BOOK REVIEW / All aboard the President's sinking ship: The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House - Bob Woodward: Simon and Schuster, New York, dollars 24.00

Click to follow
IF YOU still believe that economic policy-making is an arid exercise involving numbers of dubious validity, this is the book to change your mind. Or then again, perhaps it isn't. For what is truly stomach-churning in Bob Woodward's account of the great American budget battle of 1993 is not the combat between deficit hawks and investment doves. It is the modus operandi of the Clinton White House.

Bill Clinton the populist won in November 1992 by promising to revive the US economy with middle-class tax cuts and public investment programmes, paid for by soak-the-rich tax increases. What America got was a five- year package cutting the deficit by dollars 500bn, with nary a tax cut in sight. In between were nine months of chaos - the topic of this first in-depth look at America's first baby- boomer administration.

Like him or loathe him, Bill Clinton is beyond question a fascinating figure, as complex, gifted and flawed as Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. A wonderful mind, huge energy and a honeyed verbal fluency are among his strengths. Organisation, self- discipline and decisiveness are not. Less widely known is the positively volcanic temper of the 42nd President. Blend these ingredients, stir in a certain naivete about the ways of Washington, and you get the wildest White House in decades.

The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House is the latest venture in instant history by Mr Woodward, Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame and now the paper's assistant managing editor. His formula is familiar: undistinguished prose but a riveting inside story, based on a remarkable ability to wheedle high officials to tell all. This time he has apparently talked to 250 people, unidentified but clearly including the President, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, half the Cabinet and most White House staff.

The result is a film in words. The screen is narrow: Bosnia, Somalia, Whitewater, Boris Yeltsin and Paula Jones go virtually unmentioned. But The Perils of Pauline have nothing on the adventures of the economic package, passed by one- and two-vote margins known now as 'Clinton landslides'.

The Woodward technique is to reconstruct events, putting words in mouths and thoughts in minds. For David Gergen, the old Republican hand brought on board in June 1993 to repair a sinking White House ship, there was the queasy realisation that the vessel had three separate centres of power: Clinton, his wife and Vice President Al Gore. Mark Gearan, who became Communications Director at the same time, felt the staff was 'like a soccer league of 10-year-olds, everyone chasing the ball'.

The supporting cast largely conforms to its public image. Hillary is tougher and more liberal than her husband, acting often as his chief of staff. Gore is wooden and worthy, but on occasion tells his boss to make up his mind. The real chief of staff, Mack McLarty, seems a country hick, deemed by Senate Finance Committee chairman Pat Moynihan to still 'be running the Little Rock Ford dealership, trying to make a sale by throwing in free floormats'.

Most alarming is the influence of Messrs Carville, Begala, Greenberg and Grunwald, the strategists who helped Clinton win in 1992. They tried to keep Clinton on the populist straight and narrow. The administration seems nothing so much as government by opinion poll, an unending election campaign.

George Stephanopoulos, the aide perhaps closer to Clinton than anyone save Hillary, confides that all that matters is securing re-election in 1996, 'a one-term presidency is automatically considered a failure'. A second-term Clinton, freed of that obsession, is a tantalising prospect. But if antics like these continue, the prospect looks unlikely.