The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. By Joe Klein. (New York: Doubleday, 2002. Pp. 230. Prologue, acknowledgments, index. $22.95.)
Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative. By David Brock. (New York: Crown, 2002. Pp. 336. Prologue, epilogue. $25.95.)
These books retell previously told tales. But this time, the authors (both journalists but not White House correspondents) claim to tell the "truth." In The Natural, Klein reworks much of the material from his novel Primary Colors (1996) into a nonfictional evaluation of Clinton's presidency. He wants to clarify "misunderstandings" about Clinton's record: "solid policy and brilliant politics" have been "obscured by the consequences of tawdry personal behavior" (p. 21). Brock wants to clear his conscience: Blinded by the Right rectifies his treatment of "troopergate" and Anita Hill in American Spectator and his book, The Real Anita Hill (1993). Brock explains, "Like a kid playing with a loaded gun, I didn't appreciate the difference between a substantiated charge and an unsubstantiated one" (p. 99). He confesses that his epiphany came after receiving a $1 million cash advance to write a second "attack book," The Seduction of Hillary Rodham (1996). When he turned up "no basis to allege criminal wrongdoing or cover-up," he was transformed: "In finding Hillary Clinton's humanity, I was beginning to find my own" (p. 261). As a result, Brock wrote two essays for Esquire ("Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man" and "The Fire This Time: A Letter to the President") which are the basis for this scathing memoir of his disillusionment as a conservative who "plotted in the shadows, disregarded the law, and abused power to win even greater power" (p. xi). Brock apologizes, casting himself as the central character in a tawdry tale of money, ambition, and shoddy writing and editorial practices. He says he was "blinded by" a conservative culture of "corrosive partisanship, visceral hatreds, and unfathomable hypocrisy" (p. xi). He regrets his contribution to Clinton's impeachment: "Had these conservatives not intervened in the way they did, [Paula] Jones might have sued the Spectator, rather than the president, and though I might have been in the dock, the catastrophic political consequences of her lawsuit might have been avoided" (p. 180). Thus, Brock tells an admonitory tale, "to illuminate for others the dangers that I see in an empowered conservative movement" (p. xii).
Klein's tale is updated but not much changed. As one of the first reporters to promote Clinton's candidacy (they met in 1989; he covered the campaign for Newsweek), he became an early booster. He had less contact with Clinton during his presidency, until Clinton granted him an extensive interview after the 2000 Democratic convention. Klein wrote his first take on Clinton's legacy for the New Yorker that autumn. That essay plus several additional interviews provided the basis for The Natural. Klein is still amazed at the "comeback kid" who was a "serious, disciplined, responsible" (p. 11) president with "domestic policy achievements" that "were not inconsiderable and were accomplished against great odds" (p. 216). Elsewhere, Klein characterizes Clinton's legacy more modestly, correctly noting that the record shows a mix of successes and failures. He reaches the same assessment as current political science scholarship: instead of one major domestic policy achievement, Clinton's legacy is one of incremental steps toward reform, which Klein aptly calls "victories in dribs and drabs" (p. 14). Klein suggests an explanation for Clinton's uneven record: "he never received credit for the essential coherence of his vision because he never found a way to articulate it credibly, much less succinctly-no small irony, given his ability to communicate" (p. 13). This is a thoughtful insight about presidential rhetoric and the failure of Clinton's catchwordsNew Choice, New Covenant, Third Way-to capture the imagination of the public and the press. …