There's been much talk lately about whether Bill Clinton is staging public outbursts for maximum media effect. (See Ben Smith's excellent piece on Bill's role.) One thing we know is that while in the past Clinton has generally suppressed his temper in the public eye, this side of the man hardly surprises who know him well. For instance, a check of former Washington Post reporter John Harris's excellent account of the Clinton years, The Survivor, yields an almost comical thirteen index entries under "Clinton, Bill: angry outbursts of."
Some are trivial, as when Clinton so harshly berates two White House underlings that his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles later tells him, "If you ever do that again, I'll leave." Others are more substantive. At Camp David in 2000, one particularly intransigent Palestinian negotiator causes a red-faced Clinton to shout that his time is being wasted with an "outrageous approach," and then storm out of the room.
Strikingly, Bill even blamed uncontrollable anger for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Harris writes of one cabinet meeting in the summer of 1998, soon after Bill confessed the affair in a national address (a speech itself memorable for its famously fiery tone). In it, Clinton
offered his explanation to the essential mystery of the Lewinsky saga: How could he have done something so self-destructive? The answer, he said, was that he had been a deeply angry man for much of his presidency. Frustration at his opponents, rage at [Kenneth] Starr, had thrown off the internal balance that people need to be successful in both their private and public lives. He had long wrestled with personal demons. In his emotional and vulnerable state, those demons had gained the upper hand.
Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the way even those closest to Clinton still debate how uncontrollable that anger really is. Clinton's Middle East negotiator, Dennis Ross, told Harris that the president's fury "was always genuine, not done for effect."
But former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who as Harris notes has long known Clinton "intimately," put it quite differently:
"[H]e used anger in a very calculated way," Berger said.
Harris reports, you decide.