Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2001 / 17 Teves, 5761
BECAUSE of his political monomania, and because he is a perpetual preener who can strut even while sitting, Bill Clinton relished being president. The pomp, the cameras, the microphones make that office a narcissist's delight. But other than by soiling the office, he was a remarkably inconsequential president, like a person who walks across a field of snow and leaves no footprints.
It is axiomatic: Some people want public office in order to do something, others in order to be something. Clinton was the latter sort. Which is why he never seriously considered dealing with America's most serious policy problem, and why he was an unserious president.
Some problems come as bolts from the blue, unanticipated, not because of negligence but because of the general opacity of the future -- the Depression, the AIDS epidemic. Other problems are seen coming, but the time at which they will reach critical mass is unclear -- the environmental toll of industrialism, African Americans' struggle for access to opportunity.
But both the size and arrival time of America's impending problem were known when Clinton became president and chose not to address the problem preemptively. That problem is the coming collision between the baby boomers' graying and the welfare state's promise to palliate the consequences of illness and old age.
Serious historians probably will rate Clinton as perhaps more consequential than Chester Arthur -- although Clinton had no achievement as substantial as Arthur's civil service reform -- but much less consequential than, say, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Clinton's great accomplishment was negative. He inherited a rising economy -- although he campaigned in 1992 as though the country were in a recession, it ended a year and a half before he entered the White House. Partly because there was a Republican Congress during three-quarters of his presidency, his policies did not interfere with the private sector's wealth creation that made possible his proudest, but not notably Democratic, boasts -- a balanced budget, then a surplus.
The two most important policy developments of the Clinton years were the enhancement of free trade (NAFTA, GATT, normalized trade with China) and welfare reform. The former happened because Clinton favored it and most Republicans, unlike most Democrats, supported it. The latter happened because he did not dare to veto a third time what Republicans persisted in sending to him. Regarding two things he would never compromise about -- racial preferences and abortion on demand -- he was on the cutting edge of 25 years ago, when he and those policies were young.
Clinton's greatest effect has been on his party. He repositioned it as the servant of the comfortable middle class eager for more comforts. He reaped his reward where the comfortable live, in the suburbs, where Republicans won between 55 percent and 61 percent of the vote in 1980, 1984 and 1988. Political analyst Charles Cook says Clinton carried the suburbs by two points in 1992 and five points in 1996. In 2000, 43 percent of the votes were in the suburbs, where George W. Bush beat Al Gore by just two points.
Fortunately, America has enjoyed something of a holiday from history since the Gulf War. For eight years America's armed forces have been diminished while their tempo of operations has increased. To the question "Are you better off than you were eight years ago?" Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat can answer a resounding "yes."
Some presidents' names become adjectives -- Lincolnian gravity, Rooseveltian reassurance, Kennedyesque charisma, Nixonian deviousness, Reaganesque leadership. To understand the meaning of "Clintonian," parse this from a 1997 news conference: "I don't believe you can find any evidence of the fact that I have changed government policy solely because of a contribution."
It is reasonable to believe that he was a rapist 15 years before becoming president, and that as president he launched cruise missiles against Afghanistan (a nearly empty terrorist camp), Sudan (a pharmaceutical factory) and Iraq to distract attention from problems arising from the glandular dimension of his general indiscipline. As president he was fined $90,000 for contempt of court, and there is no reasonable doubt that he committed and suborned perjury, tampered with witnesses and otherwise obstructed justice. In the words of Richard A. Posner, chief judge of the 7th Circuit, Clinton's illegalities "were felonious, numerous and nontechnical" and "constituted a kind of guerrilla warfare against the third branch of the federal government, the federal court system."
Clinton is not the worst president the republic has had, but he is the worst person ever to have been
Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.
01/08/01: All that is jazz
01/04/01: Bush's picks reveal Right attitude
01/02/01: Prosperity in perspective
12/28/00: Soft landing in a spoiled nation
12/26/00: When laws replace common sense
12/21/00: Beware the 'Bipartisanship'
12/18/00: ... A Brief Moment
12/13/00: Judicial activism on trial
12/11/00: Truth optional
12/06/00: A Chastened Court
12/01/00: Counting on some slippery language
11/28/00: Florida's rogue court
11/27/00: This willful court
11/22/00: Ferocity gap
11/17/00: Slow-motion larceny
11/13/00: Gore, Hungry for Power
11/09/00: No, the System Worked
11/06/00: The case for Bush
11/03/00: The Framers' Electoral wisdom
10/30/00: Political astronomy
10/27/00: Candidates condescending
10/23/00: No Partners For Peace
10/20/00: Talking peace with thugs
10/11/00: A feast of retreats
10/10/00: .. And what's gotten into the Danes?
