- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2000

You should read this week's New Yorker magazine article by Joe Klein, in which he reports on a series of interviews with President Clinton looking back on his presidency.

I found Mr. Clinton's comments, his first serious effort at rewriting that history of the last eight years, strangely gratifying. Of course, it's a little personal for me. As Newt Gingrich's press secretary until 1997, I was proudly on the front line of battle against the president. So it was nostalgic to read, and attempt to sort out, Mr. Clinton's various excuses, self-delusions and misstatements regarding the great struggles in which we engaged him.

As our opponent, Mr. Clinton could pay us no higher compliment than that he was obsessed by us: "[The] two great achievements of my administration were facing down the government shutdown in 1995 and 1996, and then facing this [impeachment] … Those two things essentially ended the most overt and extreme manifestations of the Gingrich revolution."

Could you imagine Ronald Reagan bragging that his greatest accomplishment was foiling Tip O'Neill a couple of times? This is revelatory. Mr. Clinton, the admitted master of tactics, could never lift his vision to see a strategic objective. He was content to be gratified by technical satisfactions, whether political or physiological.

Why did Hillarycare fail? Mr. Clinton's explanation: "[Bob Dole got a memo from Bill Kristol] which basically took the Gingrich line: If universal health care passes, the Democrats will get credit for it. So you have to make sure nothing happens. After that, I don't really think we had a chance …"

Of course, at the time the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. Republicans couldn't block anything. Mr. Clinton's problem was that he could never find a Democrat to introduce his health bill. He also misrepresents Mr. Gingrich's attitude. Mr. Gingrich told both Mr. and Mrs. Clinton that their bill couldn't pass, but that he would be glad to work with them to pass a series of bills one per year that would slowly build consensus for genuine reform. Interestingly, after Mr. Gingrich retired, they started trying to take his advice.

When Mr. Clinton wasn't thinking about Mr. Gingrich, he was thinking about himself. He described his frame of mind in the middle of 1993 as follows: "If I didn't get the economy going, nothing else would matter in the end." Of course, at the time he was allegedly thinking that absurdly egotistical thought, his own Commerce Department had already informed him that the economy was growing at 5.5 percent. Mr. Clinton can't still actually believe that he inherited a depressed economy. Apparently, his dilated ego still requires him to describe a fantasy depression and his own godlike personal capacity to improve it.

As a reportorial aside, Mr. Klein states that at about this time the president complained: "Why was he working so hard and getting so little credit? Why was his staff screwing him again?" Once again, the contrast with Mr. Reagan is striking. I remember one of Mr. Reagan's favorite expressions, which he kept on display in the Oval Office: "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you let someone else take the credit."

The curious thing about Mr. Clinton's comments is that, whether he is lying or telling the truth, everything he says in self-defense of his presidency turns into self-incrimination.

Undoubtedly, history will find the central policy failure of the Clinton presidency to be his unwillingness even to attempt to reform Social Security and Medicare at a time of budget surpluses and with 20 years left before the boomers' retirement swamps those systems. But Mr. Clinton has an answer for that. According to Mr. Klein: "[Mr. Clinton] was wistful about opportunities lost, infuriated at himself, but mostly at his unrelenting enemies because of the time wasted on scandals. I asked Clinton what had been the impact of the Lewinsky scandal … At first, he said he wasn't sure; then he acknowledged that he might have been able to reform the Social Security and Medicare systems if he hadn't provided the Republicans and the media with irresistible diversions."

That answer requires unambiguous refutation. Despite the many scandals that Mr. Clinton brought upon himself, not once, not twice, but three times he refused the bipartisan hand offered to him on those vital issues. In the 1995-96 budget negotiations of which I was a part, Mr. Gingrich and his fellow Republicans risked political destruction by initiating serious Medicare reform proposals.

The president pretended to negotiate in good faith while according to Bob Woodward's later reporting he planned the advertising campaign to demagogue the issue. Moreover, Mr. Gingrich privately let the president know that after they had reformed Medicare together, he was prepared to tackle Social Security jointly. Mr. Clinton ignored the offer.

Again, in the 1997 balanced budget negotiations, after Mr. Clinton was re-elected and had no more personal need to demagogue the issues, the Republicans offered to reform Medicare on a bipartisan basis again. Again Mr. Clinton refused. A third time, in 1999, the bipartisan Breaux-Thomas Medicare proposal gave Mr. Clinton a last chance to enter an already offered bipartisan reform process.

It wasn't the media or the Republicans who were diverted by the Lewinsky scandal. It was the president who rejected the outreached hand of serious reform. These are history's unassailable facts. They are Mr. Clinton's final disgrace.

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