Joe Klein and Frank Bruni possess the gift of pithiness. Their White House bios – Klein’s The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton and Bruni’s Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush – weigh in at less than 300 pages apiece, but they’re packed with revealing details. As journalists (Klein writes for The New Yorker; Bruni for The New York Times), both can summarize a subject in a single well-phrased sentence. ”The Clinton era is likely to be remembered more for the ferocity of its prosecutions than for the severity of its crimes,” writes Klein, while Bruni limns the pre-Sept. 11 Bush: ”He projected affability more easily than authority, levity more readily than gravity.”
Each author takes a different approach to his presidential portrait. Klein uses broad strokes, depicting Clinton as the Uber-baby boomer, ”the apotheosis of his generation’s alleged sins: the moral relativism, the tendency to pay more attention to marketing than to substance, the solipsistic callowness.” Bruni is a pointillist who admits his book is ”dedicated primarily to what Bush looked and acted like on the edges of what was usually considered news.” Thus, we see Dubya during his ample downtime, goofing with the journalists aboard the campaign plane. But what are we to make of his habit of putting his pinkie to his mouth a la Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil? Bruni declines to draw any conclusions.
Despite their biographers’ divergent techniques, Clinton and Bush both emerge as complex, often paradoxical characters. Klein doesn’t shy away from documenting Clinton’s ”angry, adolescent side,” but he gives him credit for ”a coherent, sophisticated political vision” that resulted in improved lives for millions of Americans. Bruni pegs Bush as a studied anti-intellectual who uses his redneck image as a hedge against criticism of his blue-blood breeding.
The chief execs’ personalities come through most clearly in the discussions of their administrations’ defining crises: the Lewinsky scandal and, so far, Sept. 11. Klein bemoans the ”selfishness, crudeness, and banality” of Clinton’s affair, then marvels at how he turned the congressional investigations to his advantage, bringing down archrival Newt Gingrich in the process. Bruni raps Bush for what he portrays as a tentative initial response to the terrorist attacks, then charts his growing sense of gravitas during the aftermath.
At times, both writers seem to know their subjects too well, relating incidents of chumminess that are disturbing in their intimacy. On the eve of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Klein bowled a late-night game with Clinton and recalls, ”As we stood there, waiting for our balls to return down the alley, he’d lean up against me – a strange feline sensation.” Bruni, whom the nickname-happy Bush dubbed Frankie Boy, relates anecdotes about the candidate pinching his cheeks and sticking fingers in his ears to indicate a quote was off the record.
With politicians this accessible, it was perhaps inevitable that the writers would insert themselves into the narratives. Klein mostly mentions himself only when it’s relevant to a larger event (like when, in 1996, he anonymously published the Clintonian roman a clef Primary Colors). Bruni, on the other hand, takes too-frequent detours into Boys on the Bus-style tales of life on the road. It’s interesting that the pop-culture-impaired Bush didn’t know what Sex and the City was; it’s less interesting that Bruni and his journo buddies formed a Sex and the City club, crowding into a hotel room every Sunday night to watch the HBO sitcom.
In passages like this, Bruni’s book seems to live up to his fear that without the ”hindsight of history” he ”was left with a motley and inconclusive collection of stray details.” But to borrow a George W. Bushism, Bruni may have ”misunderestimated” himself. If it’s true that journalism is the first draft of history, books about incumbent presidents are second drafts, and as such, Ambling is impressive in its observations. Klein’s book offers greater perspective, but that’s only because Clinton’s term has already come to an end. The Bush administration’s most telling chapters may still be unwritten. The Natural: A- Ambling Into History: B+