No president has ruminated so frequently or so publicly about his place in history as Bill Clinton. Soon, a Clinton court will rise at his senatorial wife's $2.85 million home in Georgetown and its satellite in Chappaqua. It will spin all the virtues of Clintonism in the hope of fueling a call for its restoration.
The "legacy" he, his handlers and his acolytes are seeking to reinvent falls into four categories.
Domestic policy. Clinton signed into law three bills of note: family leave, NAFTA and GATT. All were on the national agenda before he became president. Yet Clinton played a crucial part in different ways in their enactment.
Recent Republican Congresses were responsible for two other measures for which Clinton takes credit: welfare reform and deficit reduction. He vetoed welfare reform twice before he signed it. The robust economy he hails might well have slowed had a Democratic Congress, with Republican help, not torpedoed two costly Clinton proposals: the "economic stimulus package" of 1993 and health-care reform in 1994.
Clinton was at his best when he expressed, if not felt, the nation's pain after tragedies like the Oklahoma City bombing and shootings at Columbine. He related well to African Americans. Yet he shied away from the one thing that offers the best hope for a brighter future for all Americans: radical restructuring of education. That, though, would have entailed taking on a major constituency: teachers' unions.
Another missed opportunity for greatness was entitlement reform. Conditions were ripe for partial privatization of Social Security in 1997. The recently reinaugurated president wasn't ready.
Foreign affairs. Clinton lucked out in Kosovo, confounding all skeptics. His record in Bosnia was mixed, but Slobodan Milosevic is gone and democracy is taking hold. Peace in Northern Ireland may prove a second Clinton success.
In pursuit of a legacy, Clinton bartered away Israel's security. Aware of his true goals, Palestinians kept upping the ante. Historians will question why Clinton sent troops to Haiti, embarked on "nation building" in Somalia and took to bombing distant lands whenever his continuance in office appeared at risk.
Clinton's subordination of national security interests to those of trade (and possibly campaign contributions) may have compromised American security and secrets. Yet, American relations with China worsened. Under Clinton's watch, reform in Russia took a time out as millions of dollars of aid vanished. The opposite occurred south of the border because of his bailout of Mexico's economy.
Integrity in government. Clinton brought respect for public institutions to an all-time low. His Justice Department shielded admitted violators of campaign-finance laws from prosecution, acted imprudently in Waco, botched the Olympics bombing and Los Alamos espionage investigations and forcibly returned a 6-year-old to a communist regime without so much as a hearing.
Clinton minions fabricated charges against White House travel office personnel, handed sensitive FBI files to political hacks and repeatedly rented out the Lincoln bedroom to contributors. The President leaves office facing possible disbarment and indictment.
Impact on the presidency. Here, Clinton may most be remembered as a negative role model. Before his coming, citizens had not been accustomed to parsing presidential pronouncements (like "ending welfare as we know it" and "will not raise taxes to pay for my programs") for wiggle room. Nor did they expect the President to contribute to the debasement of the culture with cracks about AstroTurf in his pickup truck, descriptions of his underwear, or assertions that "other presidents also did it," as if the "it" pertained solely to sex, or that Jefferson, Roosevelt or Kennedy had perjured themselves.
Many presidents made recess appointments, issued executive orders, and removed federal lands from development. But Clinton made the extraordinary routine. In devising newer and newer ways to circumvent conventional checks on his power, Clinton began the first extra-constitutional presidency in American history.
During two government shutdowns, during his campaigns, during the fight against impeachment, Clinton employed the tactics for which he will be most remembered: demonization of opponents and blatant disregard for boundaries. History would think better of him had he employed his charm and well-honed political skills in pursuit of goals loftier than his own survival.
Alvin S. Felzenbergis director of the Mandate for Leadership Program at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally published in The Philadelphia Inqui