Monday night, watching "President of the World," the Chris Matthews documentary on the post-presidency of Bill Clinton, one sensed a man in a race against time. One day Bill Clinton's in Northern Ireland, the next in Malawi, then it's off to Kosovo. He's sharing a stage with Bill Gates, he's holding hands with Nelson Mandela, he's wowing Mick Jagger. The adulatory film barely mentioned the underside to Clinton's globe-trotting, high-powered philanthropy: his globe-trotting, high-powered personal moneymaking. But even allowing for the time and effort he expends to feather his own nest, we should all be impressed by his post-presidential record of doing good.
Like so much about Bill Clinton, his energy is not that of an ordinary human being. Even so, his frenetic pace suggests that this man is trying to cram as much activity as he can into the remaining years of his life. He denies that his post-presidency has been devoted to making up for his shortcomings as president -- although he does approach such an admission when talking about Rwanda. But whether he thinks so or not, the rest of us can't help but see what he's doing now as a way to compensate for not doing enough while president of the United States.
How much does he have to compensate for? That is, how good a president was he?
And will history judge him a great man, even if not a great president?
In trying to evaluate Bill Clinton's time in office, there are three main obstacles. First, he served during a time of relative quiet, after one war, the cold war, had ended, and before another, the war on terror, began. Clinton himself has spoken of his regret that he didn't serve at a time of great national crisis, of war or depression, as did his heroes, Lincoln and FDR. Would he have risen to such an occasion? I think he would have. In April 1995, four days after Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City, Clinton gave a magnificent speech at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena, a speech that comforted not just the families of the dead but the nation as a whole, that helped the country make sense of the tragedy, and gave it resolve to fight the terrorists who would commit such murders. The speech marked the real beginning of his rehabilitation after the midterm losses in 1994. But he never had to deal with a crisis of greater and more extended proportions.
Second, there is always the sex. During the time I was working on my biography of the man, whenever I would meet someone new and would answer the "So what do you do?" question, that person's follow-up to me would always be, "What did he see in Monica anyway?" Or, "Who's he sleeping with now?" Or, "How could he have been so stupid?" Never, "Gee, what a bang-up job he did on the economy." Or, "What a great job he did of restoring fiscal sanity to the government." Or even, "Man, he really blew it on health care" or "That SOB screwed the middle class on NAFTA."
For all his accomplishments as president, Bill Clinton is stuck with the image of a sex-crazed dude who loves to party, an incorrigible lech who can't resist a piece of ass no matter how awkward or inappropriate or dangerous the circumstances. As Doug Brinkley, the historian from Rice University, pointed out to me, consider the words we associate with individual presidents. John F. Kennedy? "Ask not ..." Ronald Reagan? "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." What words first come to mind in connection with Bill Clinton? "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." (During bookstore talks the audience and I spontaneously chant the words together.)
And third, he failed to come up with that one large and unambiguous accomplishment, that singular achievement to which you can point and say, "Here is what this man accomplished as president of the United States to better the lives of his fellow citizens of this nation and the world." He attempted two grand projects: At the beginning of his tenure it was health care, which went down because it was the wrong plan at the right time or the right plan at the wrong time, or because Hillary was the wrong person to put in charge of the initiative, or simply because the country was not ready for substantial health care reform in 1994. And at the end of his tenure there was the conflict between Israel and Palestine. That dream of a resolution to that historic dispute ended for Bill Clinton just days before he left the White House, when Yasir Arafat sat in the Oval Office and said thanks but no thanks to the peace deal Clinton had fashioned.
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