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Jewish World Review Dec. 18, 2000 / 21 Kislev 5761

Philip Terzian

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Presidential legacies are not so obvious to contemporaries -- ONE OF THE CURIOUS features of this last year of Bill Clinton's tenure in the White House has been his search, sometimes his anxious search, for a legacy. Until Clinton entered his second term, I had not realized that presidents consciously pursue a legacy, or known that any president controls such judgments of history. But apparently they can, and do. And since the failure of his and Mrs. Clinton's attempt to nationalize health care in 1993-94, the President has pursued some legacy, any legacy, but with mixed results.

This all seems a little naive to me: Legacies are something posterity confers, not presidents. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." To pursue a "legacy" in so literal a fashion -- it is very nearly all Clinton's White House acolytes discuss these days -- seems to miss the point that presidents do their jobs, for good or ill, and leave their legacies to fate.

Remember Jimmy Carter? He tried to claim the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt by delivering televised "fireside chats" on pertinent issues, just as FDR used to do. Carter even took the trouble to deliver his talks, wrapped in a cardigan sweater, while seated beside a White House fireplace, with crackling logs. The only problem, of course, is that FDR delivered his fireside chats behind a desk and a bank of microphones: The "fireside" referred to his listeners, who were sitting in their parlors tuned to the radio. And of course, to paraphrase another famous Democrat, Jimmy Carter was no Franklin Roosevelt.

Presidential legacies are not so obvious to contemporaries. When Lyndon Jhnson left office, a wise analyst would have guessed that LBJ was driven from office by the Vietnam war, which was bound to influence his place in history. Yet while time has not erased the catastrophe of Johnson's war, and will not, it has recognized his enduring legacy in the size and scope of the federal government. When LBJ took office, the US budget was still less than $100 billion a year. We now live in a trillion-dollar universe.

Legacies are often deceptive. When Dwight Eisenhower went home to Gettysburg, he was rated poorly by left-wing historians as a lazy executive, overshadowed by his young, dynamic successor, John F. Kennedy. Now, of course, Ike's eight years of peace, prosperity and domestic progress look very different when compared with the Bay of Pigs, Berlin Wall and Judith Exner. Harry Truman, who crawled back to Independence under a cloud of scandal, is revered now for his (small r) republican simplicity, and smart decisions in the early Cold War.

Bill Clinton's legacy, perhaps, is the search for a legacy. His two primary home-grown achievements -- the passage of NAFTA and welfare reform -- were really Republican initiatives he ultimately endorsed. And the Clinton-Gore prosperity, now looking slightly shopworn, had its origins in the Reagan-Bush years.

When presidents are frustrated by domestic failure, they turn to foreign affairs for relief. But as he leaves office, Bill Clinton cannot be too sanguine about the state of the world. The Northern Ireland "peace process" is not quite the shambles the Middle East peace process has become, but it's looking rather tenuous all the same. Clinton's sponsorship of Fr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti has merely traded one form of despotism for another. The Russian oligarchs with whom Clinton and Al Gore formed personal relationships have since been revealed as thieves, or hopeless incompetents. And his cultivation of the Chinese communist hierarchy not only failed to reduce tensions between the two nations, but yielded a series of roubling questions about foreign influence (and cash) in US elections.

Then, the other evening, Clinton's legacy revealed itself. There was Lanny Davis, the official White House spin doctor during the Monica Lewinsky year, talking on television about the U.S. Supreme Court. Did you know, said Davis, that Justice Antonin Scalia's son is a member of the same law firm that employs Theodore Olson, who was arguing George W. Bush's case in the Supreme Court? It was, as a point, beside the point: All the justices are themselves, or have friends and relations, somehow connected to the combatants in Bush v. Gore: It's a small world in Washington. But Davis did his job. If you cannot win an argument on the merits, the next best thing is to impugn the motives of your adversary, and besmirch him/her as a human being. It's a process begun with Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, and perfected at the expense of Billy Dale, Kenneth Starr, Linda Tripp, and many others. It's not much, but it's a legacy.

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


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© 2000, The Providence Journal