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Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2000 / 23 Teves, 5761

Roger Simon

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Love or hate him, Clinton was perfectly in touch with the temperament of his times -- IT SEEMS to be the time that everybody is making a last assessment of Bill Clinton. So here's mine:

He has always known when to confess and when to keep silent, when to bare his soul and when to hide the truth.

Perfectly in touch with the temperament of his times, President Clinton has always known not only what his fellow citizens would admire but also how much they would tolerate.

His career rarely has been free of accusations of sexual misconduct, but through a combination of public confession, obfuscation and denial, he has managed to emerge as the dominant figure in American political life -- so dominant that there is barely anyone in second place.


"People are pragmatic, not idealistic," former White House spokesman Mike McCurry told me.

"Our judgment of what is exemplary has changed. People want someone who will get the job done. They want someone who will protect a strong economy and a strong country."

From the very first decades of the American republic, presidents have struggled with a dual role -- to be a moral exemplar who stands above ordinary citizens and to be a man of the people.

Few presidents have done a better job in the latter role than Bill Clinton. In the eldest bracket of the Baby Boomers, he came of age in an era when the birth control pill was readily available but AIDS was not even on the horizon and entered middle age in an era when the most popular sitcom on television, "Seinfeld," featured overtly sexual jokes week after week.

It wasn't just new standards of sexual tolerance and openness that Clinton grasped and benefited from. He also understood that as boomers aged and started families, they wanted safer streets and better schools for their kids, better health care for themselves, and someone to make sure Social Security would still be there when they were old enough to collect it.

"He has turned the country around economically and socially," former senior White House aide Doug Sosnik said. "He was the only person on the political scene who was defining in positive, future-oriented terms where he wanted to lead the country. The Republicans were not even close. They were not even on the field when it came to ideas."

But what about the traditional role of president as moral exemplar? What happened to that?

Gil Troy, an American who heads the history department at Montreal's McGill University, thinks Clinton has brought about an amazing change in American history. For the first time, citizens seem to have said a president can descend from the moral pedestal as long as he gets the job of the presidency done.

"Clinton is silent on the issue," Troy said, "but his supporters say the presidency is not about values, it is about policy. They are saying: 'Yes, he's a sleazebag, but he works for us. We can separate public life and private life. And the presidency is not really about character.'"

While first running for president in February 1992, Clinton said, "If the standard is perfection, I can't meet it."

Nor, his opponents would argue, has he come particularly close or tried particularly hard. "In the 19th Century, the presidency was all about character because that is the role presidents played. They weren't activists," Troy said. "This changed with Teddy Roosevelt. He became an activist president as well as moral exemplar."

Clinton's defenders argue that no president in the modern age can be viewed as a moral example and that all presidents, eventually, will be shown to have character flaws.

"It has been a result of TV," McCurry said, "which brings you people, warts and all. The president is now in your living room. Sports heroes used to be larger than life, but in the TV era they have been reduced to human beings. Everyone is stripped down to their skivvies pretty quickly these days."

But not all of Clinton's advisers believe he or the nation came through these tumultuous years unscathed.

"This has been damaging to the president and to the presidency," a close outside adviser said. "The country won't founder; the republic will survive, but the institution of the president has been hurt by this."

"No matter what you read," Clinton once told a crowd during the darkest days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "every day has been a joy for me."

And that, at least, was probably the truth.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate