One of the most recent biographies of Clinton is Patrick Maney’s “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President” which was published in 2016. Maney is a history professor at Boston College and the author of biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Robert La Follette Jr. (a US Senator and an architect of FDR’s New Deal).
Relatively short for a presidential biography, this book manages to cover impressive ground in just 273 pages. But while it reviews Clinton’s full life up through the early years of his retirement, its primary focus is clearly on his presidency.
Given the speed at which he covers Clinton’s early years, Maney does a surprisingly good job setting the stage for his subject’s national political career. But since fewer than fifty pages sweep Clinton from birth to the White House, some readers will leave this section of the book with more questions than answers.
The author’s style is straightforward and clear, but with a slightly sterile quality. And despite Clinton’s tendency to turn every observer into either fan or critic, Maney approaches his task with judicious balance. But this book is far more a political than a personal biography. And when it periodically directs its focus toward the legislative or economic backdrop of the 1990s – and away from Clinton – it resembles a history book more than a biography.
Clinton’s presidency consumes nearly 80% of the book and although these eight chapters are arranged more or less chronologically, individual chapters often focus on specific topics rather than periods of time. And within a particular chapter the narrative can bounce around the timeline significantly.
The process of Clinton selecting his staff and Cabinet is quite interesting and several aspects of his presidency receive significant, and often, insightful attention. Clinton’s infamous health care task force, various foreign policy challenges, and efforts to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act all receive noteworthy coverage. Maney’s review of Clinton’s post-presidency is solid but feels needlessly frenetic.
Maney is extremely comfortable with (and adept at) exploring and analyzing policy issues. But this occasionally pushes Clinton into the shadows and allows the discussion to turn a bit “wonky.” And, due to the book’s topical approach, the Independent Counsel’s investigation and Clinton’s impeachment seem oddly isolated from the remainder of his presidency.
Finally, beyond the brief discussion of his subject’s childhood, Maney never really humanizes his subject. The reader never gets a keen sense of Clinton personally and could be forgiven for not realizing he has a daughter. And because readers never see the world through Clinton’s eyes or from his perspective it is never entirely clear what makes him “tick” or why.
Overall, Patrick Maney’s “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President” is a good political biography of Clinton…but only a fair personal biography. It proves to be well-written and interesting history, but is not particularly colorful or revealing as a biography. But its modest size and lack of tedious detail makes it potentially useful as an efficient review of Clinton’s life with a distinct emphasis on his presidency.
Overall rating: 3½ stars