New Gilded Age President
Patrick J. Maney
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016
Hardcover. x+332 p. ISBN 978-0700621941. $34.95
Reviewed by Jasper M. Trautsch
Assessing a New Gilded Age Presidency
In his biography of Bill Clinton, Patrick J. Maney, Professor of History at Boston College, compares the 1990s to the gilded age at the end of the 19th century, as he finds that both periods were characterized by rising income inequality, racial tensions, scandals, political polarization, and, most importantly, rapid social and economic changes. In the Gilded Age, America turned from an agrarian and rural to an industrial and urban country; in the New Gilded Age, America was transformed from an industrial to a digital and globalized economy. Clinton fully embraced the profound economic and technological developments taking place in America and sought to manage them rather than trying to stem the tide, as Maney argues in this engaging account of the Clinton presidency.
The book is structured chronologically, starting with a chapter on the 46 years of Clinton’s life prior to his election as America’s 42nd President. The next eight chapters take the reader through his presidency. Maney skillfully and knowledgeably discusses the relevant political issues that occupied Clinton from 1993 to 2001 such as health care and welfare reform, business and financial deregulation, and foreign and trade policy, but he also examines the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the controversial role of his wife Hillary, and his election and re-election campaigns. The book concludes with a brief synopsis of Clinton’s post-presidential career.
For his monograph, Maney consulted the documents that the William J. Clinton Presidential Library has made available online as well as those that are part of the public record such as congressional hearings and debates and presidential speeches, interviews, and press conferences. He also made use of the interviews that the University of Virginia’s Miller Center conducted with members of the Clinton Administration and of the memoirs the Clintons and their advisors have written.
Bill Clinton : New Gilded Age President is a reliable study on the 42nd President. It is well-researched, eloquently written, concise, and always to the point. Maney is also fair in his judgments. On the one hand, he paints a portrait of Clinton that is mostly flattering. He praises Clinton’s role in committing the Democratic Party to a centrist program, for shrewdly administering an economic boom, and for tackling issues like crime and welfare that had previously been highly divisive. Maney also admires Clinton’s campaigning talents and his comeback qualities. He therefore comes to the conclusion that Clinton’s presidency was a success, even though he admits that the circumstances of the times – no crises that would have allowed for bold leadership, but vicious partisanship instead – prevented Clinton from becoming a “great” president like the Roosevelts, Harry S. Truman or Lyndon B. Johnson.
On the other hand, Maney exposes Clinton’s character flaws, which not only ushered in political scandals and hurt his reputation but also cost him a lot of political capital and temporarily crippled his presidency. It is therefore also partly Clinton’s own fault that he did not turn out as one of America’s “great” presidents. Moreover, Maney acknowledges that income inequality rose during Clinton’s presidency and that Clinton helped prepare the ground for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq when he claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and called for a regime change in the Middle Eastern country.
While Maney’s assessment of Clinton is balanced and will probably find the general approval of most scholars specializing in the most recent political history of the U.S., it still cannot be taken for granted that his largely sympathetic interpretation of Clinton’s presidency will go unchallenged for long in view of last year’s events. Maney admits that it is difficult to come to a conclusive and detached verdict on Clinton, since we are still living in the New Gilded Age and therefore lack the distance to properly historicize Clinton. But the election of Donald Trump might change historians’ view on Clinton earlier than he thought.
It might be suspected that Maney assumed (or hoped) that Hillary Clinton would succeed Barack Obama in the White House, since his book appeared in the year of the presidential race. Had she been elected, the book would most likely have attracted many readers wishing to compare the Clintons’ presidencies or to find out how Bill’s legacy might have shaped Hillary’s policies. However, as – to the consternation of most pundits – Trump won the elections with an anti-globalization platform and the Democrats lost their (white) working-class base, historians – in an effort to explain this political upheaval – might in the future adopt a more critical perspective on the Clinton years focusing on how the negative effects of his deregulatory policies, his support for Wall Street, his uncritical championing of free trade, and his lack of support for America’s manufacturing industry helped create the conditions that allowed Trump to accede to the Presidency this year.
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