Monday, 5 May 2014

The Chronicles of Bill

New post! Switching things up a bit. 

I'm testing the waters with a book review. Now, this is not entirely new. I've taken an old review and re-jigged it a bit, but I'm going to try and include more reviews like this in the future. Enough from me, read on!   

MASTERING THE PRESIDENCY is a biography on US President Bill Clinton by respected English author Nigel Hamilton. He's written some other biographies on other famous people including an earlier book he'd done on Monty (the WWII general, not Python).

It's the story of Clinton's first term, and how he evolved into a respected world statesman. I sniggered at the last part (everyone remembers what happened in his SECOND term), but it did get me thinking. I had been nay but a youngling during Clinton's presidency. The only time I remember him existing was during the Lewinsky scandal. However, even without knowing that much about him, I realized something else.

While Clinton's personal failures were certainly detrimental to his image, compared to the colossal failures of his successor, he was almost saintly. Intrigued, I decided to invest in this doorstop of a book.

It was actually pretty good. First of all, Hamilton doesn't eulogize Clinton.The portrait he constructs is of a man with both great empathy and genius-level intelligence but compromised by a pathological desire to please everyone, hazy principles and a complete lack of personal discipline. The fact that Hamilton is not American helped make this book more appealing to me, since most American biographies seem to BLAST "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER" THROUGH YOUR BRAIN AS SOON AS YOU OPEN THE FIRST PAGE. Moving on...

The book describes events starting from the transition of power in 1992-1993 to Election night 1996, and is divided into both volumes and books. It sounds complicated but it really isn't. Quite frankly, it aided my reading immensely, as I can't help fiddling the pages and it gave me specific places to mark. Not to mention the fact that I could go back to remember a name or event I had forgotten which had popped up again. These separations also work dramatically, to signal the transition between both major events and the evolution of Hamilton's subject as both a man and a politician.

The book works as two halves, bisecting the four years between 1993 and 1996. The first half is interesting in showing how a government gets started, and this portion is probably the funniest, as the government is thrown into disarray by Clinton's indecisiveness. However, as 1993 rolls into 1994, the parade of snafus gets longer and more monotonous, and Clinton's inability to get his (White) house in order begins to get tedious.

By this point I was wondering how the hell Clinton won a second term. It would only be after I had finished the book that I realized this question was why Hamilton wrote it in the first place.

Objectively however, this section of the book suffers from a lack of real drama, and a lot of policy which will probably turn off readers. There are suspensful episodes, such as the well known events in Somalia, Waco, Haiti, the World Trade Centre bombing and Clinton's showdown with North Korea, which almost led to war.

The problem is, and this has more to do with history than with Hamilton's book, is Clinton's handling of most of the above. While the screw ups at Waco are well known, a few of the more successful crises, such as his dealings with North Korea, are not really because of him. By the time you're a quarter through the book you'll be wondering why Hamilton didn't write a book about ex-prez Jimmy Carter, after he manages to defuse both the Haiti and Korea situations.

Things pick up around the same time Clinton's healthcare bill gets sent down the gurgler. Then the shit really hits the proverbial fan - which is about the time I really started enjoying the book.

Every protagonist needs an antagonist, and history has provided Hamilton with a great one: Speaker of the House Newt Gingrinch. What's better is that his entrance is perfectly timed to coincide with Clinton's biggest problem: the loss of both Houses of Congress to the Republican Party. My understanding of the situation is pretty basic, but it basically meant that Clinton would have a VERY hard time passing any laws. It's pretty tame in light of the present Congress's (in)action and a sad reflection of how low the bar is now. 

The real dramatic meat of the book is the struggle between Clinton and Gingrinch. Super-smart and super-sexed,Gingrinch is like Clinton's doppleganger. He's a great antagonist and a worthy opponent to Clinton, lacking Clinton's humility (he asks his first wife for a divorce while she's undergoing cancer treatment), world view and, most critically, his media savvy.

Gingrinch's arrival on the scene seems to galvanize Clinton into action. If this were an action movie, Clinton would be tooling up with weapons in some glorious montage complete with some wonderfully overblown martial music while Gingrinch cackled in his evil lair. In real life, this involves alot of back room negotiation and the appointment of Leon Panetta as Clinton's Chief of Staff to instill a sense of structure and discipline over the woe-fully disorganized Clinton White House. More importantly, in regards to this book is that this battle of the political titans gives Hamilton's prose the steriodal energy boost it needs, and the rest of the book flies by. My lack of knowledge was beneficial at this point, since it meant I could enjoy their struggles without any fore-knowledge of the climax.

And then there's Monica...

I won't spoil the rest for you, but by the end of the book, I was pumped. Especially since Hamilton ends the book on a cliffhanger ending, with Clinton celebrating his re-election completely unaware of the shit storm of controversy his personal indiscretions were about to unleash.

The second half of the book is inarguably better than the first half, and this is one of the few books I've read (fiction or non-) that actually gets more exciting as it heads into the home stretch. While this heavy tome might be hard going at first (politics...), it's worth it just to see how Clinton turned his administration around and went toe to toe with the Grinch. From then on it's like the Rumble in the Jungle with Clinton as Ali and Gingrinch as Foreman, with better suits and flabbier pecs.

Another interesting bonus feature is comparing how Clinton did with how Obama's faring - a nice postscript to the book for me was watching Newt Gingrinch's failed presidential run in 2012. Oh sweet justice...

All in all, I really enjoyed the book. Nigel Hamilton was supposed to be working on a sequel ( I guess the working title for that would be 'Un-Mastering the Presidency'?). Based on the strength of the material he has to work with, CLINTON PART II ought to be both more dramatic (the impeachment) and funnier (the impeachment) than its predecessor. While there's been no new developments, hopefully this second tome comes to pass.

Original post: 11-8-2010

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