By the Book: Bill Clinton

May 9, 2016 Russell Riley

The first year of a new president’s first term is always a crucible. But often it’s only in hindsight, within the carefully considered pages of an authoritative presidential biography, that the full measure of that first year can be taken. In this new series on the best presidential biographies, Miller Center presidential scholars and experts recommend the ones most worth reading.

Just weeks before the 1992 Democratic National Convention, a team of Bill Clinton’s political advisers, working in secret, made a pivotal discovery. They found that the reason their candidate was then running third in national polls—behind George Bush and independent gadfly Ross Perot—was a popular misunderstanding of Clinton’s biography. Americans had reasoned from Clinton’s elite education, his professionally accomplished wife, and rumors of bad-boy behavior, that he came from a life of privilege. Or, to borrow a term not then in use, that his was a bad case of “affluenza.” When informed of the reality of Clinton’s past—that he was raised in a broken home by his extended family, then propelled himself out of Arkansas through brilliant schoolwork and later returned to help lift his home state—voters completely changed their opinions of Clinton’s suitability for the presidency. His biography thus became Clinton’s best friend.

Three years later, David Maraniss took this basic material and spun it into gold: First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton. This book is the finest early biography of a president ever published. His chapters on the 1968 class of Rhodes Scholars, documenting their excruciating struggles between the light and the dark—their hopefulness about a future of unbounded opportunity versus their unyielding despair over Vietnam—is worthy of Steven Spielberg.   

Joining Maraniss on the shelf of essential Clinton reading is the single best volume on his presidency: John Harris’ The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House. Harris leveraged his experience covering the White House for the Washington Post into a fair-minded and sure-footed account. He is an able analyst and has a wonderful eye for anecdote.

For those who want more than the essentials, two suggestions. First is Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr. Gormley reports exhaustively (in 789 pages) on the scandal wars of the Clinton years, drawing on an impressive set of interviews, including rare sessions with Clinton himself. This is the place to go to for those who never quite figured out how Whitewater or Linda Tripp fit into the story.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I did not note that the Miller Center has available online a treasure trove of oral history interviews with senior Clinton administration officials, many of which make for riveting reading. These spoken narratives provide behind-closed-doors access for those who prefer their history first-hand.