10/05/00: The Agony of Debate
10/02/00: Senate Canvas
09/28/00: Milosevic: Not Another Saddam
09/25/00: Blaming the Voters
09/22/00: Saying No to the Euro
09/18/00: Farewell, Mr. Moynihan
09/14/00: When 'Choice' Rules
09/12/00: Colombia Illusions
09/08/00: Will He Spend It All?
09/04/00: Back in the U.S.S.R.
08/31/00: Stonewalling School Reform
08/28/00: Uphill for a California Republican
08/24/00: Sauerkraut Ice Cream
08/21/00: The Partial-Birth Censors
08/18/00: A Party to Prosperity
08/14/00: The National Scold on the Stump
08/10/00: The Thinking Person's Choice
08/07/00: The GOP of Powell And Rice
08/03/00: Panic in the Gore Camp
07/27/00: . . . Both Radical and Reassuring
07/06/00: Harry Potter: A Wizard's Return
07/03/00: Recalling the Revolution
06/29/00: An Act of Judicial Infamy
06/26/00: Life, Liberty and ... the Pursuit of Foxes
06/21/00: Fumble on Prayer
06/19/00: The unified field theory of culture
06/15/00: Schools Beset by Lawyers And Shrinks
06/12/00: Missile Defense Charade
06/07/00: The Grandparent Dissent
06/05/00: Liberal Condescension
06/01/00: Great Awakenings
05/30/00: Suddenly Social Security
05/25/00: Forget Values, Let's Talk Virtues
05/22/00: AlGore the Hysteric
05/15/00: Majestic Avenue
05/11/00: Just How Irrational Is the Exuberance?
05/08/00: Home-Run Glut
05/04/00: A Lesson Plan for Gore
05/01/00: The Hijacking of the Primaries
04/28/00: The Raid in Little Havana
04/24/00: Tinkering Again
04/17/00: A Judgment Against Hate
04/13/00: Tech- Stock Joy Ride
04/10/00: What the bobos are buying
04/06/00: A must-read horror book
04/03/00: 'Improving' the Bill of Rights
03/30/00: Sleaze, The Sequel
03/27/00: How new 'rights' will destroy freedom
03/23/00: Death and the Liveliest Writing
03/20/00: Powell is Dubyah's best bet
03/16/00: Free to Be Politically Intense
03/13/00: Runnin', Gunnin' and Gambling
03/09/00: And Now Back to Republican Business
03/06/00: As the Clock Runs Out on Bradley
03/02/00: Island of Equal Protection
02/28/00: . . . The Right Response
02/24/00: Federal Swelling
02/22/00: Greenspan Tweaks
02/17/00: Crucial Carolina (and Montana and . . .)
02/10/00: McCain's Distortions
02/10/00: The Disciplining of Austria
02/07/00: Free to Speak, Free to Give
02/02/00: Conservatives in a Changing Market
01/31/00: America's true unity day
01/27/00: For the Voter Who Can't Be Bothered
01/25/00: The FBI and the golden age of child pornography
01/20/00: Scruples and Science
01/18/00: Bradley: Better for What Ails Us
01/13/00: O'Brian Rules the Waves
01/10/00: Patron of the boom
01/06/00: In Cactus Jack's Footsteps
01/03/00: The long year
12/31/99: A Stark Perspective On a Radical Century
12/20/99: Soldiers' Snapshots of the Hell They Created
12/16/99: Star-Crossed Banner
12/13/99: Hubert Humphrey Wannabe
12/09/99: Stupidity in Seattle
12/06/99: Bradley's most important vote
12/03/99: Boys will be boys --- or you can always drug 'em
12/01/99: Confidence in the Gore Camp
11/29/99: Busing's End
11/22/99: When We Enjoyed Politics
11/18/99: Ever the Global Gloomster
11/15/99: The Politics of Sanctimony
11/10/99: Risks of Restraining
11/08/99: Willie Brown Besieged
11/04/99: One-House Town
11/01/99: Crack and Cant
10/28/99: Tax Break for the Yachting Class
10/25/99: Ready for The Big Leagues?
10/21/99: Where honor and responsibility still exist
10/18/99: Is Free Speech Only for the Media?
10/14/99: A Beguiling Amateur
10/11/99: Money in Politics: Where's the Problem?
10/08/99: Soft Thinking On Soft Money
© 2000, Washington Post Writer's Group