World

END OF AN ERA

As George W. Bush waits impatiently in the wings, Bill Clinton bids a long and busy goodbye to the American presidency

Andrew Phillips January 22 2001
World

END OF AN ERA

As George W. Bush waits impatiently in the wings, Bill Clinton bids a long and busy goodbye to the American presidency

Andrew Phillips January 22 2001

The clock is ticking, louder and louder. There are just weeks to go, then mere days. So little time, so much to do before high noon on Saturday, Jan. 20, when another will claim the title of Most Powerful Man in the World. So Bill Clinton has been very busy. He’s put a third of national forest land off-limits to logging and road building. Reorganized Washington’s counterintelligence efforts. Signed a controversial treaty creating an international war-crimes tribunal. Issued thousands of pages of new federal regulations affecting everything from emissions from diesel engines to standards for workplace health and safety. All that, plus taking a final crack at reviving peace talks in the Middle East.

In the dying days of his presidency, as George W. Bush taps his foot impatiently outside the Oval Office, Clinton has seemed more reluctant than ever to let go. One night early in the new year, he joined a crowd of White House aides at a rock club in Washington and joked: “If I don’t sleep for the next 16 days, it will seem like four more years.” And in one of several interviews marking his departure from power, Clinton marvelled that other presidents on the way out had expressed relief that they could finally escape the responsibilities and restrictions of the White House. Not him. “I don’t know what the heck they were talkin’ about,” he laughed.

After an extraordinary eight years in office, marked by remarkable accomplishments and even more remarkable humiliations, Clinton is about to leave on a high note. Voters usually tire of politicians after so long, but the American public gives him high marks—at least for how he has carried out his job. Fully 66 per cent, according to one recent survey, approve of his performance on the job, higher even than Ronald Reagan after his two terms. But as always with Clinton, that is far from the whole story. Americans see him as a good leader— but not as a good man, and certainly not an honest one. They appreciate his successes, especially his role in the longest and strongest economic expansion in U.S. history. But they are painfully aware of his dark side, the weaknesses that repeatedly led him into temptation and made him the first elected president to be impeached.

At 54, he will be the second-youngest man to leave the presidency (Theodore Roosevelt was just 51 when he stepped down in 1909). He will, in all likelihood, have many more years of active life, and those who know him say he will continue to argue for his place in history. “In a sense, he’ll run for president his whole life,” says his leading biographer, David Maraniss. Even now, his accomplishments are striking. He won power at a time when Republicans were in the ascendancy, and managed to move his Democratic party back to the centre of American political life. He embraced the global economy and presided over an unprecedented growth in U.S. influence around the world. He redefined the role of government—pioneering so-called third way policies that allowed progressive parties to recapture power in an era suspicious of big government. Most important, he survived everything his opponents could throw at him—and lived to see them eat his dust.

To Clinton’s more thoughtful critics, that was also his tragedy. A man of unquestioned brilliance, by common consensus the most gifted politician of his generation, he was also his own worst enemy. Americans knew full well that he was flawed when they first elected him in 1992, and scandal dogged his presidency from the outset. But nothing prepared them for the revelation in early 1998 of his sad and sordid affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. From that came his most indelible sound bite—“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”—as well as his worst political defeat: his impeachment by the House of Representatives. As a result, he leaves with many asking how much more he might have accomplished if not for the self-inflicted wounds and his reluctance to take political risks. “There’s a widespread sense of squandered opportunity,” says Thomas Mann, a presidential scholar at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

Whatever else he achieved, Clinton takes most pride in his administration’s economic record. In his final weeks, the White House has poured out reams of “fact sheets” touting his accomplishments. Growth averaging four per cent since 1993. U.S. unemployment at its lowest level in 30 years—down from seven per cent in mid-1993 to an average of four per cent last year. An explosion in the stock markets—the Dow Jones industrial average more than tripled in eight years. Most striking, a turnaround from a

After an extraordinary eight years in office, marked by remarkable accomplishments and humiliations, Clinton is leaving on a high note federal deficit of $433 billion in 1992 to a surplus of $354 billion in 2000. And on and on—despite the recent slowdown, the figures for the U.S. economy in the 1990s are undeniably remarkable. The question historians will wrestle with for years is: how much credit does Clinton deserve?

To his critics, including Republicans eagerly awaiting a Bush restoration in Washington, the answer has always been: not much. Although Clinton campaigned in 1992 as if the United States was mired in recession, the U.S. economy had already begun to grow again in 1991. President George Bush had reached a deal with Congress the previous year to cut the deficit sharply, allowing Clinton to inherit almost ideal conditions and benefit from a recovery that was just gathering steam.

