- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001


The nation that inherits the Clinton presidential legacy at high noon tomorrow appears to expect little of lasting value for posterity when the troubled administration breathes its last.
William Jefferson Clinton who on Inauguration Day 1993 declared "This is our time" approaches "the last hour of the last day of my term" and will be remembered most for surviving scandal and his lack of remorse or shame for personal misconduct.
He leaves office with a record that showcased his extraordinary skills at oratory and political manipulation, but still searching for the first issue worth losing on principle.
The only elected president ever impeached who escaped ouster when only half the Senate voted to convict him seems not to sense how he is viewed or, as he once put it, the way things look in the morning paper.
"Five hundred years from now the papers will be dust, and all that will endure is the strength and the integrity and the beauty of what we felt and what we did," Mr. Clinton said at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast.
In the here and now, Mr. Clinton's handpicked successor, Vice President Al Gore, was defeated by a Texas governor who made the president's conduct an issue.
"I will return honor and dignity to the White House," George W. Bush vowed during his campaign.
President Clinton leaves office at age 54, seven weeks younger than the new president, bemoaning his inability to stand for re-election and predicting he would win a third term if only the Constitution would let him run. He is the last president entitled to lifelong Secret Service protection.
Perhaps his most durable time capsule will be Mr. Clinton's idea of the next-best thing to a third term first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's ascension to the U.S. Senate as a possible launching pad to seek the presidency herself in 2004 or 2008.
After his own eight years, the president's lofty popularity polls belie the volcanic upheaval of American values propagated by what Bush cousin John Ellis calls "the morally berserk universe of the Clintons."
The final ABC News/Washington Post poll of his term, released Wednesday, says 65 percent give him a favorable job rating, but 67 percent in the same poll say he is not honest and trustworthy and 77 percent feel he lacks high moral and ethical standards.
Mr. Clinton most famously demonstrated his disdain for reproach on Dec. 19, 1998, three hours after the House impeached him for lying under oath to a grand jury and obstructing justice. He gathered supporters at the White House and told reporters that his side was defending the Constitution.
He vowed then to serve until the "last hour of the last day of my term."
His youthful administration arrived with the attitude that any problem could be solved if enough were known about it by people as intelligent as themselves. It left certain there was no misdeed that could not be explained by people as verbally agile as themselves.
Despite his 500-year view of legacy, Mr. Clinton's words and actions surely lowered forever the benchmarks for measuring occupants of the Oval Office.
Far from emulating Shelley's poetic advice to "Bequeath, like sunset to the skies, The splendour of its prime," Mr. Clinton's eight-year stewardship muddled the ground rules in ways that left a bad taste even among supporters trying to find his niche on a scale of one to 10.
"If there had been no Monica Lewinsky I think historians would rank him an eight, and with Lewinsky a six," said one Clinton loyalist economist and lobbyist Robert E. Litan, who held key administration posts before becoming vice president and director of economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
Such references to the unforgettable beret-sporting intern who came and went so quickly punctuate every assessment of Mr. Clinton's place in history, and lessons for future administrations.
"Don't order pizza in, and … don't overreach in your first couple of years, because it will come back and bite you," advises Isabel V. Sawhill, a veteran of Mr. Clinton's Office of Management and point person of his 1996 initiative to reduce teen pregnancy.
Mrs. Sawhill said economic abundance enjoyed during the Clinton years on the rise before he arrived and on the wane before he left gives Democrats credibility as a "party of fiscal responsibility."
But she also said his personal examples damaged the national culture, in which a generation of adolescents heard the president of the United States say drive-by sex is OK, or maybe not even sex at all.
"Obviously in terms of his own personal behavior, he set us back," said Mrs. Sawhill, president of the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
George Stephanopoulos, a Clinton acolyte until becoming an ABC News commentator, said last week the president's eager 1993 team wasn't ready for prime time.
"We were blind to the importance of structure, and actually we didn't have enough respect deep, deep in our bones for the office itself," said the ultimate insider throughout the campaign and for much of the presidency.
The former Arkansas governor entered office promising a centrist administration, in the vision of the Democratic Leadership Council, and promised it would be the "most ethical in history."
At White House farewell parties, staff members sport T-shirts that say "I survived the Clinton presidency."
The man whom comedian Conan O'Brien called "the first cartoon president" has survived, so far, unprecedented accusations of personal and political corruption that include rape, adultery, perjury, falsely imputing crimes to honest aides so friends can profit, a sexual addiction that led him to harass and intimidate subordinates, personal graft, and campaign finance violations involving Indonesian and Chinese donations that may endanger national security.
In 1997, a military urologist examined his penis for "distinguishing characteristics" that Paula Jones testified in a lawsuit that she saw when he exposed himself and propositioned her while he was governor of Arkansas. The president's lawyers got the case dismissed, but he eventually settled it anyway in a vain effort to end the matter, paying Mrs. Jones $850,000, almost three times what she demanded.
