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The Adventures of "But-Man"

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Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century, by Bill Clinton, New York: Random House/Times Books, 178 pages, $16.95

When Hillary Clinton published It Takes a Village, she failed to give credit to Barbara Feinman, the ghostwriter who did much of the work on the book. This omission created bad publicity, and according to press reports, it also prompted Feinman to strike back by telling Bob Woodward about Mrs. Clinton's "seances" with Eleanor Roosevelt. Apparently, President Clinton does not want a similar problem. ("COL. SANDERS ASKS PREZ: DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT?") At the end of Between Hope and History, he acknowledges policy consultant William E. Nothdurft, "who was primarily responsible for helping to draft this book."

Poor Mr. Nothdurft. In order to assemble the book, he first had to read the president's speeches, which are cholesterol for the eyes. Then he cut, pasted, and edited various passages into a first draft, which the president purportedly reworked. For a respected author such as Nothdurft, the process must have been a burden: It wasn't writing; it was cooking with a crock pot.

Thanks to the word-search capability of the White House site on the World-wide Web , it is easy to tell exactly where many of the ingredients come from. The opening passages, which celebrate how the American spirit overcame the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, derive from an August 5 speech in Washington, D.C. The proposal for "America's Hope Scholarships" appeared in the president's June 4 commencement address at Princeton. His praise for the job-saving efforts of Harman International (a firm headed by a Democratic lawmaker's husband) made its debut in California on March 8.

In this manner, you can probably track the origins of nearly every paragraph in this book. But if you actually go ahead and do so, that's a sign that you have way too much time on your hands.

Between Hope and History is the longest 178-page book in the history of publishing. Its three main sections–Opportunity, Responsibility, and Community–comprise page after tedious page of familiar policy prescriptions, such as preserving AmeriCorps and extending gun control. If you want the gist of President Clinton's message, look instead to the 1996 Democratic platform, which is much more concise and a lot cheaper. (Web surfers can access it for free at www.democrats. org.)

Still, the book holds some interest for political buffs. Through sheer repetition, it highlights a technique that defines the president's rhetorical style: firmly endorsing limited government or free markets, then adding a qualifying clause that turns the original statement into vapor.

  • "[The] era of big government is over. But I do not believe that we can abandon our obligations to our children, our parents and grandparents, and to future generations."
  • "We don't want our government in our face, but we do want it on our side when we need it, and quickly."
  • "The market is a marvelous thing, but especially in the global economy, it won't give us safe streets, a clean environment, equal educational opportunities, a healthy start for poor babies, or a healthy and secure old age."
  • "We don't need protection, we need opportunity. But in a world of stiff competition we also need more than free trade. We need fair trade with fair rules."

Through these comments, the president inadvertently reveals his secret super power: the ability to transform himself from New to Old Democrat just by uttering a one-syllable conjunction. Since he wants the television networks to air more children's programming, perhaps he could make a contribution by starring in his own series: The Adventures of "But-Man" (and his Trusty Sidekick, "However").

The morphing of the president doesn't end there. At times, his prose bears a striking resemblance to that of Newt Gingrich.

In December 1994, Gingrich told House Republicans to read the Declaration of Independence, with special attention to the phrase "pursuit of happiness." He said: "Each individual has to be engaged in the pursuit–not guaranteed the finding." In Between Hope and History, Clinton says: "America promises the opportunity to pursue happiness but does not guarantee it."

In To Renew America, Gingrich wrote: "Our rights are pale shadows of our responsibilities. When the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor they meant it literally." The president says that America is about interdependence as well as independence: "And it was to both that our Founders in the Declaration of Independence said they would 'mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.'"

The speaker in To Renew America: "Why are governments so painfully slow at adapting to change? Governments almost always grant monopoly status to their own operations so they won't have to compete." The president in Between Hope and History: "Many of today's [gov-ernment] operations still run like monopolistic, big industrial corporations. Government, however, was slow to recognize this and even slower to respond."

Is Clinton cribbing from Gingrich, or is it the other way around? I think it's the former, since Gingrich was already using such themes and language in his 1984 book, Window of Opportunity. Gingrich helped shape the contemporary Republican vocabulary, so if President Clinton's strategy is to sound like a Republican (sometimes), it's natural that he will sound like Gingrich.

Just as revealing as President Clinton's identity transformations are his rather unusual readings of history. In a rehash of a 1994 speech at UCLA, he says that Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson sought to mend the frayed fabric of family and community. At the end of World War I, he notes sadly, the country lost its way. "America withdrew from the world, seeking security in isolationism and protectionism. We withdrew here at home, too, into the trenches of racial prejudice and bigotry and away from the protection of our citizens and economic institutions. Ten years later, in 1929, that decade of neglect produced the Great Depression."

The President's chronology of protectionism is slightly defective: Smoot-Hawley passed in 1930. And leaving unanswered the question of how racial prejudice help trigger the Depression, he also implies that this prejudice represented a backsliding from the Progressive Era. This is piffle. As C. Vann Woodward explained in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, national Progressives had a blind spot for blacks. "In fact," Woodward said, "the typical progressive reformer rode to power in the South on a disenfranchising or white-supremacy movement." The Klan gained enormous power during the administration of Woodrow Wilson–himself a 200-proof racist–but by the end of the 1920s, it was actually declining.

The president is rewriting history for his own purposes. He sees evil Republicanism as a cyclical phenomenon, so he adapts a faulty analysis of the 1980s ("decade of neglect") to the period of GOP ascendancy in the 1920s. He identifies himself with Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives, so he overlooks their sins, imputing them instead to the wicked Republicans. Curiously, the book's acknowledgments do not list Oliver Stone as an historical adviser.

A more benign whopper comes when Clinton quotes Thomas Jefferson as saying that democracy depended on the "yeoman farmer." So far, so good. Then he claims that "although Jefferson was a farmer himself, he wasn't making a pitch for agriculture." Today's "yeoman farmers," he says, are American families, whether they live on the farm or in the cities. That's a very inspiring image, Mr. President, but it's not what Jefferson meant. Calling farmers "the chosen people of God," Jefferson said that urban occupations corrupted morals: "The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body." Clinton probably would not want to quote that line while campaigning in New York or Los Angeles. And in the industrial Midwest, he should probably forget about Jefferson's comments on manufacturing: "[L]et our work-shops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles."

Clinton is no more accurate about his own history than he is about the country's. When he was growing up, he says, the only unpaved streets in Hope, Arkansas, were in the black neighborhood near his grandfather's store. He uses this observation to bring a personal dimension to his pitch for affirmative action–but there's just this one small problem. "I don't know what the hell he's talking about," one of the president's distant relatives told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when he first spun this yarn in 1995. "These streets were paved back then, sure to God. I know it was in '60–more than 30 years ago."

Between Hope and History has some significant omissions. There's no mention of the need to prevent the political abuse of confidential FBI files. Why not? He says that he has supported "expanding school choice and charter schools." Why does he forget to add that he only means choice among government-run schools? Why doesn't he discuss the fine private schools that he and the vice president have chosen for their own children?

These are serious questions, but Between Hope and History is not a serious work. It is a recycling bin with hard covers.

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