Review of Michael Waldman, POTUS Speaks: Finding the Words that Defined the Clinton Presidency

J. Bradford DeLong

October 2000

Michael Waldman (2000), Potus Speaks: Finding the Words that Defined the Clinton Presidency (New York: Simon and Schuster: 0743200209).

I really should like this book. I really should. Michael Waldman is a superb writer and an intelligent observer of the Clinton presidency, for which he worked for seven years. He is deeply concerned with making America a better place. He is an effective and aggressive fighter for, ninety percent of the time, the good guys. Compared with other books by White House speechwriters--Peggy Noonan's What I Saw at the Revolution, for example--that lack either a sense of America or of the policies of their bosses, this is a very good book.

Yet as I read this book through I found my hackles rising again and again. In the end I put it down to a natural opposition and incompatibility--like the natural incompatibility of dogs and cats, or of cats and small birds. But in this case it is the natural incompatibility of economists and speechwriters, or perhaps I should say of policy analysts and media affairs people.

Now there is a lot in this book that is very, very good. The small narratives of life inside the Clinton White House are superb, and (from what I could see from my perch at the Treasury just outside the fence) very true. You discover that some people have larger feet of clay than you thought. (Ralph Nader casually referring to George Stephanopoulos and James Carville as "the Greek" and "the Cajun," as if those were their primary identities? Maybe in Bosnia ethnicity is primary, but not here in America (p. 21).)

You rediscover the extraordinary administrative incompetence and chaos of the early Clinton administration: "[N]o one charged with writing either speech" knew what the program was, "so our efforts were largely guesswork. Was the budget to be sold as investment or deficit reduction? How strongly should the arguments about fairness be made? Were we still putting people first?" (p. 41). "Clinton... was, somehow, reading cards drawn from the wrong draft of the speech. The one with the made-up numbers" (p. 62). "The President never got the word he was supposed to make calls. He was mad. He said, 'Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you give me something to do? This is something that I care about'" (p. 74). A total administrative cl*****f***. In the first two years it seemed as though only Robert Rubin's National Economic Council functioned well enough to tell its a** from its elbow.

Yet you also rediscover the hard work of the smart and dedicated people who have lived in America in every generation, and who have made America great. You rediscover, also, the hard and tough decisions made by the NEC as it reached the consensus position that live options were limited, and the best economic strategy for America's future required betting all the administration's chips on deficit reduction (p. 45)--a bet that has paid off much more lavishly than anyone at the time would have thought remotely probable.

You rediscover the belief of the administration's political opponents that they should try to make America a place where the poor and the old have worse medical care--how "Senator Dole bragged that he had voted against the creation of Medicare, and Speaker Gingrich told another audience that his goal was to make changes in the program so that it would 'wither on the vine'" (p. 87). And you discover their mendacity: Dole's false claim in 1993 that the administration's economic plan "...doesn't tackle the deficit head on"; Gingrich's false prediction that the administration's budget "will lead to a recession next year"; and John Kasich's false promise that "[i]f [this plan were] to work, I'd have to become a Democrat" (p. 46). We are still waiting, John.

But then you turn the page, and hackles rise. Just why--what perverted logic--would place Michael Waldman, a long-time NAFTA opponent, in charge of the "communications effort" to win approval for NAFTA? Just why would Michael Waldman imagine that one should write a pro-NAFTA speech without knowing what the arguments for NAFTA and the forecasts that suggested it would be a good deal were? Rather than finding any of the many, many people within a quarter mile of the White House who knew the substance of NAFTA very deeply, Waldman instead "wrote a speech that made the strongest case I could conjure... with temporary numbers--many of them guessed at--to be adjusted later." The task of figuring out whether the speech with its imaginary numbers bore any relationship to reality was assigned to "Sylvia Mathews.... She checked every fact" (p. 62).

Even worse, however, than Waldman's belief that you could write a good speech while knowing little about the substantive arguments for NAFTA was the fact that--without, as far as I can see, ever learning much about the costs and benefits--he wound up being convinced by his own rhetoric. As he writes: "...I had come to believe that NAFTA was right--or at least not nearly as wrong as its critics said. I didn't think that the best course for the United States was to pull back from open markets... repudiate the benefits that came from free trade" (p. 66).

Here I lost it. Whether NAFTA is a good idea depends on the balance between the benefits it confers to Mexico in terms of faster industrial development and a greater chance of democratization and the costs it imposes on Mexico as Mexican corn farmers face competition from Iowa. It is possible that the world we live in is one in which NAFTA is a bad idea--in which the costs outweigh the benefits. It is possible that we live in a world in which the Reagan tax cut of 1981 was a good idea. A large amount of evidence suggests not in both cases, but that evidence has to be weighed, analyzed, and assessed before one can speak with even a smidgeon of confidence about what choice is the best public policy.

The pro-globalization Waldman of today knows the same amount about the balance between the costs and benefits of NAFTA--zero--that he knew back when he wrote about Bush's Mexican Mistake for the New Republic. How dare Waldman change his mind without knowledge, without evidence, for no reason other than that his own words when reflected back at him sound good!

As I said, there is a natural incompatibility here. The idea that one looks at evidence on how the world works, that one tries to judge the costs and benefits, and that one then tries to pick the best policy is fundamental to how I think. Waldman seems to pick and choose his causes differently. Thus I live in fear and suspicion of White House communications. Yet I also know full well that in this twenty-first century media affairs plays a more important role in the success or failure of political causes than does substantive policy analysis.

Waldman's book reminds me of this unpleasant truth. And that is why I dislike it.

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