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Reading Bill Clinton

By: Steven F. Hayward
October 2, 2018

midst all the fuss about Bill Clinton’s co-written (with James Patterson) thriller novel and his agonies over having the new liberal standards of the #MeToo movement applied to him, everyone has passed over the short interview he gave to the New York Times about his favorite books. His list sounds like something he ran through a focus group a long time ago, as he did so often when he was president. The neediness of liberals to appear both eclectic and serious never ceases to amaze. Ronald Reagan used to go out of his way to conceal the serious books he was reading as president, and would only cop publicly to reading the latest Louis L’Amour western.

But I take Clinton at his word on most of these, and you can add this to the pile of reasons we’ll never entirely figure out Clinton. Let’s start here:

NY Times: What books over the years have most influenced your thinking? Has a work of literature ever affected your policy positions?

Clinton: These books had a profound impact on my thinking: “The Evolution of Civilizations,” by Carroll Quigley; “Politics as a Vocation,” by Max Weber; “The Denial of Death,” by Ernest Becker; “Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas à Kempis; “Meditations,” by Marcus Aurelius; “The Cure at Troy,” by Seamus Heaney; and “The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman.

I don’t know that any specific book affected my policy positions, but books by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison made me want to do more about civil rights. I read “America: What Went Wrong,” by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, in 1992, and it strengthened my determination to try to reverse trickle-down economics and achieve a fairer and more prosperous economy.

You can almost see the check boxes in Clinton’s mind as he unspools this list and thinks about his claim for connection with each author or author’s ideas. Clinton didn’t know his father, just like Marcus Aurelius! Is The Imitation of Christ meant to be a joke? More fitting for Slick Willie, given his slick willy, would be Augustine’s Confessions, especially Augustine’s famous prayer, “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.” And not much needs to be said about his fondness for the Barlett and Steele book, which was one of the shoddiest and most partisan works on current affairs ever published. (Among other things, income inequality actually widened as much under Clinton as it did during the supposed “decade of greed” under Reagan and Bush.)

But two of Clinton’s titles stand out for a closer look. We know from previous biographies, and a direct shout out from Clinton in his 1992 nomination acceptance speech, that historian Carroll Quigley was one of Clinton’s favorite professors during his undergraduate years at Georgetown in the 1960s. But the book Clinton cites, The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis (published in 1961) is a work one can easily imagine Steve Bannon embracing. Indeed, one of Quigley’s other obscure titles, Tragedy and Hope, is popular among the quack global-banker-conspiracy theorists—an application of his work that Quigley disavowed during his lifetime. (Quigley died in 1977.)

Quigley’s Evolution of Civilizations is a synoptic framework for understanding what he saw were typical cycles of civilizations and culture, emphasizing cultural and technological change. Quigley’s book is intended not as history, but as an exercise in prescriptive historiography. He explicitly disclaims any originality, acknowledging that he builds on Arnold Toynbee and allowing that other historians might come up with equally useful frameworks for historical interpretation. He anticipates some of the themes of civilizational competition determined by technological asymmetries explored in Jared Diamond’s bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel among other more recent works.

But it is no mere reconfiguration of “rise and fall” theories. “I have sought to go beyond the mere recognition of ‘rise and fall’ to seek to find the mechanism of the process,” Quigley wrote. He identified seven stages of civilizations, the key stage being conflict (both internal and/or external), during which a civilization or culture will either renew itself and begin a new phase of expansion, or enter a phase of terminal decay. Yet Quigley’s book, besides being dated in many ways, would be nearly impossible to assign in a college course today, because it would be blasted as “Eurocentric.” The climax of the book is his treatment of Western civilization, which has enjoyed the longest and most successful run of any civilization in human history, and notably having survived and overcome repeated crises and conflicts to renew itself and expand its reach and influence further. Quigley’s analysis makes clear that the reason for the dominance of European civilization for more than a millennium is that it simply outcompeted all rivals both technologically and intellectually. “No culture has ever exceeded Western civilization in power and extent,” Quigley wrote. “Western ideology is optimistic, moderate, hierarchical, democratic, individualistic, yet social, and dynamic.”

