Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, by Rich Lowry (Regnery, 470 pp., $27.95)
When I told my husband I had been asked to review Rich Lowry’s Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years he responded, “Why didn’t they just ask his mother to do it?” To which I answered, “I think they just did.” But, as all of us know, moms can be the fiercest critics. So, with that full disclosure, let me say first that Rich doesn’t need to go clean his room. It is spotless, the sock drawer is organized, all of those fellows neatly paired up. A reader (and mother’s) dream. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place.
For the millions who have been afflicted by agita for nearly ten years because of what the Clintons have done to and what they have not done for our country, this is a read not to be missed, although when I first heard of his subject matter, I thought, “Hey, why not a new biography of Abraham Lincoln?” What more can we say about Bill Clinton?
A lot more. I follow these things fairly closely, and this is the only book that ties everything together. What makes it unusual is that, in addition to encapsulating the sins, crimes, and failures of Clinton, it brings out the short-term and long-term significance of each. Every incident mentioned in the book is put in a context that helps build a portrait of Clinton as a failed leader and a failed human being. This does not detract from his brilliance or his energy level; it merely makes it sadder that he was cast in a role he could not live up to, and that the country was saddled with a man who needed the presidency as therapy for his emotional and character problems.
There are several themes that run through Legacy, but two of the most important ones are Clinton’s fear of the military and his obsession with not living up to his potential. His fear of the military is brought on by his immersion in the post-Vietnam morality, that it was an evil war and that it prevented the good people from leading good lives. As quoted by David Maraniss of the Washington Post in First In His Class (1996), Clinton wrote to a friend while agonizing between waiting out the draft or joining the ROTC: “I know one of the worst side effects of this whole thing is the way it’s ravaged my own image of myself, taken my mind off the higher things, restricted my ability to become involved in good causes or with other people–I honestly feel so screwed up tight that I am incapable, I think, of giving myself, or really loving.” I would like to know what “higher things” Clinton was forced to abandon because of his efforts to avoid serving his country in the military, the way everyone else was serving. (It was Nixon who saved Clinton’s neck by altering the rules of the draft, enabling Clinton to get a safe number in the draft lottery and enroll in Yale Law School.)
Throughout the book, Lowry demonstrates how uncomfortable Clinton was with the military. He had to be taught how to salute, and of course he got off to a lame start by bypassing their advice when he cracked down on the no-gays-allowed culture of the military, ending up with the very unsatisfactory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” formula that pleased nobody and which, as Lowry repeatedly demonstrates, has been Clinton’s obsession, trying to please everybody and in the end pleasing nobody.
Throughout the book, it is not Lowry who destroys Clinton. It is Clinton, in his own words, who destroys Clinton, but Lowry has the uncanny ability to go straight to the jugular to find the words and give them texture. It is brilliantly done, not only for the big events but for the little events that so many of us may have forgotten. It is with some of these smaller events that Clinton’s character rises to the surface.
For example, at the beginning of the Haitian adventure, in which the U.S. was out to replace a right-wing military dictatorship with the “legitimate” president of the country, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. To establish order, the USS Harlan County, carrying 600 Seabees and Canadian troops, was preparing to unload them on the northern coast of Haiti–but on shore there were two dozen Haitian thugs waving clubs and clenched fists, staring down our comparatively massive force. The thugs, chanting “Somalia! Somalia!” in reference to our debacle there shortly before, won the staring contest, the U.S. temporized, and Jimmy Carter entered the fray to broker a deal. Mind you, this is how the world’s only superpower stood up to a third-world “country” with the firepower of a pop gun. (The end of the story is that a left-wing dictatorship replaced a right-wing one, the difference being that it was safer to live a “normal” life under the right-wingers than under the current chaotic, almost insane left-wingers.)
Then we are reminded of our escapade in Sierra Leone, where Foday Sankoh was leading his rebels against the government, along the way raping, burning alive his enemies, and amputating the hands and arms of thousands as a “warning” against cooperating with the government. Sankoh was a savage (and the mentor of Charles Taylor, who employed similar tactics in taking over Liberia and who was thrown out of the country this summer, thanks to the efforts of George W. Bush). The way Clinton handled Sankoh was to send Jesse Jackson there to make a deal, which, when accomplished, was celebrated as a tribute to Clinton’s peacemaking abilities; but, when Sankoh inevitably broke the deal, Clinton and Jackson walked away from it as if they had never heard of Sierra Leone, and British troops eventually put down the rebels.
All of the big issues are covered–Iraq, the economy, Whitewater, and so forth, an unending parade of incompetence and sleaze–Lowry brings new insights into the significance of each one and into the character of this poor wretch from Arkansas, who still can’t pull his life together. The book is superbly footnoted, with every single quote and reference backed up with a source, and some of the footnotes are as interesting as the body of the book. (And, although I’m sure Lowry has a healthy “ibido,” it is pleasant to read page after page of footnotes without the appearance of the notations “ibid” or “op cit.”)
Okay, in keeping with the Mom role, a pinch or two. I was disappointed that the book has nothing on the Vince Foster “investigation” and has only a couple of fleeting references to Ron Brown (nothing substantive), who certainly was no model for the black entrepreneurial experience. Conservatives were made to feel guilty if they did not pay proper respect when he was killed in a plane crash, but certainly we need to know more about this man’s climb to success and what other cabinet members knew about it.
In many ways, Legacy is a harrowing ride, for there are times when remembered fury and frustration bubble up but the reader is, in the end, calmed by Lowry’s cool accounting and brilliant writing style. In his introduction he tells us the “mustard seed” for the book came from staring at the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center mass-murder site and asking how it had come to this. One need only go full circle at the end of Legacy and stare at Ground Zero again. Lowry has armed us with the answer.
Many of us have asked, regarding our years with Clinton and Company, “Will anyone ever really tell the story?” Rich Lowry has, without rancor or shouting. I think he should be permitted to go outside and play now.
–Lucianne Goldberg is a syndicated talk-show host on Talk Radio Network & the publisher of the internet-news forum Lucianne.com.