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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Paying the Price for the Clinton Years

By Rich Lowry
Regnery, 470 pp, 2003

Granted, there have been many books written about Bill Clinton, or at least his administration. I've read a few (see here and here and here for examples) and figured that would about do me. I had already formed my opinion of his presidency (I'll end the suspense: it's not favorable) so why read about what I thought I already knew?

Well, a few reasons. First, I felt a sense of obligation. Rich Lowry is the editor of my favorite magazine, National Review. I first started reading the magazine in 1991, when I worked at the Glendale Public Library. I'd take the current issue off the shelf and read it during my breaks. I was just dabbling into conservatism at the time, and had started out reading Conservative Review and The American Spectator

Reading NR saved me from becoming a thoughtless, doctrinaire leftist, swallowing without question the garbage spewing from the sewer-like spouts at NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN, not to mention my local newspaper and Time magazine, which at the time I read every week. I'll always be grateful to the magazine for that.

I also enjoy Lowry's twice-weekly column in Conservative Chronicle. He's a fine writer, insightful, shrewd, and very original - he often tackles topics other columnists do not.

He's also a cat lover and Yankees fan, but I've long since forgiven him all that.

So that's why I read the book. Happily, I didn't know quite as much as I thought I did. Lowry has obviously read many more Clinton books than I have - he knows the inside story on pretty much any Clinton issue or scandal. 

Think Clinton was responsible for the booming economy of the 1990s? Nope - the recover was underway before he even was elected. Think he erased the deficit? Wrong - gushing tax revenues did that, and a Republican Congress that imposed a slim veneer of fiscal discipline. Think he was serious about "reforming welfare as we know it?" Think again - he signed that bill only because he thought it was necessary for his reelection, and then he vowed to supporters that he'd fix it, though he never did. Think he was an innocent victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy? Hah - he brought all his troubles on himself and has no one else to blame. Think he was tough on crime? Hardly - he nominated a clueless Janet Reno attorney general, the Queen of the Bunny Planet. Think he helped bring peace to the Middle East? Not even close - he strengthened Arafat, whose refusal to accept generous concessions from Israel led to the current bloodshed. Think he cared about the people of Africa? Not so fast - he not only did nothing to stop the genocide in Rwanda, his administration actively opposed any UN effort to send more troops there. 

What's most effective about Lowry's indictments are his temperament and sources. No rabid Clinton-hater (not, of course, that there's anything wrong with that), his tone is more of a sober, serious, and grown-up accounting of all that was wrong with Clinton and his presidency. It's not an hysterical, rabid, slobbering at the mouth rant. And his best digs come from Clinton sympathizers and former employees, which lends even more legitimacy to the book. 

After reading this, it's fairly obvious that for a man who worked long hours into the night, Clinton was a lazy president - he preferred talking about tough issues to actually doing something about them. He avoided any action, no matter how justified, necessary, or right, that he thought might cost him a dip in the polls, while taking action only on issues that he thought would help him politically, or were just easier, like school uniforms and the V-chip. 

Because of that, one could almost conclude Clinton was an inconsequential president, except for one major issue: terrorism. By treating it as a law enforcement issue, he essentially washed his hands of it and left it to the Justice Department to track down terrorists, a task for which the department was not prepared. As a result, Osama and his cohorts had free rein to kill Americans all over the world, until finally the country woke up to the war we were in on September 11, 2001. Clinton knew Osama was a threat, yet other than bombing empty buildings and deserted training camps, he did nothing. That would be difficult, you see, a distraction from his important work of pardoning rich fugitives and getting Hillary elected to the Senate.

It was often said that Clinton lacked core convictions, but Lowry shows he did indeed have those. What he lacked was the courage to act on them unless they were politically expedient.

As for the writing, it's excellent. Fluid, interesting, easy to understand, and leavened with light touches of humor. For a political book, it's enjoyable reading.

Lowry understands Clinton. If you are willing and able to do the same, then read this book. You'll be the better for it.

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