The Natural: Charisma fatigue takes its toll

That former president William Jefferson Clinton had an innate gift for politics is a self-evident truth. He was wickedly eloquent, unusually well informed, and brazenly at ease behind the Presidential podium. His qualifications as an executive leader are as commonly acknowledged as the sensational personal flaws that got him impeached.
Presently a political correspondent for The New Yorker, Joe Klein, like many others, was initially seduced by Clinton’s magnetism, only to become dissatisfied with his inevitable policy prevarications and ideological wiggling. Klein enjoyed exceptional access as a reporter in the White House and was granted numerous reflective interviews with Clinton after his two terms. Still, Klein’s assertion, in the subtitle of his recently released book The Natural, that Clinton’s was a “Misunderstood Presidency” is not borne out in the pages of his mini-history.
Indeed, Klein seems to be telling us that the essence of the era was understood all too well, at least among the sizeable and influential coterie of pundits, insiders, and disillusioned Clintonites Klein represents. He issues a collective sigh at “Slick Willy’s” 177 last-minute pardons and slouches away with “a pervasive sense of talent squandered, of a great opportunity wasted.”
Klein hints that there is a true Clinton legacy to be found in the “great deal of work” done on health care, deficit reduction, and technology empowerment, with a passing glance at Bosnia. But these accomplishments are, even with Klein’s elaboration, no better “understood” as trademarks of the Clinton era.
Klein is still defending his 1996 novel, Primary Colors, the story of a debauched journey to the White House by a Governor of a small southern state that became a smash hit because everyone knew who it was about and nobody knew who wrote it. When he outed himself as the author, many were surprised at the book’s vitriol compared to his previously controlled antagonism to Clinton’s foibles. Klein demurs– Primary Colors, he says in the first chapter of The Natural, was a tribute to the force of Clinton’s charisma: “In the end it seemed obvious that a larger-than-life leader was preferable to one who was smaller than life.”
I think my favorite phrase in The Natural is one that describes the American public’s easy acceptance of the relatively graceless performances of its most recent set of Presidential candidates. What we experienced, a White House staffer explains to Klein, was a case of “charisma fatigue.”
Well I hope we’ve all recovered.

Joe Klein, author of The Natural, will discuss the Clinton Presidency at The Miller Center on Monday, September 16, at 11am. J. Wilson Newman Pavilion, 2201Old Ivy Road. 924-0921.

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