Most episodes of his saga emulated "The Perils of Pauline." Mr. Clinton often seemed to be tied to the tracks in front of an oncoming express train only to perform a Houdini escape in the next scene and celebrate his own deliverance.
Impeachment defense lawyer Gregory Craig said this month that a delegation of Senate Democrats came within three days of asking him to resign the presidency.
Once again, Mr. Clinton is looking up the tracks. Arkansas state courts are considering whether to disbar him from practicing law. Independent counsel Robert Ray says he will announce shortly whether he will ask a federal grand jury to decide if the dishonesty and obstruction for which Mr. Clinton already paid a $90,000 contempt-of-court fine included felonies for which he now must face criminal trial.
Academics already are assembling long lists of Clinton decisions on domestic and foreign questions, often adorned by praise or condemnation generated from partisan perspectives but always accompanied by that "asterisk" balancing misconduct and official acts.
Foreign-policy initiatives on most lists included his efforts until the last minute to find a formula for Middle East peace, progress in resolving Northern Ireland's troubles, inclusion of former Warsaw Pact forces from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO, a fruitless occupation of Haiti, opening foreign markets through the North American Free Trade Agreement and permanent normal trade relations with China, continuation of military oversight around Iraq and dispatching ground forces on what he called "the Somalia thing" and in the Balkans, retaliatory missile attacks at crucial moments in Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq, pushing elimination of nuclear weapons in some former Soviet republics, extending a crucial financial bailout for Mexico, and launching overtures to North Korea but leaving negotiations for the Bush administration to pursue.
Bombings of Iraq were common throughout the Clinton years once to avenge an aborted 1993 car-bomb assassination attempt on President Bush. Comparisons to the film "Wag the Dog" were inevitable in the timing of raids at critical moments in 1998.
On Aug. 20, while the nation absorbed the president's grand jury testimony three days earlier in the Monica Lewinsky case, Mr. Clinton dispatched a wave of more than 75 cruise missiles at targets described as a terrorist camp in Afghanistan and a suspected germ-warfare production facility in Sudan, which turned out to be a mistake since the plant was an aspirin factory.
The Iraqi attack whose timing was most suspect and which was blamed for the end of U.N. weapons inspections there came in mid-December 1998 as the House prepared to vote on impeachment. Democratic leaders' requests to delay the vote because of the assault were rejected.
"When foreign policy historians look at Bill Clinton, I think the verdict will be a mixed record, but ultimately a squandered opportunity to build a lasting foreign policy legacy," said Richard N. Haass, an adviser on the Middle East during the first Bush administration and now Brookings' director of foreign policy studies.
Mr. Haass awards Mr. Clinton points on trade, aid to Mexico, and denuclearization of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But he said Mr. Clinton deserves no recognition for overall foreign policy because he had no significant accomplishments or coherent plan.
He was particularly caustic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to which Mr. Clinton devoted a great deal of capital.
"You don't give presidents high marks for efforts. You give presidents high remarks for results, and you give presidents high marks for doing the right thing," Mr. Haass said. "To put it bluntly, if the Middle East were a share of stock, its value now would be below what Mr. Clinton inherited eight years ago."
Michael Armacost, who was President Bush's ambassador to Japan from 1989 to 1993, agreed. "There is more turmoil perhaps now [in the Middle East] than there was in January of 1993 when he assumed office," Mr. Armacost said.
Most domestic-highlight lists emphasize the economic boom fueled by low inflation rates that allowed pay-down of the national debt by $783 billion, the record expansion that produced 21.6 million jobs, of which 2 million were in government, and reduced unemployment to 4 percent.
Mr. Clinton also signed onto efforts to impose work requirements for welfare recipients, which helped cut welfare rolls in half, and shifted budget priorities to cut defense spending and increase entitlements as a percentage of the federal budget.
"I expect the draft will be neither black nor white, and it's clear that during President Clinton's watch, the economy has flourished as almost never before. It's true also that not least because of this prosperity, we've seen rather dramatic progress on a number of social indices, and I expect that historians will mainly argue over how to divvy up credit for these very benign and welcome developments," said Mr. Armacost, now president of Brookings.
One unforgettable characteristic is Mr. Clinton's tendency to bursts of rhetorical enthusiasm for concepts that give others pause or appear contradictory:
He said he valued black novelist Toni Morrison's description of him as the country's first black president more than he would a Nobel Prize, had he won that honor.
While signing a law restricting abortion protests setting prison sentences up to life and fines of $250,000 Mr. Clinton said, "I treasure and would fight, and indeed die, to protect the rights of people to express their views on this issue no matter how different they may be from mine."
On his second day in office saying he wanted to make abortion safe but rare he signed five documents that the National Right to Life Committee said put the government "in the business of promoting the use of abortion as birth control."
