Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2001 / 23 Teves, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- EVERY ASSESSMENT of Bill Clinton's presidency eventually boils down to two words: If only.
If only he had kept it zipped.
But he didn't. The amazing, incomprehensible thing about Clinton is that he made so little use of his glittering personal gifts -- his brains, his charm, his empathy, his natural talent for plumbing people's yearnings and appealing directly to their desires. For all his success in the world's most famous office, he forever will be measured against what he could have been -- and as a result, he departs the scene a man of high entertainment value but modest accomplishment.
Clinton himself is largely responsible for this harsh judgment. He loved (and loves) to describe himself as much more than a mortal -- something just one click short of a messiah. He has likened his political trials to the ordeals of Biblical prophets. He has equated his impeachment to the sufferings of blacks under Jim Crow laws. He has quoted and misquoted the psalmist about everything from Monica Lewinsky to the Oklahoma City bombing.
He has called himself the most embattled president, the most expert in agriculture, the most faithful to his election-year promises, and so on -- giving the impression that none who occupied the office before him quite stack up: None had to move from a hovel in Hope to a mansion on Pennsylvania Ave. None had to hard-scrabble their way to Georgetown, Yale, Oxford -- and Washington.
Yet when it came to staking a claim among the greats -- Washington, Lincoln and the Roosevelts -- The Man from Hope never stood a chance. The brass ring of eternal glory eluded him for the simple reason that he governed in good and relatively easy times. Just as suffering serves as an entrance requirement for poets and saints, bad times and near-death crises summon the qualities that transform men into shapers of history.
In eight years, Bill Clinton didn't have to deal with any major crisis not of his own making, and only once did he take a political risk of any consequence. That gamble -- his health-care plan -- proved ruinous: He became the only Democrat in the 20th Century to lose control of Congress for more than two years.
It is almost impossible to produce an objective scorecard for Clinton because with him, virtue and vice mingle and meld like pigments in a pot. Nothing comes out neat and pure.
The most obvious example of his mixed record comes from public opinion surveys. If you ask Americans how well he has served in office, two thirds give him a positive rating. If, on the other hand, you ask whether he's an appropriate role model for kids, as few as 10 percent give him the nod.
These two poles -- administrative prowess; personal cupidity -- provide a convenient tool for dissecting the presidency. So let's begin a review by looking at the good news from the Age of Clinton.
The most obvious is that the economy took off, and the United States reasserted its commercial preeminence.
When Clinton first took the oath of office, unemployment nationally stood at 7.3 percent. The rate has dropped since to 4.0 percent. More men, women and teens are working than ever.
The stock markets have boomed as well: The Dow Jones Industrial Index stood at 3754 at the end of his first year in office; it had more than tripled by last spring before sliding to a still impressive 10,787 by years end. Ditto for NASDAQ, which jumped from 777 at the end of 1993 to 2471 last year. The federal budget picture has changed dramatically: a $258 billion deficit has become a $237 billion surplus.
Clinton acolytes trace the boom to a 1993 tax increase, perhaps the largest in our nation's history. They say the hike helped boost federal revenue, tame deficits and establish the foundation for prudent economic management.
But the facts don't support the boast. The first two years of the Clinton era were a bust because the tax hike took the steam out of a nascent recovery. Household incomes fell. The poverty rate held steady. Both stock markets lost value between the 1992 and 1994 elections. Not even Clinton expected prosperity: His budgets projected gigantic deficits well into the 21st Century.
The new gold rush began only after Republicans, in a landslide that surprised even them, seized control of the House and Senate in 1995. Of course, the GOP can't take credit for the prosperity; workers deserve that. But GOP opposition forced Clinton to turn his New Democratic rhetoric into a new political reality. Ironically, Newt Gingrich made Bill Clinton all he could be.
A quick comparison tells the tale: During the last year of Democratic congressional control, the Dow rose only 80 points and NASDAQ fell 25. In the first year of GOP dominance, the Dow leaped 1,283 points and NASDAQ rose 300.
Despite the tide of savings and investment, however, taxes and government spending also rose rapidly. As a result, many one-earner households became two-earner homes: Families needed more money to make ends meet.
