Monday, September 23, 2013

"The Natural" by Joe Klein: A Review

In my ongoing pursuit to read at least one biography on each president, I recently read Joe Klein's book on former President Bill Clinton entitled The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. To begin, one must admit that the difficulty at this point in history to find an honest biography of Clinton. Most are either over the top in favor of him downplaying many of his flaws and turning his enemies into villains, while others portray Clinton as the False Prophet of Revelation. Neither is helpful.

I was also unwilling to read Clinton's own autobiography. Being the nature of Clinton (always the politician) to highlight himself without his obvious flaws made me avoid his book. I frankly don't want to read hundreds of pages about Clinton from Clinton.

After several attempts and research into some books, I settled for Klein's look at the man. Grant it, it is not a biography in the strictest sense. As the subtitle suggests, it is limited to the presidency of Bill Clinton and obviously has a certain point of view. To Klein, Clinton was a natural at the game of politics. That much is true. Even his political opponents have to admit that.

With that said, perhaps a brief review of Mr. Klein's book is needed. In short, the title and subtitle are adequate enough. Though Klein didn't convince me that Clinton was the perfect politician or even the "natural" politician (implying that he was always smooth and always got what he wanted), in the end, the author convinces the reader that Clinton was a different type of politician.

This is a look inside the Clinton White House. The author shows just how informal, chaotic, messy, and almost unprecedented it was. He was always notoriously late. They made serious mistakes their first two years that cost them dearly in the mid-term elections. He, as a result, looked weak. Klein goes so far to suggest that certain events like the Oklahoma City Bombing and Republicans being blamed for the government shut down, Clinton likely would have been an unsuccessful one-term President.

Klein highlights both Clinton's natural abilities, like the infamous "I feel your pain" sort of lines, as a politician and also his flaws. Clinton was his greatest weakest. Hillary too was both his greatest strength (she famously gave him the line "I still believe in a place called Hope") and his greatest weakness. Klein tells how the President would be sunny in the morning until he'd receive a phone call from the residence. Hillary wasn't happy and now Bill wasn't.

Klein does deal with some of the more juicier things we remember most about Clinton. Hillary was at times too powerful. The saga that was and remains the Clinton marriage gets some treatment in the book. Klein also deals with the infamous Monica Lewinsky scandal. He reports how shocking it was (and still is really) that sitting president would parse the word "sex." Is oral sex technically sex? To him it wasn't, therefore he did not "have sexual relations with that woman." However, what remains so frustrating to me about the whole ordeal, and Klein highlights this in great detail, was how Clinton's "natural" ability in front of a camera, and in front of the grand jury, not only exonerated him and got him out of hot water, but made the Republicans look petty and Clinton look above it all. How did that happen? Klein offers little to no detail into how Clinton and Lewinsky "hooked up," however. She was an intern. He was a womanizer. We are told virtually nothing else.

One more thing. Klein's look at the Clinton presidency errs on the side of turning Clinton's opponents into villains. He has nothing nice to say about the media. Perhaps the media was harder on Clinton than on other Democratic Presidents (compare his presidency with that of President Obama's), but Clinton had a lot of juicy stories that the media knew would bring in ratings. A womanizing President is too juicy to ignore. On top of the adulterous affairs and mistresses, there were countless real estate deals and more. No wonder the Clinton's could not be kept out of the tabloids.

But beyond the media bias, Klein torches the Republicans, especially Newt Gingrich. Klein goes into great detail on the rise of Gingrich through the ranks and how he was bent on destroying Clinton. Gingrich was the perfect villain for Clinton, no doubt. But more surprising than Gingrich was Klein's treatment of Dick Morris. Morris, in my estimation, was a real asset to Clinton, while Klein has little to anything nice to say about him. Morris, I believe, is a big reason why Clinton won re-election. No one thought that Clinton would coast to victory following 1994 especially with Gingrich always breathing down his neck, yet he did just that. All of this talk about Clinton's enemies and turning them into the villains they weren't (can't forget about Ken Star), at times makes Clinton look like a victim. Certainly a lot of things were overblown, but let's be honest, as has been said, Clinton was his greatest enemy who brought a lot of his own problems on himself.

Overall, however, I would say that if you like politics and you want to know more about the Clinton political machine, this isn't a bad read. But if your looking for a more historical approach to the Clinton White House, perhaps you ought to look elsewhere. Klein is a fan of the President and at times too much so. However, the book isn't so over the top that it has no value.


Biographies on the Presidents:
President Barack Obama - "The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama: A Review
President George W. Bush - "Decision Points" by George W. Bush
President Bill Clinton - "The Natural" by Joe Klein: A Review 
President Ronald Reagan - "Ronald Reagan" by Dinesh D'Souza 
President Gerald Ford - "Gerald R. Ford" by Douglas Brinkley: A Review
President Richard Nixon - "Breach of Faith"
President Abraham Lincoln - "Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage"   


American Experience Series:
Woodrow Wilson: An American Experience
Dwight Eisenhower: An American Experience
Richard Nixon: American Experience
Jimmy Carter: An American Experience
Ronald Reagan: American Experience
HW Bush: An American Experience  
Clinton: An American Experience
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