There is no triumphalism in Quigley’s treatment of the West, but it is comparable to Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, or several of Rodney Stark’s books such as How the West Won, not to mention Samuel Huntington’s body of work. Even without a pro-Western attitude, though, you’re not allowed to say such things today, unless it is done with the premise that the West’s success was due primarily to oppression and exploitation, and therefore was unjust and irredeemable. Someone might even use the word “deplorable.”

Quigley thought the West had been in “an Age of Conflict” since at least the late 19th century. Past such ages of conflict have experienced a rise in “irrationality,” which manifest themselves in “Religious organizations [that] no longer linked men to God but adopted diverse mundane purposes. Our intellectual theories no longer explained anything or made us at home in the universe. . . Our political organizations increased the burden of their demands on our time, energy, and wealth but provided with growing ineffectiveness the justice, public order, education, protection, or incidental amenities we had come to expect from them.” Does Bill Clinton perceive that cosmopolitan leftism is primarily responsible for this trend?

It is an open question at the end of Quigley’s book whether the West would once again reform and renew itself or whether this time the West would succumb and decay to the point that it is eventually knocked over by a more willful competing civilization. Islam wants to, and China might someday be capable. In the classroom Quigley was apparently more optimistic about America’s chances.  In 1992 Clinton said that As a student at Georgetown  . . . Carroll Quigley . . .  said to us that America was the greatest nation in history because our people had always believed in two things: that tomorrow can be better than today and that every one of us has a personal moral responsibility to make it so.”

But Quigley’s account is notably silent or weak on the importance of formal political and legal institutions and the role of statesmen, seemingly offering little of practical use for an ambitious young pol. Exactly how Quigley’s idiosyncratic teaching filled out Clinton’s political being remains murky. Maybe Quigley was just fun and interesting in the classroom, and had Clinton merely encountered the book instead of the man, nothing would have come of it. Or maybe he just confused Quigley with a lyricist for Fleetwood Mac: Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow.

Which brings us to the second of Clinton’s curious picks:

NY Times: If you had to recommend one book to a student of government, what would it be? 

Clinton: “Politics as a Vocation,” by Max Weber.

It is hard to imagine an analysis of history and politics more starkly different from Quigley than this notable work of Weber.

Let’s start with a minor quibble. “Politics as a Vocation” is not a book. It’s a long lecture Weber gave in January 1919, hard on the armistice of World War I when Germany was in a revolutionary situation, especially in Munich where the lecture was held and where several political assassinations had recently taken place. To be sure, the lecture is nearly 23,000 words long and is often printed in book form along with another famous Weber lecture from the time, “Science as a Vocation,” but it’s not quite a book. And it is a matter of some interest that Weber didn’t want to give this lecture, but did so at the insistence of his students and for some other complicated political reasons.

It is significant that in the very first sentence Weber declares that this lecture “will necessarily disappoint you,” suggesting that he was not going to tell students what to think or what to do, which is what his students wanted from him in that moment of high anxiety. Much of the essay is sobering if not morose. It is relentlessly hostile to the idealistic romanticism of modern politics, and ends with his famous paragraph about how “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” Weber’s lecture would have made a depressing commencement address. 

There is a lot to be said about Weber, who seems ever so slowly to be receding from the pre-eminence he once held as a first-rank thinker of modernity. Despite his often turgid writing, I have always found Weber to be interesting and worthy of study for his honesty and openness that you don’t find in very many thinkers aligned on the left, and also for his defects. He was an atheist who nonetheless had great respect for religion and religious people; he was sympathetic to socialism but he knew that socialism was probably unworkable in practice, for reasons that anticipate some of Hayek’s later critique about the “fatal conceit” of perfect synoptic knowledge; he was a key figure in developing social science methodology but was uneasy about the fact-value distinction that arose from it; he was a theorist of why bureaucratic government was essential and necessary for modern government, but at the same time he acknowledged that it was really going to suck. (Those weren’t his literal words.) At some level Weber was genuinely concerned that replacing the statesman with the bureaucrat, and replacing ambition with “science,” wouldn’t work out very well, and this concern is the subject of both “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation.”

