Monday, October 19, 2015

Dissecting the Clinton Decade For Fun and Profit

Gil Troy, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s

Bill and Hillary Clinton at a 1993 inaugural ball

I find it refreshing that historian Gil Troy doesn’t conceal personal positions behind mealy-mouthed bipartisanship attempts. Around this book’s one-quarter mark, he writes: “Clinton’s alluring idealism, passion for people, and atomic smarts mixed unstably with a hard-edged will to power, a puppy-dog neediness, and a super-human buoyancy--during a time of cultural, technological, and economic upheaval.” This perfectly encapsulates Troy’s attempt to do everything at once, with predictably chaotic results.

Gil Troy, whose published bibliography includes multiple collaborations with the progressive historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., proposes with this book to create an overview of the entire 1990s, with Bill Clinton as emblem of the era. Like Reagan in the 1980s or FDR in the 1930s, Clinton’s name is so linked with his American decade that we cannot explain one without another. Troy proposes to examine person and time together.

His success seems, at best, mixed. In early chapters, before Clinton’s campaign and presidency, his emphasis lies on a synoptic overview of the spotlighted years. Once Bill entered national affairs, however, Troy’s focus shifts to personality. On occasion, he resembles the “gotcha” journalists he mocks and deplores within his text. Though Troy putatively approaches his subject with historians’ dispassion, I find myself wondering what subtextual purpose he’s really pursuing.

Troy lards his exposition, at seemingly random intervals, with weasel words and personal imprecations: Bill had not dodged, but “slithered past the draft.” Troy characterizes Clinton’s administration as “campaign kids” versus “professional grown-ups.” Or he repeats talk radio ad hominem attacks, often without endnote citations: Hillary’s leadership in Health Care Reform and other issues struck Americans as “Byzantine and Stalinist.” Troy comes across as a moralizing jerk.

Gil Troy
But weirdly, Troy also exempts Clinton from his most cutting contemporary criticism. From the very prologue, Troy emphasizes Clinton's success injecting centrist morality into conventional Democratic politics; yet he wholly writes out Clinton's critics from the moral Left, like Reverend Jim Wallis or Rabbi Michael Lerner. The latter contributed heavily to Hillary's “Politics of Meaning” speech, which Troy acknowledges as her biggest early misstep, and found himself exiled for it.

In fairness, Rabbi Lerner himself kept mum about such issues for over a decade. If Troy wants to examine a particular decade, citing sources not written until 2006 might arguably seem reasonable. But Reverend Wallis had no such compunctions. He openly criticized President Clinton as early as 1995. He certainly had audience enough to receive and repeat his criticisms. Why then doesn’t he merit precious column inches?

This complex “what to leave in, what to leave out” issue persistently confounds Troy’s narrative. Early on, Troy declares his intent to focus on preponderantly domestic issues. Foreign policy, while perhaps interesting, lies too far afield for our purposes. But then Troy offers only hat-tip acknowledgments of the Defense of Marriage Act and the Glass-Steagall Act repeal, the two pieces of domestic policy that debatably most defined Clinton’s lingering legacy.

Policy little interests Troy; he’d rather talk personalities. George Stephanopolous; Zoe Baird; Ken Starr; Vince Foster. That’s saying nothing of more rabble-rousing personalities, like Rush Limbaugh, whose popularity peaked during Clinton’s first term. Troy busily name-checks every personnel misstep and media gadfly, while spending little time on actual Clinton accomplishments, that I felt less like I’d read a comprehensive history, more like I’d dived into a morass of tabloid journalism redux.

Meanwhile, the decade itself gets some sporadic treatment. Remember, the 1990s saw tech-stock CEOs getting rock-star treatment, appearing on Rolling Stone covers, speaking to applauding stadium crowds, making millions on stock offerings that actually produced nothing. With the Cold War over, American attention spans wavered on countless brightly colored do-funnies and financial mousetraps. Troy mentions some, but lingers on not one long enough for true comprehension.

Full disclosure: I’m no Clinton loyalist. During the 1990s, I voted Republican, but converted to liberalism after 9/11. Since then, I’ve drifted toward Distributism, a Third Way political-economic theory based on moral precepts. Bill Clinton’s willingness to appease his opponents (cf. Ian Haney López or Barry Glassner) strike me, then as now, as craven. And anyone expecting anything different from Mrs. Clinton seems incredibly naïve.

That said, Troy’s low-tension, milquetoast synopsis will satisfy neither inveterate Clinton haters nor died-in-the-wool True Believers. He surveys the decade with great breadth but little depth, often stumbling into the very traps he contends doomed Clinton’s contemporaries. I simply learned more reading Conason and Lyons’ The Hunting of the President. Too flimsy for readers my age, too superficial for younger readers, this book just drifts.

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