"The urgent question of our time is whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy....To renew America, we must be bold...must revitalize our democracy....Together with our friends and allies, we will work to shape change, lest it engulf us."
With those inaugural words, William Jefferson Clinton began his first term as President of the United States. Now, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a former White House aide provide the first penetrating, thoughtful evaluation of President Clinton's leadership.
Before he was voted into office, Bill Clinton told the authors in an interview that he wanted to be a transforming leader, a president who would fashion real and lasting change in peoples' lives, in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But how has this president, who has sought to lead from the center with his vice president, Al Gore, and the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, measured up against his own stated goals and the aspirations and performances of other presidents since World War II? From the health care debacle and the 1994 midterm elections that swept the Republicans to a majority in both houses of Congress to the effect of scandal and impeachment on his ability to govern, Dead Center examines the leadership style of Bill Clinton and offers a forceful challenge to the strategy of centrism.
There is no more respected presidential historian than James MacGregor Burns, author of several acclaimed books on leadership and the Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Georgia J. Sorenson adds her own insights as a political scientist and presidential scholar. Their combined efforts have resulted in an incisive, informative, authoritative work and an absorbing read.
As controversial as Bill Clinton's spicy personal behavior has been, Burns and Sorenson take the president to the woodshed for what they see as his vanilla political behavior. Burns, 1971 Pulitzer Prize winner for Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom, and Sorenson, director of the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, have made presidential leadership the focus of their scholarship. Their appraisal of Clinton thus constantly compares the president to past giants such as the two Roosevelts and Truman and, not surprisingly, finds the man from Hope wanting. They concede that presidential leadership is harder to define and exercise than it once was given the current climate in which "traditional party and ideological foundations of presidential influence are increasingly yielding to a politics of money, media and personalism." They also acknowledge the difficulties faced by a president whose party is a minority in both houses of a Congress ravaged by petty--as opposed to principled--partisanship. Still, their verdict is that Clinton, though extraordinarily gifted, squandered his leadership role in his willingness to split the difference and triangulate. Circumstance and character, it seems, rendered Clinton too much of a politician to govern greatly. This contention is fairly persuasive, but Burns and Sorenson could have given more consideration to the argument that during the years of Clinton's presidency, as in previous periods of prosperity, the American people tended to reward bland centrism and eschew the more radical changes they have been willing to sanction during times of crisis.