At one fell swoop he lifted a ban on abortion in military hospitals; ended the rule that barred physicians from abortion counseling in federally funded family planning; abolished the moratorium on federally funded studies of transplanting tissue from aborted fetuses to treat Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, leukemia and diabetes; began the process to allow imports of RU-486 as an abortion-inducing pill; and overturned a 1984 executive order barring foreign aid to groups that advise on abortion or lobby foreign governments to legalize the procedure.
During what he called "the storm and sunshine of these last eight years" Mr. Clinton regularly used or, as opponents charge, abused his "stroke of a pen" power to set aside public lands, change federal hiring practices, and declare national emergencies.
He was unfazed by the critics and increased the volume of such orders after the election, when he was the lamest of ducks, so much so that Mr. Bush already is studying which orders to reverse with a stroke of his own pen.
In his closing days, Mr. Clinton signed off on one order after another, designating millions of acres of public lands from Alaska to New Mexico off limits to logging and road building, even for fire-fighting.
Interestingly, the White House's own 40,000-word compilation of Clinton achievements 95 pages of single-spaced typing touts conservation issues at great length but fails even to mention the doomed early initiative to federalize the medical industry, a prime example of Mrs. Sawhill's advice not to overreach. Although Mr. Clinton made health insurance "reform" a hood ornament in his administration's early days, that defeated initiative is relegated to a brief mention among the first lady's achievements.
"As chair of the President's Task Force on Health Care Reform, the First Lady advocated health care coverage for all Americans," says a separate White House document's mention of a topic that preoccupied the administration for almost two years before Congress defeated it.
Mrs. Clinton also failed in efforts to persuade her husband to block the appointment of an independent counsel, but he rejected her advice on that point.
On Jan. 12, 1994, one week short of his first anniversary as president, the Clintons agreed to allow appointment of an independent counsel and asked that "this investigation be conducted as expeditiously as possible." The investigation remains open seven years later.
Official White House lists also don't include Mr. Clinton's trail of broken campaign pledges ranging from abandoning homosexuals he promised could serve openly in the military, refusing to end what he called the "inhumane" practice of repatriating Haitian boat people, and reneging on a promised middle-class tax cut in favor of history's largest tax increase.
His support for welfare reform delighted conservatives at the price of angering entitlement advocates and voting blocs long dependent on government aid.
One tax proposal a use tax on energy sources rated by the BTUs expended failed when Mr. Clinton precipitously withdrew support, leaving high and dry legislators from oil states who went out on the limb to back him in return for assurances abandoned overnight.
All lost face and some lost their next elections from a political tactic known for a time as being BTU'd.
Although Mr. Clinton routinely criticizes his press coverage, most analysts say he was blessed by a friendly press corps of contemporaries sympathetic to both his social policies and his arguments against factoring personal failures into professional assessments.
Reporters also ignore his tendency to promise and declaim on issue after issue, but take no action a practice so polished that President-elect George W. Bush said he learned from it how to best use the White House as a bully pulpit.
Although Vice President Al Gore publicly stood beside his boss, he tried to maneuver free in 2000 to campaign as "my own man."
With Mr. Bush characterizing a potential Gore victory as a third Clinton term, the president proved to be one of the decisive issues that cost Mr. Gore the election.
The vice president sought to distance himself by choosing as his running mate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, who was among the first senators to speak out against behavior that "may have weakened the great power and strength" of the presidency.
"The president apparently had extramarital relations with an employee half his age and did so in the workplace, in the vicinity of the Oval Office. Such behavior is not just inappropriate. It is immoral," Mr. Lieberman said on the Senate floor in September 1998.
Lest the message of Mr. Gore's choice elude others, it was underscored by Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, from which Mr. Clinton drew much of his national legitimacy in 1992.
"By selecting Senator Lieberman, Vice President Gore has made a clear distinction to look toward the future, rather than the past," Mr. From said when the choice was announced. He did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
Even if Clinton political wisdom were true that such concerns mattered nowhere else, thousands of Cuban voters in Miami abandoned the Clinton-Gore ticket they supported in 1996, partly in outrage over Mr. Clinton's handling of the Elian Gonzalez affair but also to reject the president's personal conduct.
As it turned out, that margin of victory swung the entire election.
Mr. Clinton arrived in Washington a Baptist and left a Methodist who on Jan. 7 told fellow parishioners his current objective is earning "a sizable income." But he also fell back on his 500-year theory and expressed hope for better times during a farewell sermon at Foundry Methodist Church.
"I do believe, in the end, when all is said and done, what matters most is what we did that was common to our humanity… . And I will try to keep learning and growing," Mr. Clinton said. "In the years ahead, America may have presidents who do this job better than I have. But I really doubt we'll ever have another one who enjoyed it more than I have."

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