wasted much of best time
Nonetheless, the presidency will be a notable part of his saga. By
almost every measurable standard, he leaves the nation stronger than he found it in 1993 its finances, its crime rates, its environment and its economy all improved. The budget he passed with only Democratic votes in 1993 and the one he negotiated with Republicans in 1997 were landmarks on the road back to fiscal sanity. The opening of trade with Mexico and Canada in 1993 and China in 2000 promises long-term benefits, and his efforts to bring peace to the Balkans, the Middle East and Northern Ireland, though not uniformly successful, were entirely commendable. The Welfare Reform Act he signed in 1996 was a landmark of social policy, whose long-term effects are yet to be measured.
And yet there is clearly a sense of disappointment as his tenure comes to a close, and not just because of the reckless personal behavior that brought on his impeachment. There are too many jagged edges to the whole Clinton experience, too many highs and lows, too much grandeur and too much farce.
To be personal for a moment, I thought that the man I met in Little
Rock in 1978 and interviewed repeatedly over the next two decades was, far and away, the most extraordinary talent to emerge in the Democratic Party since the 1960s.
I still think that. No one comes close to matching his capacity to
assimilate information and formulate policy, his skill and zest as a campaigner and his uncanny ability to connect with an audience, whether it be one person or thousands.
So why do so many of his own White House associates men like Leon Panetta and Mike McCurry speak of him in tones of regret? For them, as for me, there is an overwhelming sense of squandered opportunities.
What was the flaw? In one word, immaturity. All his life, Bill Clinton
had been so obviously fortune’s favored child that he came to believe he could talk his way out of any jam. The same sense of immunity of indestructibility that made him the self-styled “comeback kid” also led him to repeated instances of reckless behavior with disastrous
It was not just Monica Lewinsky. The same urge for self-gratification
that led him to cast aside every bit of prudence and engage in an Oval
Office tryst made him think that a 43 percent plurality victory in 1992
entitled him to try to remake the entire American health care system in a single session of Congress.
The same duplicity that marked his recounting of his history with the draft let him conceal from his own colleagues his maneuverings with the equally devious Dick Morris. This is not craftiness; this is conceit, magnified to a level rarely seen outside Hollywood, which, not surprisingly, became his favorite venue.
And it carried a price. Clinton himself emerges with a high job approval rating, and with his wife, who is as disciplined as he is
dissolute, ensconced in the Senate. But the country paid for his misdeeds. Clinton’s deviousness evoked a fury among Republicans, and contributed to the malign partisanship of the capital.
And it cost the country three years of the second term, a time when we could have dealt with our most pressing national challenges, notably how to finance the health care and retirement needs of the baby boom generation.
As Newt Gingrich, among others, said on a thoughtful panel at the
American Political Science Association convention here last Labor Day,
everything was in place, after the 1997 budget deal, to move right on to similar negotiations on Social Security and Medicare reform. And then came Monica and Kenneth Starr and impeachment, with the most partisan Republicans out for Clinton’s scalp and the president forced to fall back, for survival, on the hard core of the Democratic Party, the very legislators and interest groups who were least willing to contemplate any
changes in those two landmarks of the New Deal and the Great Society.
Between the fumbles of the first two years and the frantic evasions of the last three, we got less than half of what we deserved from Clinton.
It was a waste.