National Commentary

Clinton Book Comes Up Short

Former President Bill Clinton’s new book released Tuesday, Back to Work, is partially useful but mostly disappointing.

First, of course, one must navigate away from the highly annoying stupidity of official pundits that filled the news cycle Tuesday with banal comments about whether Obama sees it as threatening, whether Clinton wants a third term and related trash. Such talk always arises because most of the commentators are too dumb to read or understand the book and the merits, or lack, of its information and proposals.

Then, one must hold one’s nose to avoid the highly condescending style of the book, itself, written like most books of this type that come out of the Washington, D.C. culture to come across like a slowly spoken, single-syllable TV commercial for scooters, AARP insurance or reverse mortgages.

Underwhelming for its D.C.-polluted prose style, it lacks any appeal to the spirit, any of the kind of lyric poetic lilt that arouses in the manner of Dr. Martin Luther King and other great leaders. Instead, we are presented with a work that feels like “assisted living,” like having our meatloaf cut into small bite-sized pieces for us.
Rather than his geriatric “baby boomer” classmates, Clinton needs to address fiery, brainy, challenging remarks to the angry new generation that is only just getting started occupying Wall Streets here and abroad.

The political destabilization that is sweeping Europe has to do with one thing: the notion that the stability of financial institutions requires the imposition of crushing austerity on the general public, which is not as clueless and bovine as the bankers would like it to be.

As things get worse there, just wait to see what begins to happen in the U.S. Tuesday’s vote in Ohio, to overturn a state law restricting collective bargaining, is another harbinger of things to come, especially as, in the name of reducing the national debt, real austerity begins pressing down on the U.S. public.

In this context, Clinton is best positioned to be the national prophet of this age.

He’s brilliant, but appears trapped within a political paradigm of his own making. His book is disappointingly listless and smug, nothing much more than a slightly elongated Democratic stump speech. It was the product of a man who was unforgivably an hour and a half late last month to the one top-level Democratic fundraiser for state senate candidates desperate to cling to their slight majority in Virginia.

The deflation his insulting disregard for the attendees caused was palpable. The audience that shelled out big bucks to be there knew Clinton had only to cross the Potomac to appear at his friend Terry McAuliffe’s expansive home. Sad to say, this Tuesday that Democratic edge in Virginia was lost by a margin of less than 100 votes, and the state is now 100 percent in Republican hands.

(In fact, McAuliffe gets it better than Clinton does at this point. McAuliffe now faces the daunting task of carrying the Democratic banner into the 2014 gubernatorial and other statewide races, but at least he been bringing an almost wild, childlike enthusiasm to every political event he attends, unabashedly pronouncing that every elected official present is the “best in history.”)

All this notwithstanding, Clinton’s new book reproduces some salient statistics and graphs on how the U.S. has declined, now being the last among OECD nations in terms of tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product. The U.S. is 24th in quality of its overall infrastructure, the rate of growth of the nation’s poor children is skyrocketing, and the U.S. is 18th, behind most European nations, in high school graduation rates.

Some of his short-term suggestions are good, such as compelling banks to lend and “Build America bonds.”

But his big recovery proposals are sadly constrained. There is no incremental way out of the current mess, especially nothing that natural gas and passive energy models can achieve.

The best experts recognize that only massive measures, huge public works efforts like those of the last Great Depression, and a focus on dense, not diffuse, energy can make the necessary difference. Someone needs to start talking about those.

Bill Clinton has to wake up.