Still, the economy grew for six years -- albeit at a considerably slower pace than during the Reagan recovery. Investors poured into the marketplace; more than 52 percent of all Americans have money in stocks or bonds.
The surge in fortunes created a giddy atmosphere on Wall Street. A year ago, some forecasters even talked about taming the business cycle. But then two things happened: It became obvious that a lot of dot-com companies were more adept at churning out press releases than turning profits and the Clinton administration won a series of rulings in the Microsoft case.
The bubble popped. NASDAQ, the new-economy index, lost more than half its wealth in eight months; the Dow surrendered 20 percent of its gains. Together, the two markets lost nearly $2 trillion -- more than the entire federal budget.
Now, as jitters are mounting, Clinton is making life even tougher for George W. Bush. Since election day, he has embarked on an economic up-yours tour. He has heaped nearly 30,000 new pages of regulations onto the books -- a record. He has tried to enact a Kyoto environmental protocol that the Senate refused to ratify and most economists warn will set off a serious economic slump. He has signed executive orders designating as monuments millions of acres of federal land. Not surprisingly, consumer confidence has begun to fall after hitting an all-time high last ay. Bullish investors are turning cautious and Alan Greenspan is fretting about a crippling case of deflation.
The trade picture is mixed as well. The president, with full support from Republican leaders, pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Yet soon after helping craft a new global trading order, he tried to appease political allies by larding agreements with environmental and labor requirements that discouraged the free trade he championed. His duplicity pleased nobody, and as a result, he leaves office without the fast track trade authority -- essentially, the power to cut trade deals without Congressional second-guessing. No other postwar president has been so constrained.
This pretty much exhausts the list of Clinton social and economic initiatives. His other accomplishments owe much to Republican prodding -- and his own instinct for political survival. Consider welfare reform, which he cites as a defining achievement. Clinton vetoed welfare reform not once, but three times before signing a law. He capitulated to a Republican Congress only after pollster Dick Morris advised him that he would lose the 1996 election if he didn't get on the bandwagon.
But the president is right about one thing: The initiative is a spectacular success. Sages and lawmakers wrongly predicted the reforms detonate an explosion of poverty and dependency. Instead, as the federal government has extracted itself from the public-assistance business, welfare roles have shrunk 60 percent.
Other social indicators have moved in a positive direction. Crime rates also have slackened, and Clinton leaves office boasting of the longest sustained drop in lawlessness ever. Yet, as with the economy, the big changes took place after he lost control of Congress. The violent crime indexes for men and women actually rose during his first two years in office. The juvenile crime index hit an all-time high in 1996 and still exceeds the 1993 rate. The overall crime rate rose continuously until 1998, when it finally began to abate. And drug use skyrocketed during most of the Age of Clinton.
Other good news: Marriage rates are up; divorce rates down -- although, in one of those delicious anomalies, federal statistics show 7 million more married women than men.
Teen pregnancy rates continue a slide that began in 1991. Ditto for abortion.
On the educational front, SAT scores have stopped falling, but only after the test itself was dumbed down. Elementary and secondary-school competency tests have remained flat for nearly a decade.
As for the environment, our air and water continue getting cleaner; our automobiles, too -- continuing trends that began during the Nixon years.
Overall, then, we're relatively prosperous and happy -- and the president gets credit in the polls. But when you ask what Bill Clinton actually had to do with all the good things we see, it's hard to find answers. That's because the ClintonCare fiasco persuaded the president to avoid big ideas and devote himself instead to small gestures -- school uniforms, new school roofs, unfunded promises of more teachers and police.
Clinton deliberately dodged chances to show decisive leadership -- especially in dealing with the looming collapses of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. When Republicans proposed a way to shore up Medicare in 1994, for instance, he leaped at the opportunity -- not to cut a deal, but to slay Newt Gingrich.
He ordered a government shut-down over the matter, and pointed accusing fingers at bewildered Republicans, who were unprepared for such brinkmanship. A year later, he signed Medicare legislation that was stingier than the Gingrich plan.
Similarly, his promises to put Social Security first have gone exactly nowhere. He leaves office without having done a thing to transform our retirement system from a shell game into a stable and reliable fund for post-employment income.
