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The American Presidents Series are a series of brief (around 150 pages) essay-style biographies of all of the Presidents of the United States published by Times Books. (To date all books about all presidents have been published except for William Howard Taft and Barack Obama). The series was edited by former JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. until his death in 2007, following which this task was taken over by former New Republic editor Sean Wilentz. Past volumes in the series have been written by distinguished historians such as H. W. Brands, Robert Remini or John Eisenhower. In recent years, the series has turned away from academics in favor of journalists as authors of the biographies, and sometimes this has resulted in the failure to appreciate the distinction between history and politics.

Clinton farewell.jpg

In the latest volume, Daily Beast editor-in-chief Michael Tomasky tells the story of Bill Clinton, whom he correctly describes as "a president of contradictions". Tomasky rushes through Clinton's early life and antecedents before describing Clinton's odds-defying 1992 victory over incumbent President George H. W. Bush, a man whose record setting approval ratings of 1990 didn't seem to matter two years later. The author covers Clinton's two terms in office, describing how Clinton confronted daunting challenges both on the international front as well as at home on domestic issues. He tells the story of how Clinton governed at a time when control of Congress was ceded to a very partisan opposition party and how the former Arkansas governor was able to achieve extraordinary success in deficit reduction (and eventual surplus budgets), while compromising on social issues such as welfare reform, all by adopting the stance of a centrist middle-of-the-road Democrat. Tomasky describes how Clinton insisted on his relevance as President despite operating with a hostile Republican Congress and how his capable political skills allowed him to achieve much in this environment despite numerous and frequent challenges.

The most challenging aspects of the Clinton Presidency come from Clinton's own poor judgement and what Clinton himself describes as the "double life" that he tried to lead. It resulted in the public humiliation that came from the frank disclosure of his sexual indiscretion with Monica Lewinsky and was exacerbated by his efforts to prevent discovery of his folly, leading to his impeachment. A central theme of the book is the acrimonious partisanship that injected itself into the independent counsel process and into the impeachment proceedings, as well as into Clinton's dealings with Congress on a number of issues. Tomasky illustrates how Clinton was indeed a mass of contradictions, showing great skill and adeptness on issues such as international peace negotiation and management of the economy, while behaving poorly in his personal life and compromising his integrity. He also describes the perplexing issues facing a president, such as the competing problems involved in dealing with international terrorism and the foreign entanglements that present themselves when genocidal maniacs exist, as they did in Yugoslavia and Rwanda during Clinton's tenure.

Tomasky also writes an interesting account of Clinton's post-presidency that is current up to and including the recent election of Donald Trump. He is critical of some of Clinton's actions as a former president, an offers an interesting post mortem on the reasons for Hillary Clinton's defeat.

It is controversial for The American Presidents Series to chose to pass judgement on the legacy of recent presidents so soon after they leave office, when passions have not yet cooled and the conditions are not yet conducive for an objective assessment, and before the long-term impact can be properly understood. Tomasky has strong opinions on Bill Clinton, and even stronger ones on Ken Starr, and on Clinton's critics. Regardless, he does a good job of describing and assessing the many accomplishments of Clinton's presidency, and of how Clinton's negotiating skills and political street smarts enabled him to do so in spite of his opponents in Congress. For him to do so in such a concise volume is an impressive achievement.

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