John F. Harris’s 2005 “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House” was published four years after the end of Clinton’s presidency. Harris worked for The Washington Post for more than two decades and covered the Clinton White House from 1995 to 2001. In 2007 he co-founded Politico, a political news organization.
As suggested by its title, Harris’s biography dedicates itself to Bill Clinton’s two-term presidency. There is no effort to introduce his life or cover his post-presidency. But Harris does briefly consider Clinton’s legacy as well as the character traits which made his presidency so tumultuous.
The book’s 437 pages are consistently engaging and uncommonly readable. And Harris demonstrates impressive balance in his presidential review: readers wedded to the notion of a hollow and unproductive presidency will find their view vigorously challenged. But Clinton partisans should expect to find their famously gifted politician fully exposed for his maddeningly self-destructive flaws.
The book is written from a revealing on-the-ground (and often behind-the-scenes) perspective that provides readers unique access to Clinton’s deliberations and thoughts during crucial moments of his presidency. And it is undeniably a book written by an eloquent and keenly-observant reporter…not a traditional biographer. It is Harris’s skill at drawing connections and conveying his observations and conclusions which makes this such a great read.
Unlike Patrick Maney’s recent “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President” which minimizes coverage of issues such as Whitewater and the Jones/Lewinsky affairs in favor of policy matters, Harris covers the entirety of the Clinton presidency – warts and all. Given the impact these distractions had on Clinton’s two terms, and the access provided to Harris by countless insiders, it is not surprising that nearly one-quarter of the book features one scandal or another.
Although the author’s revelations often prove titillating, he never strays too far trying to psychoanalyze his subject’s problematic proclivities. Instead, he saves his best analysis for Clinton’s numerous legislative and policy victories. Harris is adept at articulating Clinton’s options in a given situation and his reason for pursuing a certain course of action.
Introductions to George Stephanopoulos, Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Reich prove interesting, and Harris provides solid, and crisp, reviews of the foreign policy challenges faced by Clinton in Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia. And the volatile relationship between Clinton and Dick Morris, which must be one of the great love-hate relationships in American history, is wonderfully told.
The book’s primary shortcoming stems from its close proximity to Clinton. While allowing readers to see him – and his administration – up close and largely unfiltered, this frame of reference comes at the expense of broader context. The “big picture” is often overwhelmed by the book’s granular focus on its subject and his countless crises.
Overall, John Harris’s “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House” provides a richly-detailed and engrossing view inside the Clinton presidency. Written with the penetrating insight of a skillful and well-sourced reporter, it rarely gives the reader a moment to pause. And it is hard to imagine any book providing a better understanding of the tumult and triumphs of Bill Clinton’s two-term presidency.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars