Newsreal: Clinton: His nine lives aren't used up yet

The president's latest "end" is greatly exaggerated.

Published January 22, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

It's always been "the end of the Clinton presidency" for as long as I can remember. Certainly it was over at least three times before Bill even got into the White House. Maybe four. It's hard to keep count.

The first official "end" came in 1988, with young Clinton's keynoter at the Dukakis convention in Atlanta. The speech was meant to establish him as a man of vision and promise, but it was so boring and so interminable Clinton became a national joke. He hung in there, took the punishment and thus was still on his feet by March 1992, all fresh for his second End, when the Gennifer Flowers scandal broke in the middle of the New Hampshire primary.

At the time this looked like the End to all Endings. Flowers was obviously telling the truth. Bill looked as guilty as sin. But Hillary carried him through.

By now the Ends were coming thick and furious: pot smoking, draft dodging, the first delicious fragrance of Whitewater. The Clinton presidency was, as a thing of bright promise, over by the time of the Democratic Convention in the summer of 1992.

There's nothing unusual here. American presidencies seldom coincide with the precise four-year terms that march reassuringly down the quadrennial calendar. By the official measure, Jimmy Carter's administration stretched from 1977 through the end of 1980. But the liberal arc actually extended from Richard Nixon's ouster in mid-1974 to the successful counterattack of the right in 1979. The Clinton presidency began with the budget compromise of 1990, when President Bush abandoned his party's right wing and agreed to raise taxes.

But appearances have to be maintained. Though his presidency was actually over, Clinton moved into the White House in January 1993, running a kind of caretaker regime until the official inauguration of President Newt Gingrich in 1994. He still kept those Ends coming all the same out of sheer force of habit; starting with Troopergate, the health-care fiasco, Travelgate, Filegate, Campaign Fundgate, on and on.

The American people don't mind Bill and the reason is, they know he's not really president, never has been president, so why get hot under the collar? They know the country is in the hands of Alan Greenspan. From this realistic point of view, there's something positively endearing about Bill, going through the motions, making little speeches on the White House Lawn, looking solemn at funerals, getting to host Barbra Streisand in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Will he be impeached? people ask. Certainly, the Republicans are drawing up the Articles. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr has those tapes and Bill's messages to Monica Lewinsky. I doubt it will come to that. Remember the agonies of those House reps back in 1974, pondering whether to impeach Nixon, one of the big political criminals of our century? They're not going to impeach Bill for sneaking young Monica into the White House at 2 a.m. and then asking her to fib to Kenneth Starr about it.

Besides, why would any Republican truly want the official End of "President" Bill right now? So Al Gore could get two years' exposure in the White House and pardon Bill into the bargain? That's why Newt sat on the tapes for a month. It looks like endless Ends through to the end of Clinton's term. At least the man's consistent.

By Alexander Cockburn

Alexander Cockburn's books include "Washington Babylon" and "The Golden Age Is in Us." He writes the "Beat the Devil" column for the Nation.

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Bill Clinton