The 1994 election clearly scared Bill Clinton away from throwing any long balls on domestic policy. From then on, he dared to be bold only in the area of foreign policy.
He didn't get off to a propitious start, of course. After blasting George Bush's Haiti policy in 1992, he promptly emulated the part he criticized -- returning the boat people. Then, he went a step further, dispatching troops to the country -- transforming soldiers into cops. That established a pattern that would recur repeatedly throughout his tenure as commander in chief. He dispatched "peacekeepers" to Somalia, where a mob dragged an American GIs body through the streets. He sent them on more than 140 separate deployments, more than any president in American history, and more than eight times as many as Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush ordered up between 1980 and 1990.
At the same time, he began taking big hacks at the military budget. In the last decade, the number of army divisions has dropped to 10 from 18; fighter wings down to 13 from 24; Navy ships down to 316 from 546. More than 5,000 military families use food stamps -- and even more are eligible.
Morale has hit new lows. The president has shortchanged his troops on the basics: The Army and Marines don't have enough ammunition to conduct basic exercises. Our equipment is becoming antediluvian. Check out the average age of some key equipment: Navy aircraft, 17 years; Marine tanker, 25 years; Marine transport helicopter, 24 years, air force bomber, 23 years; Air Force helicopter, 19 years. Each of the service branches has been forced to cannibalize equipment just to provide the spare parts to keep the rest of the fleet going.
The United States now spends a smaller portion of its budget on defense than at any time since World War II -- at the same time the president has transformed the military into a global version of the Keystone Kops.
Worse, the deployments haven't achieved much. Haiti remains unstable. Rwanda remains a mess. Somalia is as anarchic as it was in 1993. Bosnia enjoys an uneasy peace; Kosovo could burst back into flame at any moment.
Meanwhile, Clinton has used the service branches as laboratories for social experimentation. The don't-ask, don't-tell policy was inspired by political, not strategic, considerations. The same goes for edicts requiring separate physical standards for men and women, the feminization of combat-support units, and the decision to sue the Virginia Military Institute. Perhaps he figured that the military could become a showcase for political correctness, just as it had for racial integration.
And while he was beggaring the military, he was setting a record for globe-trotting. He traveled in the style of a pasha, rolling up $100 million tabs for tourist trips to China and Africa. He traveled to Ireland last year mainly to hear the sound of hands clapping.
At times, his narcissism reached mythic proportions -- such as the time he announced that although he and the pope disagreed on abortion, they might be prepared to develop a compromise, or the report last year that his aides contacted a Norwegian public-relations firm in hopes of boosting Clinton's chances for receiving a Nobel Peace Prize.
But a peacemaker is supposed to make peace. Unfortuantely, an "historic" accord in Northern Ireland dissolved like cotton candy. East Timor was a passing fancy. A scheme to normalize relations with Cuba fizzled after the Coast Guard picked up Elian Gonzales. And this year, the president's effort to rush through a Middle East deal destroyed the political career of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and nudged Palestinians and Israelis toward new hostilities.
This record explains why many pundits, including me, have described this as a trackless presidency, full of sound and fury. But there's more, of course: No analysis of Bill Clinton would be complete without some mention of Character.
Our outgoing president strolled into our lives eight years ago, promising to organize the Most Ethical Administration in the History of the Republic. He produced the most indicted.
He vowed to fight for those who "work hard and play by the rules" -- and then broke the rules himself with glee.
No man in his place has ever worked so hard to create a fantasy world, complete with its own unique language -- one in which words are as malleable as silly putty. In ClintonSpeak, federal spending is "investment." Taxes are
"spending." Any given sentence might include a Clinton clause, a linguistic escape hatch. Here are some examples of the art:
In response to questions about marijuana use: "I never violated the laws of my country" -- and "I didn't inhale."
"I never had sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." (This is based on the peculiar notion that she can have sex with him while he is not having sex with her.)
"It depends on what the meaning of the word is, is."
He promised to "mend not end" affirmative action, but instead created a flaccid commission on race relations. In the end, the president with the glorious ability to reach out to minority audiences decided to race as a wedge between parties. He helped Al Gore ring up 92 percent of the black vote -- but at the expense of worsened race relations.
