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Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2001 / 23 Teves 5761

Philip Terzian

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Clinton knows history's verdict -- BILL CLINTON'S SEARCH for a legacy -- a literal, not figurative, quest -- continued until the final week of his presidency. He flew around the country extolling the virtues of his tenure while deriding the credentials of his successor, George W. Bush. His frantic efforts to achieve some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East were doomed by his lame-duck status. In the end, he settled on executive orders to preserve certain federal lands in the West from development -- orders which, of course, will endure as long as President Bush and Congress decides they will endure.

To some degree, Mr. Clinton's public search for a tangible legacy at this late date is an acknowledgment of failure. And this gifted politician, who remains popular with voters, suspects what the verdict of history might be. At the moment, the conventional wisdom is not generous: Clinton is a man of exceptional skill who squandered his talents, and whose personal weaknesses undermined the efforts of his well-intentioned allies. It is startling to note that this is not the reasoning of his enemies, but his friends and associates! His presidency was a series of mortifying firsts: First president since Andrew Johnson to endure an impeachment trial; first president to order missile attacks on a foreign nation to distract attention from his domestic troubles; first president to be credibly accused of rape; and so on.

But the verdict of history is not always consistent with the judgment of journalism. Harry Truman, who is now widely admired, was reviled when he left Washington in 1953. The shadow of John Kennedy's manner of death is now lifting to reveal a less-than-stellar presidency. Dwight Eisenhower's reputation is much healthier among historians today than it wa 40 years ago. The same process that separates the pertinent from the trivial, the enduring from the ephemeral, may work to Bill Clinton's advantage in the long run.

Then again, it may not. No one disputes that Clinton, as a politician, has been extraordinarily deft and personally charming; but to what end? Franklin Roosevelt was charm personified, and accused of being a slippery politician * as, indeed, he was. But FDR's skills were put to the test on matters of principle, and at some personal cost.

Clinton has not hesitated to use the presidency as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement, and he always enjoyed tactical advantage over his adversaries. But apart from maintaining high poll ratings, and keeping the Republicans in Congress off balance, it is difficult to point to many Clinton achievements or legislative landmarks. The one thing our first Baby Boomer president might have done -- reform, and thereby strengthen, Social Security and Medicare -- he refused to do, preferring to wield the issue as a cudgel against Republicans. Having won 43 percent of the vote in 1992, Clinton and his ambitious wife set out to nationalize one-seventh of the American economy. When they failed, at the hands of a Democratic Congress, Clinton retreated from the realm of principle to personal survival.

Democrats love Bill Clinton, but largely because Republicans dislike him so intensely: Having lost control of Congress in 1994, the Democratic party has consistently lost ground in the cities and states. The most that can be said for the growing economy Clinton inherited is that he and his Treasury secretaries did not interfere to its detriment. His legislative victories -- welfare reform, GATT and NAFTA -- were Republican initiatives to which he signed on, or GOP issues he took up as his own. The surplus and balanced budget were not Democratic causes when they fell into Clinton's lap. As he once said, the era of big government is over; and while the late Speaker may be gone from the limelight, the political word we inhabit is Newt Gingrich's, not Bill Clinton's.

In the end, I would guess, it is Clinton's impeachment that exemplifies his presidency. Few would argue that (within reason) a president's sexual behavior is germane to his legacy. But the trouble in which Clinton found himself during 1998-99 was too characteristic to ignore. Not only did he choose to employ an impressionable post-adolescent as his White House comfort woman, but he did so at a time of maximum political peril. He did not hesitate to lie to his subordinates, who lied in turn on his behalf, and he treated the judicial system as a game to be played. While Clinton's adultery may seem unimportant, and the state of his marriage is nobody else's business, smart lawyers know better than to perjure themselves -- even at the cost of personal embarrassment -- and presidents should refrain from practicing the politics of personal destruction.

When George W. Bush said that he would restore "dignity and honor" to the Oval Office, he did not have to explain in detail what he meant. "Clintonian," after all, is not a term of praise. So, perhaps, the search for a legacy ends there.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal