Clinton's final days

As the newly liberated president travels the country to cement his legacy, he reminds us we'll miss him as much as he'll miss us.

Published January 13, 2001 8:36AM (EST)

During his manic drive for a noble legacy, President Clinton has managed to reprise his entire presidency in a few short weeks, much the way your whole life is supposed to flash before your eyes at the moment of death. One minute he's brave, heroic, awe-inspiring, and the next he's grandiose, self-deluding, bathetic -- sometimes within the very same speech.

He's everywhere these days, as if there were four of him: In Michigan, pressing the flesh of adoring college students; on a sentimental, taxpayer-funded journey to New Hampshire, playing his saxophone and thanking the primary voters who saved him from himself in 1992, after the Gennifer Flowers debacle; in Chicago, defiantly telling "the truth" about the coming presidency of George W. Bush: "The only way they could win the election was to stop the counting in Florida."

In just three weeks, he signed the treaty establishing an international War Crimes Court; issued an executive order protecting a third of national forests from logging and road building; offered clemency to 62 prisoners, including two women serving heinous sentences for minor involvement in their boyfriends' drug crimes; approved major new regulations on medical privacy, workplace health and auto emissions, and on top of it all, put forth a blockbuster, if probably doomed, Middle East peace proposal.

Clinton's critics, of course, are furious about his frenzied final days. The last-minute activism proves "this has been the most left-wing presidency in our nation's history," fumed a fed-up Peter Parisi in the Washington Times. Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, called Clinton, oddly, "a busy beaver," and promised his boss would review the flurry of new rules with an eye toward undoing what he could. The Brookings Institution's Paul Light called Clinton's closing acts a "bacchanal" -- subliminally reminding us that the big man has a big appetite, and once again he'd let his desires get the better of him, this time politically.

Of course it's Clinton's own fault that images of beavers and bacchanalia have icky double meanings when applied to him. But the choice of words was probably no accident. Even the most resolved Clinton haters, the ones who believe the man lies for breakfast, have to acknowledge the truth in at least one thing he's said: "They may find someone who does this job as well as me, but I don't think they'll ever find someone who will have as much fun doing it." And they despise him for it.

The core of the establishment's grudge against Clinton -- and the core of his appeal to the rest of us -- has always been his outsize appetite and ambition, his lusty connection with the common folk, his small-d democrat's awe at the trappings of his own power, the sense he conveyed of having big fun working overtime doing the people's business. All that low-rent energy and ambition, his enemies sniff, naturally and inevitably led to his diclassi romp with the fleshy, big-mouthed intern, just as naturally and inevitably as having a wealthy father who went to Andover and Yale means a son of privilege, however trifling, will wind up following him there. Class tells.

Conversely, to Clinton's admirers, these hectic closing days are a bittersweet reminder of what might have been -- the legacy of activism, compassion and stewardship that could have been Clinton's if he hadn't been kneecapped by the vast right-wing conspiracy and his own self-indulgence. I've always been ambivalent about Clinton, but I've felt two moments of genuine pain at the prospect of his passing. The first was the day Bush went to visit the White House after his friends on the Supreme Court gave it to him. The president-elect looked childlike, twitchy, supremely insecure, next to the calm grown-up in the chair beside him. Clinton was gracious if lordly, bantering knowledgeably with reporters about the state of the economy, while Bush sat tongue-tied, anxious, mostly mute. Behind Clinton's friendly smile you could see him looking at his successor and thinking: Poor little guy; hes gonna make them miss me, more than anything I could ever do.

The most poignant moment came last week, at the press conference where Clinton declared forest lands off limits to loggers and road builders. He announced his decision dramatically, in Washington's National Arboretum, framed by bare black trees etched in white snow. He wore a black topcoat, his hair was white against a gray sky and the way his eight years in office had aged him was never more obvious. Yet he projected authority and a dignity born of loss and defeat as he announced his bold stand for the environment. You knew the chain saws of anti-government invective were revving up around the country, but for a moment there was calm, and he never seemed nobler.

What if that Clinton had governed these eight years? What if the brave, bold activist, the wise public man, had been president? Of course romanticizing Clinton that way is as blind and unfair as dismissing him as a lying, priapic Stalinist. If you're going to love Bill Clinton, you've got to love all of him -- that may be the most important lesson, politically and personally, his presidency taught us. The triangulating dealmaker, the Dick Morris acolyte, the one who bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan he claimed was making weapons, the man who preyed on a naive young employee -- it's all part of the Clinton legacy: the weak, the strong, the noble and the selfish. Never has a president worn his imperfection, his capacity for change and his desperate need for it, so openly. We watched him grow up no less than we did Chelsea.

Of course, admiring Clinton's whirlwind final days, and despairing that he could advance his activist agenda only as a lame duck, assumes that his presidency did not. And that's plainly wrong.

The Washington Times sees what many on the left cannot: Clinton cared more about the poor and disenfranchised, and did more on their behalf, than any president except perhaps Lyndon Johnson. But he also saw the power, and the distorted truth, in the right's critique of '60s liberalism. Ronald Reagan told us we fought a war on poverty but poverty won, and many believed him. Clinton was smart enough to know better, but he also acknowledged the problems with the liberal approach to race, poverty and the crisis of the inner city that many of his ideological allies could not or would not, and tried to correct them. And he succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.

Admittedly much of his anti-poverty agenda was quiet, stealthy, below the radar and cloaked in the language of growth, markets and economic vitality. But it was enormously important nonetheless. As Joe Klein detailed in his New Yorker assessment of the Clinton administration, an added $70 billion went to low-income families over five years, including $24 billion for a new Children's Health Insurance Program and $30 billion in college tax credits, and an additional $21 billion to expand the earned-income tax credit -- in effect providing a government subsidy to low-wage workers, since it goes to many people who earn too little to pay taxes anyway. Head Start and child-care funding more than doubled.

The 1996 welfare reform bill he reluctantly signed was bold, supremely risky, not without flaws, probably necessary. Thanks mostly to the good economy, but partly to the carrot-and-stick reform he presided over, welfare rolls have been reduced by more than half. Women who leave welfare and go to work now earn an average of $7,000 more than welfare annually, plus keep their health benefits; when Clinton took office, that figure was $2,000 more.

There are still plenty of problems: Many who've left welfare are still poor, at least for now, and if our current economic woes turn into a recession, there will likely be bigger holes in the safety net than there were before. President Al Gore would have tried to fill them in; we can only pray Bush puts compassion before ideology if the economy goes south on his watch.

Yet Clinton knew there was power in turning welfare recipients into workers, even low-wage ones, taxpayers with a claim on the sympathy and support of their struggling fellow citizens. Liberals made a big mistake when they lobbied for welfare payments rather than jobs for the rural and inner-city poor. Welfare rolls soared, and so did taxes; the economy contracted, and the isolated poor were sitting ducks for the politics of race and resentment. Clinton also rehabilitated the idea of government, reversing the notion that it was always the problem, never the solution. He drove Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America out of Congress and into a think tank, where he can't hurt anyone.

Of course he cut more than a few ethical corners along the way, and proved himself to be the ultimate political opportunist. He flew back to Arkansas, as a presidential candidate, to preside over the execution of the mentally disabled Ricky Ray Rector, and expanded capital punishment laws to cover dozens more federal crimes. Incarceration rates have soared under Clinton, and despite his comments to Rolling Stone, he never expended much political capital to fight the excesses of his own drug war: the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, the racially loaded disparities between crack and powdered cocaine penalties. And while he pardoned Dorothy Gaines and Kemba Smith, advocates had asked him to extend clemency to hundreds of similar nonviolent drug offenders, and so far, he hasn't. With his budget-cutting rhetoric, his partnership with Alan Greenspan and his loving attention to corporate America, he was in many ways a great Republican president. And of course, his appetites and ambition cost him, and us, politically: His promiscuous embrace of too many projects -- NAFTA, healthcare, the budget, gays in the military -- weakened his first term, and of course the Lewinsky mess set back his second dramatically.

But his compromises and inconsistencies were part of his power. The right has always understood what the left would not, that Clinton's moderation was liberalism's last best hope. He ended two decades of Republican rule, interrupted briefly and ineffectually by Jimmy Carter, decades that had hauled the country to the far right. One look at James Baker during the Florida crisis and you had to appreciate what Clinton accomplished -- he took the government back from the rich, white, corporate potentates who thought they owned it. To see the Bush coterie, the jowly, silver-maned, shiny-pated Republican retreads, headed back to Washington now is to regret every unkind word or thought I had about the man who exiled them for eight years. We will miss him, badly.

In many ways Clinton's fundamental radicalism was as much about who he was as what he did. Like Walt Whitman, he contained multitudes, embodying in his person the entire Democratic coalition -- the fatherless son of the working class, the scholarship boy, the Southerner raised in the muck of white family dysfunction and the warmth of black culture, a draft-dodging, pot-smoking baby boomer with an ambitious wife who wouldn't change her name. To miss the role that class played in his rise, fall and rise again is to miss a lot about American culture and politics.

How many times do we have to hear the stories about Clinton at Yale, the hayseed in the highwater pants, to hear the subtext: How did he get past the guards? So much Clinton hatred is fueled by dressed-up class disdain, for the white trash guy with a weakness for McDonald's and big-haired, blowsy women like his mother. His up from nowhere story is indeed extraordinary -- the grandfather who was an iceman with an eye for the ladies, his alcoholic, abusive stepfather, his beloved mother, who wore more eye makeup than Katherine Harris, married five times to four men. Greil Marcus is right to note pundits' incessant and telling Clinton-as-Elvis metaphors. (Maureen Dowd's contract stipulates one Elvis/Clinton reference a week.) Of course it's fat Elvis they're referring to -- addicted Elvis, paranoid and deluded Elvis, ridiculous Elvis -- while his admirers look at him and see young Elvis, sexy Elvis, mulatto Elvis. It's an unbridgeable divide.

But unlike Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, who also came from humble beginnings, Clinton retained some class loyalty, and his supporters repaid him come impeachment time. The disdain and disapproval of the Washington elites was legendary -- remember that scary Sally Quinn article in November 1998, on the eve of the election that vindicated Clinton, laying out why the right-minded people of small-town Washington disdained the Clintons and their Dogpatch Camelot? You'd have thought there were rusted-out cars on the East Lawn, a trailer park on the Ellipse, given Quinn's horror at the way her temporary "neighbors" broke all the rules. Quinn had plenty of company, though few others would put it in writing.

During the Florida recount debacle, for instance, it was rewarding but puzzling to watch the New York Times editorial page come to Gore's aid and comfort, hammering away at the Republicans' attempts to subvert vote counting. Why, then, had the Times been so blind to the legal, constitutional and political outrage of impeachment, and the Starr investigation? It's hard not to think class had a little bit to do with it: a comfort with and respect for Gore that contrasted with an instinctual revulsion at his boss, the hick pretender who defiled the Oval Office. So they let his enemies string him up, in a high- and low-tech political lynching, but the American people cut him down. (Significantly, the patrician Gore never marshaled the popular support and outrage, during the Florida crisis, that Clinton enjoyed during impeachment.)

Of course Clinton gave his enemies the rope, and maybe class mattered there too -- it was as if he had some kind of self-loathing, I don't belong here, self-destructive streak. But in the end he fought back, and became a hero. Watching Clinton during impeachment I came to admire him despite my own revulsion at his transgressions, political and personal. His refusal to surrender reminded me why I like baseball. You play every day, you play hurt, you play even when you've been humiliated; it's a marathon, not a sprint, and there's always tomorrow. That's how he got through impeachment, and I wasn't alone in admiring him for it.

What will he do now? He needs to make a lot of money, he says, and I don't begrudge him that. I hope he enjoys the freedom his leaving office bestows. I loved the part of his <a target "new" href=famous Esquire interview where he talks about how he's always loved long car trips. "I kind of wanted to take a trip with my wife and daughter around the world, just travel for thirty or forty days after I got out," he told Michael Paterniti. "But if Hillary wins the race," he added wistfully, "then it's probably not practical. She needs to be getting ready to do her job."

With Hillary stuck in Washington, maybe now he can have the freedom she always enjoyed, as an advocate, even a rabble-rouser. He's already gotten started, with his zingers about how the Republicans stole the election in Florida, and hence the presidency. Back in Washington Wednesday, he did it again, talking about Maria Cantwell's surprise Senate win: ''They have this unusual system in Washington state -- they actually count all the votes."

And his old enemies are apoplectic, all over again: On "Hardball" Wednesday night Chris Matthews was spitting mad at Clinton's audacity in reminding people what happened in Florida. "Being a '60s guy, do you think one of the things he doesn't understand is that he's the head of state?" Matthews shouted at Republican Gov. Tom Ridge. Both men shook their heads mournfully, disdainfully: There he goes again; he will not learn his place. Let's hope, for our sake and his, that he never does.

By Joan Walsh

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Bill Clinton