Hoisted from the Archives: What Was the Point of Robert Woodward's "The Agenda"?

What the Washington Post's headline writers thought that Bob Woodward's The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House was about back in 1994:

Clinton Felt Blindsided Over Slashed Initiatives; 'We're Losing Our Soul' in Cutting Deficit. President and the Fed Forge New Relationship; Greenspan's Economics Lesson Etches Deep Impression in the Clinton Plan. Memo From Consultants Rattles the White House; 'Turkey' of a[n Economic Deficit-Reduction] Plan Still Needed Selling. A War Among Advisers For the President's Soul; Decision-Making, Clarity of Vision Suffer

According to the Washington Post's headline writers (and according to pretty damn near everybody else who read The Agenda that I have talked to), Woodward's book tells the story of a president who (a) feels "blindsided" by their actions, (b) feels that the policies his administration is adopting means that he is losing his soul, (c) finds that the Republican Federal Reserve Chair's views are etching a deep impression on policy, (d) finds himself stuck with a "turkey" of an economic plan, (e) has advisors who fight fiercely in order to (f) control a wishy-washy president, and as a result (g) decision-making suffers and (h) clarity of vision is lost.

Now I was there.

(a) is simply wrong. (b) is sorta true, sorta false--Clinton was conflicted. (c) is true. (d) is false--it was a damned good economic plan. (e) is true. But (f) is false: wrestling intently and intelligently with hard choices does not make you the puppet of your advisors. (g) is wrong: the process produced a very good outcome. And (h) is wrong too.

I want to set this out because in comments we have Bob Woodward claiming that his book was about... something else than the Washington Post headline writers who got the first excerpts from it and published them thought it was about:

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?: Why can't we have better economists and better old-time bipartisan hands? That is my question to you guys. You are so loose with information.

First, I never said we knew less than 5 percent; I quoted Al Gore saying we only knew 1 percent. I never said I missed the big economic story. The Agenda came out in 1994, and it was impossible to assess the impact of Clinton's economic plan. Go read the epilogue (pages 321 to 343) that reports on a range of views (I never reach a conclusion, as you would know if you read what is in the book). Bob Rubin is reported to have told Clinton: "We've created a solid foundation with the deficit reduction and commitment to new investments." But he said the best answer to the question of how the economy would fare by 1996 was, "Who the hell knows?" Good answer.

Bentsen told the president "that is would take time for him to reap the rewards from his economic plan."

George Stephanopoulos "felt they were on the right track, and so far, Clinton had more than his part."

There is no way to read that epilogue or anything in the book and say I reached conclusions. Did not happen. In media promotion for the book, I did say that the process was "chaos," but I always said we do not know how it might work. (The chaos comment is easy to remember, but the measured truth that we just don't know is not as memorable. Rubin had it right.)

The old-hand says I am guilty of "disregarding results and outcomes." This is comic. In 1994 it was impossible to know. I cite Rubin again.

This old-hand likewise says that I "mistakenly concluded Bush and his aides were first-rate policy makers." Read the books. Never happened.

Brad, you better find an old-hand who can read.

I have said repeatedly that the Clinton economic plan turned out exceptionally well, probably better than anyone expected. I have even said it is the crown-jewel of the Clinton presidency. But no one could tell in 1994. You can't put in a book what has not yet happened.

#hoistedfromthearchives #publicsphere

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