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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Rages, scandal, chaos — it’s a normal White House

Bill Clinton, in the first year of his presidency, huddles with Senator Orrin Hatch, left, and Senator Edward Kennedy, after the swearing-in of Attorney General Janet Reno at the White House, March 12, 1993. Barry Thumma/AP File Photo

“Once Trump came into the Oval Office with a newspaper folded into quarters showing some story based on a leak from the White House. ‘What the (expletive) is this?’ Trump had shouted. Presidential flareups were common enough, but Trump often would not let an incident go, roaring on for too long before calming down.’’

“The White House problems . . . were organization and discipline. The staff was too often like a soccer league of 10-year-olds.”

You are probably thinking that you have read more than enough about Michael Wolff’s explosive bestselling book “Fire and Fury,” the core thesis of which (that President Trump is a retarded man-child) received fresh support last week from the president’s own potty-mouth and Twitter feed.


In fact, those quotations are taken from another book about another president’s first year in office — “The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House,” which Bob Woodward published in 1993. I just changed the president’s surname.

A recurrent theme of “The Agenda” is Bill Clinton’s explosively bad temper. His press spokesman George Stephanopoulos told Woodward that “he had seen and experienced Clinton’s temper tantrums . . . many times. . . . Others called them ‘purple fits’ or ‘earthquakes.’ Stephanopoulos simply called it ‘the wave,’ an overpowering, prolonged rage that would shock an outsider.”

We know from Wolff that Trump is also capable of “rages.” “Typically these would begin as a kind of exaggeration or acting and then devolve into the real thing: uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly-face, tantrum stuff.” This, writes Wolff, was Trump’s “fundamental innovation in governing: regular, uncontrolled bursts of anger and spleen.” Nope. Twitter just hadn’t been invented in 1992, so Clinton’s outbursts were confined to his inner circle.

My point is not that Clinton is like Trump, of course. My point is that the presidency will infuriate even the best of men. Yet each presidential biographer makes the mistake of presenting irascibility as a significant character trait of his subject, rather than appreciating that it’s structural: The job is inherently maddening.


So let’s leave aside personality for a moment and consider a structural interpretation of the past 12 months, focusing on characteristics that most presidencies have in the first year: The White House operates much like a royal court in the time of Shakespeare — an analogy suggested to Wolff by Steve Bannon, but not a new one. The president is the focal point; access to him is power. In his first 12 months, however, he is a powerful novice. Those he appoints to key positions are also often new to government, even if they are experienced campaigners. The other branches of government — Congress, the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve — operate according to different rules. The president needs to work with them, or at least to avoid their opposition. But to do that he needs experienced insiders, not his campaign sidekicks.

Meanwhile, the press exists in a symbiotic relationship with the government, needing the news it generates, communicating its actions to the voters who elected it, but also seeking to shape those actions by the stories it publishes.

Irrespective of the president’s personality, the Clinton and Trump administrations had the following five traits in common during Year One:

• a painful transition in personnel from campaign people to Beltway operators;

• because of poor cooperation with Congress, failure over health care reform, and narrowly won success over taxation (hikes for Clinton, cuts for Trump);


• a fixation on a particular financial market as a metric of success (the bond market for Clinton, the stock market for Trump);

• an excessive involvement of family members in policy-making (Hillary/“Javanka”);

• lousy press coverage.

Wolff could have made the events narrated by Woodward sound so much worse — not only did the first lady play an absurdly large role in formulating health care policy, Clinton even put his relatives in charge of the White House travel office; Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel and an intimate friend of the Clintons, shot himself dead in a Virginia park six months after the inauguration. Now that’s what I call fire and fury.

Still to come in Clinton’s case were David Hale’s revelations about Whitewater, and the allegations about the president’s liaisons with Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers, and Juanita Broaddrick. Still to come was the Chinese attempt to meddle in US elections (the Russians have since taken over that role).

I know what you’re thinking. Trump is crass. Clinton is charming. Trump doesn’t read. Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar. Trump is a racist. Clinton’s best buddy was Vernon Jordan, a former civil rights lawyer. All true. But does any of that really matter in terms of historical outcomes?

How, after all, did the Clinton era unfold after its first, chaotic year? The president’s party lost control of the House of Representatives in Year Two. He nevertheless got reelected, but — as scandal after scandal surfaced — the other side impeached him, though somehow he survived and, with the economy booming, even saw his approval rating rise.


I cannot guarantee that Trump’s fate will be identical to Clinton’s. But what makes you so sure it won’t be the same old Shakespearean drama — just with a different cast?

Niall Ferguson’s latest book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook” will be published on Tuesday by Penguin Press.