take a breath:
"The actions we take today will determine what kinds of jobs Americans will have tomorrow, how competitive our businesses will be in the global economy, how well-prepared our children -- especially the poorest among them -- will be to succeed, how secure and healthy our parents and grandparents will be, how safe our streets will be, how well we protect our land . . ."
And so on through several more clauses, as the president's face slowly turns blue. The book is choked with such sentences. Everyone gets to put something in, no one takes anything out, and the original point, if such there was, is lost forever. Of course, we must assume that the amiable Nothdurft is a professional writer, and so the book varies from time to time in tone. The president talks tough, as hairy-chested New Democrats often do: " Public housing is a privilege; abuse it and you're out." (Got that, you son- of-a-bitch?) And there are flights of pure wonkery. He ventilates countless initiatives, all impressively capitalized: the Crime Bill, One-Stop Career Centers, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the National Gang Tracking Network, the National Drug Control Strategy, Second Chance Homes, America's Hope Scholarships, the College Opportunity Strategy, the National Export Strategy, Empowerment Zones, Enterprise Communities. . . . If you ache to know the difference between the president's proposed tax deduction for college costs and his proposed tax credit for up to two years of community college, you'll find it here.
There are other favored rhetorical tropes. He makes excellent use of that time-honored dodge of all after-dinner speakers, the false choice. The debate about the role of government in our national life is presented as a contest between anarchists on the one hand, and on the other . . . oh, Stalin. The president comes down firmly somewhere in the middle. The trade debate is similarly stark. "You have those who say we should build walls around our country" in pitched battle against "those who say what we need is pure free trade." The president's solution? "We need fair trade with fair rules."
Such Solomonic judgments come at considerable personal cost to our president. In his book Bill Clinton never says he "fights" about something without jamming the word "hard" right up next to it. The upshot is that Bill Clinton "fights hard." And if you wonder who he's fighting for, read the book. (It's you, silly!) This allows him to pull off the neatest of Clintonian tricks: self-pity as an exercise in self-aggrandizement. We are meant to feel sorry for him and be awed by him at the same time. Here is his account of last year's budget battle:
"The Republicans believed I would give in to them just to keep government going on a lot less money. But I wasn't fighting for 'government.' I was fighting for the future of America and for a different, less bureaucratic modern approach to help people help themselves. . . . I didn't cave. . . ."
As that passage indicates, a few elbows are thrown at Republicans in Between Hope and History, mainly through misrepresentation; he refers, as expected, to their "massive cuts in Medicare," which of course were neither massive nor cuts. (The Republicans proposed to slow Medicare's rate of growth by $ 158 billion over seven years; the president proposed $ 124 billion.) But the dominant tone is of a man who wants to please all the people all the time while getting credit for his unshakable convictions.
"We must meet," he writes, "the challenges of a new century and, at the same time, protect the values that have kept us on course for more than two hundred years." Yes, some may disagree . . . This is why those overstuffed sentences come in so handy. And what words those sentences are stuffed with! Scarcely a page goes by without referring to "challenges" (which must be met) or "dreams" (which must be dreamed, or realized, or come true). The "d" in " American Dream" is always capitalized, which puts it, in importance, up there with the National Gang Tracking Network. Some sentences simply go limp under the weight of all those big words:
"When opportunity and responsibility are in balance, when each is given equal value -- in our families, our businesses, our neighborhoods, and the nation as a whole -- we achieve the objective we all seek, a community of purpose and a clearer vision of the American Dream -- a dream we all hope to share as part of our American community."
Now, I challenge the most accomplished grammarians in this, the greatest country on the face of the earth, to parse that sentence. As I read it -- and I've read it to the point of migraine -- it suggests that within our own communities we as a people must give equal value to opportunity and responsibility in order to achieve a community filled with businesses and families that will help us share a community, which in turn will enable us to dream of a vision of another dream -- a dream, moreover, that is capitalized - - and this is the objective we all seek as part of our community. Or am I wrong?
The president's attitude toward language recalls Thomas Beecham's comment on the English attitude toward music: "They don't much like music, but they rather like the noise it makes." This preference is essential to his art. He uses language not to illuminate but to obscure. Every ten pages or so, the president issues a ringing disclaimer about the limitations of government.
"The truth is that government's role in strengthening families, while important, is limited."
"It's clear that the federal government alone cannot begin to provide solutions."
Meanwhile, the nine pages preceding and following such passages are devoted to a laundry list of federal programs he has produced to address some national emergency. On one page, there's a National Tread Conservation Strategy to help you rotate your tires; on the next, a Federal Lights Out Initiative to make sure you tuck your kids in at night. I exaggerate, but only slightly. The dissonance is deafening.
Is this the committee again at work, or is it the true voice of the man who smoked dope but didn't inhale? I think it's the latter. When you set the book aside, you can't help but be struck by its paradoxical effect. For all the clouds of obfuscation that billow from its pages, for all the double talk and dissembling and fudging, the portrait of Bill Clinton that emerges at last is as exquisitely etched as the finest crystal, and just as transparent. The wonkiness, the contradictions, the wordiness; the double-talk, the dissembling, the fudging: Here is the man as he is. Whoever would know our president would do well to read this book. It belongs in your library, with Boy Clinton on one side and Blood Sport on the other.
By Andrew Ferguson