I am curious to know what Clinton takes away from Weber’s famous but little-read lecture, because I assign “Politics as a Vocation” to students in my course on statesmanship. When read and discussed patiently there are profound insights to be gleaned from Weber’s confrontation with the fundamental dilemmas of political life. Yet I never ask students to read the entire lecture because it is disjointed. The first two-thirds are a dry and ponderous treatment of party and organizational forms of modern government, an effective substitute if you are out of sleeping pills (or copies of old Clinton State of the Union speeches). It is in this opening section, however, that Weber discusses the possibility of “charismatic leadership” as a legitimate basis for political life, and it is possible to see Clinton grabbing on to this well-known Weberian theme. Otherwise there is little to recommend in this forgettable bulk of the lecture.

“Politics as a Vocation” takes a sudden and dramatic turn in its last third, however, adopting a more personal tone that is moving and poignant in places, especially if the full context of the lecture is known. It is almost is if Weber wanted to reserve his most serious and important thoughts for the smaller number of students and readers with the fortitude and seriousness to stick it out. Weber understands “vocation” not as a profession or specialty, but in the biblical sense of a “calling” by God. Only certain kinds of human beings are suited for putting “his hand on the wheel of history.”  Yet he understands crucially the limits of politics. “He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics.” Good counsel, that, though one wonders whether Bill ever suggested the essay to Hillary Clinton before or after her infamous and grandiose “Politics of Meaning” speech in back in 1993.

With his students whipsawed between the extremes of Christian pacifism on one side and revolutionary Communism on the other, Weber confronts the ethical dilemmas of politics and the nature of individual political commitment. Weber lays out a treatment of what he called “the ethic of responsibility” and the “ethic of ultimate ends.” The former operates in the familiar mode of practical compromise, but at the sacrifice of principle and idealism that Weber acknowledges is necessary for the forward movement of the human story. The latter too easily lapses into the mentality of “the ends justify the means,” and anyone who does not recognize that such a commitment means contracting with “diabolical forces” often leading to extreme violence and counterproductive reaction is “a political infant.”

While Weber admits that his two “ethics” are not absolute contrasts but supplements to the genuinely political person, he declares that he is unable to provide any guidance or rules as to when someone should follow the one or the other. Here Weber comes close to describing what an older political thinker—Aristotle comes to mind—would call the quality of “prudence,” which is the art of the statesman. But in his inability to derive any rational ends of human society, Weber cannot embrace prudence as an intelligible idea, nor a statesman as a real specimen of political being, even if he does think political life is not something for the romantic dilettante.

Weber’s setup might lead you to think he tilts at least implicitly toward the “ethic of responsibility,” but he is unable to do so because of his fundamental premise that violence—and the State’s legitimate monopoly on violence—is the decisive means of politics. He is too much of a Machiavellian to think this effectual truth can be avoided, but he is also unable to escape the undertow of Nietzsche and argue that reason can find answers to these dilemmas in real time. The best Weber can offer is that a serious political person must combine “passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.” An older political science might call this “prudence,” but Weber was unable to escape the positivist chains of modernity to recommend Aristotle or Burke. He gives no guidance on how an aspiring political leader would acquire or balance these traits.

Thus for all of its deep interest and occasional glimpses at the profound problems of political life, “Politics as a Vocation” leaves us at a dead end—sort of like the Clinton presidency and Clinton himself. Probably, though, Clinton’s fondness for the lecture derives not from any subtleties and depths of Weber’s rich discussion, but from the final two sentences, which offer what sounds like a comforting justification for the stubborn ruin of Clinton’s life and reputation: “Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.”