Think back: Every memorable Clinton quote is a lie. He lied about his marriage, his finances, his political record. He fabricated tales about his own life and times -- such as his "vivid and painful memories" of Arkansas church burnings (there were none). He told students at Drake University, "Since I was a little boy, I've heard about the Iowa caucuses" -- which didn't attract national attention until 1972.
He lied so often, with such facility and zest that pundits used a term that previously had seemed too impolite to use against a president: "liar." Smitten reporters applied a new label to his fibs. They called it "spin."
Clinton also did something that was too Nixonian even for Nixon. He hired private detectives to intimidate potentially damaging witnesses. He sicced them after Paula Jones and Willey. He benefited from personal assaults on Kenneth Starr, Henry Hyde and Newt Gingrich.
But then, he needed such help because he had more dirty linens than Sing Sing. Juanita Broaddrick says he raped her more than 20 years ago. He has never refuted the charge. He had a long string of dalliances, most of which he denied as fervently as he denied frolicking with Monica. His finances stank. His political deals stank. And his old gubernatorial records mysteriously disappeared.
As people learned during impeachment, there are two words Bill Clinton never says: I'm sorry. He didn't apologize to Billy Dale and other members of the White House Travel Office for firing them and subjecting them to a baseless FBI probe. He didn't apologize to the telephone operators and civil servants he cashiered in order to turn White House service jobs into political appointments. He didn't apologize to cabinet members he used as human shields during L'Affair Lewinsky. And he has yet to apologize to the American people for mocking the values they try to pass on to their children.
Instead, Clinton treats his misdeeds as political challenges. When Dick Morris told him shortly after the Lewinsky story broke that the public would demand his resignation if he were guilty of the reported crimes, Clinton replied, "Well, we'll just have to win, then."
So, as always, he embarked upon a four-point strategy for fighting back: 1) Deny the allegation, 2) Produce "exculpatory" witnesses or documents; 3) Attack the accuser and 4) Change the subject.
This "innovative" approach poisoned American politics and cost Al Gore the White House. So did patent abuses of power -- such as the bombing of a Sudanese aspirin factory and Afghan "terrorist" sites on the day of Monica Lewinsky's grand-jury testimony.
Even now, in the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton can't stop making a spectacle of himself. He preemptively has violated the tradition that retiring presidents refrain from criticizing their successors. He has embarked on a tour designed mainly to exalt himself.
But then, that's what this presidency has been about: Himself. Watch him bite his lip. Watch him laugh too hard. Watch him play the sax. Watch him hug a kid. Watch him beat a tom-tom and smoke a cigar.
It was mostly for show. As a candidate, he never missed an opportunity to visit a disaster site -- but he hasn't taken any such trips since election day. His final days have been devoted to poisoning the well for George W. Bush and organizing tributes to himself.
The act may have fooled the press, but not the public. People know that Clinton's success has cost Democrats dearly. He entered office with a 78-seat advantage in the House and a 12-seat margin in the Senate. He leaves with a nine-seat shortfall in the House and an evenly divided Senate. When he was first elected, Democrats controlled 28 governorships; they now hold 18. During the Age of Clinton, Republicans have picked up 3,539 legislative seats nationwide; ten State houses, ten state senates. Eight years ago, Republicans controlled the House and Senate in three states; today, they do so in 19. An eye-popping 481 elected Democrats have switched party affiliations to the GOP.
As the late James McDougall remarked, Bill Clinton moves like a tornado through people's lives. Having turned American politics into a twisted trailer park, our 42nd president won't go quietly. Exhibitionists never go away; they just find new places to show themselves.
Yet, not even Bill Clinton can change the one iron fact of political life -- that in Washington, you can't take friendship personally. Democrats loved Clinton not for his soul, but for his title. Now, he must go -- and as in the coming months, as he sits alone in his study, he will get a chance to think soberly not only about his place in history, but his place in society.
Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter proved one can create a new life after the presidency. Let's
hope Bill Clinton's next life is worthy of his astounding, G-d-given