To his credit, though, he continued to cut the deficit. Even before he took office in January, 1993, he reversed his priorities. Instead of pushing the traditional Democratic spending programs he had campaigned on, he pressed for a deficit cutting package and won approval for it against fierce Republican opposition. The plan prompted Alan Greenspan's Federal Reserve Board to cut interest rates sharply, providing the needed stimulus for the boom of the ’90s. Just as important, Clinton split with his own party by strongly supporting efforts to expand global trade (such as signing the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1993). And his administration intervened skilfully when foreign instability threatened U.S. growth, such as the Mexican peso crisis in 1995 and the Asian financial meltdown of 1997-1998. Three independent economists who recently reviewed his record put it this way: “In terms of economic policy, Bill Clinton has been both good and lucky.” 

There was, however, an inescapable irony. The first baby boomer president, coming into office with the liberal instincts of his generation, ended up as a champion of traditional, conservative, deficit-cutting economic policies—even acknowledging at one point that he had in some ways turned into an “Eisenhower Republican.” His insight— shared by other liberal-leaning politicians from Britain to Canada —was to understand that government first had to be tamed before it could be revitalized. His former chief speechwriter, Michael Waldman, recalls a night in early 1998 when Clinton told him: “Our mission has been to save government from its own excesses so that it can again be a progressive force.”

The strong U.S. economy made a success out of his most controversial domestic program: agreeing to a massive overhaul of welfare programs that cut benefits and forced millions of recipients into the workforce. It provoked outrage among traditional liberals, but protected Clinton against attacks from the newly emboldened Republicans, who captured control of Congress in 1994 due largely to the confusion and failures of his first two years in office— including the collapse of Hillary Clinton's attempt at massive reform of health care. The boom was also the backdrop for many social improvements. Crime rates dropped sharply, as did such things as teen pregnancy, divorce, abortion and drug use. The United States became not only richer on Clinton's watch, but by many measures it also became better—even more moral, despite his personal failings.

Clinton was also the first post-Cold War president, presiding over an era when the United States had almost unprecedented global power. There, his touch was less sure. Despite his focus on the economy, he had early success when he brought Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat together at the White House in 1993 to sign a peace accord and stage a dramatic handshake. But by the end, his efforts to broker a lasting peace in the Middle East had unravelled.

And, foreign policy experts generally agree, Clinton failed to spell out clear standards for when the United States should use its unprecedented clout around the world. His record includes failures like the aborted 1993 foray into Somalia, where 15 U.S. soldiers were killed, as well as successes like the 79-day NATO air war over Kosovo in 1999, which forced Serbia to withdraw, and his efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland. But it also includes messy episodes like Bosnia, where Washington stood aside while the killing continued, before finally acting with its NATO allies to stop the fighting.

For many, though, one word will forever define Bill Clinton: scandal. From the start, the sprawling series of alleged wrongdoings that went under the name “Whitewater” dogged his administration. But it was the Lewinsky episode that exploded so spectacularly in January, 1998, that indelibly stained his legacy. Seven months later, he had to admit the worst—that he had indeed conducted a seamy affair with a young woman only steps from the Oval Office, and then lied about it. He was impeached, but finally acquitted in the Senate. Once again, he survived, but the cost was both personal humiliation and the loss of a year of his presidency.

Any other leader might have been broken by the sheer shame of it all, documented in thousands of pages of testimony collected by the investigators who meticulously catalogued every “encounter” between the President and the intern. But Clinton turned the tables on his enemies. He fought back relentlessly, and his own party, appalled more by the ideological excesses of his opponents than by the biological excesses of their leader, stuck by him. The American public, offended more by the relentless pursuit of scandal than by scandal itself, punished his persecutors at the polls. It wasn’t that he fooled them. Rather, commentator David Halberstam wrote recently, they understood that only a man of extraordinary appetites could win the presidency against such odds, and “they shrewdly sensed that sexual excess was often the flip side of such an ego.”

By the end, it was Republicans like the onetime Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Clinton's chief tormentor, prosecutor Ken Starr, who were consigned to political oblivion. Maraniss calls it “political jujitsu. He has this amazing talent for using his enemies’ strengths against them.” At bottom, it may be less complicated than that. Clinton, it turned out, simply understood the American people better than his opponents did—and had an uncanny ability to use both his own instincts and his minute reading of the polls to sense their shifting moods.

As it turns out, he will not be going far when he finally closes the door of the Oval Office for the last time. With his wife newly ensconced in the U.S. Senate, he will split his time between New York City, Little Rock, Ark. (where his presidential library will be built) and Washington (where the Clintons paid $4.26 million for a handsome brick house). Job offers have been pouring into his office, and speakers bureaus are vying to sign him for personal appearances that could command as much as $130,000. And he has arranged for his friend and chief fund-raiser, Terence McAuliffe, to take over as head of the Democratic National Committee, giving him a direct line into his party’s leadership. Judging by the frenetic pace of his final weeks, Clinton is still restless, energetic and ambitious. His final testament is still to be written. M