Looking Back On Clinton

It has been a tumultuous journey. For eight years, we have traveled with Bill Clinton through a presidency that ranged from proud achievements to sordid escapades.

We have marveled at Mr. Clinton's intelligence, and at his stupidity. His larger-than-life personality has enthralled his supporters and enraged his adversaries. And a week before he leaves office, the debate over Bill Clinton's legacy is already intense.

Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Children and Families is a steadfast Clinton supporter who calls him a "brilliant political leader."

"I think its an extraordinarily positive legacy," she says of the Clinton years. "He has at one and the same time addressed the real world needs of women and families and made government relevant to people."

Frequent critics of Mr. Clinton point out his problems with telling the truth.

"I think Bill Clinton was a pretty trivial president. I don't think he made a big difference. A minor, scandal-ridden, end-of-the-century president," says writer Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic.

And historians like Joseph Ellis have this take on the man from Arkansas: "I think that one of his legacies is going to be the strength of the economy, without question."

Ellis has just written a widely praised book about America's revolutionary leaders called The Founding Brothers. He says President William Jefferson Clinton most resembles the man he's named after: Thomas Jefferson.

"Their ability to move so adroitly from one position to another position in a way that would seem to be hypocrisy but which for them is obvious sincerity - that's the one thing that's on the one hand troubling to a lot of people," says Ellis. "That's also the thing that makes them so effective as politicians."

Bill Clinton is often called "the greatest politician of his generation," but his presidency got off to a rocky start. His "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military drew flack from all sides, the massive health care plan crafted by Hillary Rodham Clinton cratered, and ethical questions about Whitewater and other Clinton financial deals dominated the news.

The president was able to get some programs passed, including deficit reduction, the Brady gun control law banning assault weapons, a bill to allow workers to take leave for family emergencies, and nafta - a major international trade agreement.

But two years into his first term, Republicans touting a new "Contract With America" won majorities in both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. Bill Clinton's presidency was on the ropes. He was even defending his own relevancy.

"The Constitution gives me relevance," the president said at the time. "The power of our ideas gives me relevance."

As a White House reporter covering the Clinton administration in those years, I wondered whether Bill Clinton woul be able to revive his presidency, or whether his first term would be his last. But I learned why the president likes to call himself at "the comeback kid." In 1995, there was a major turning point when Mr. Clinton refused to accept Republican budget cuts in social programs. Washington was deadlocked; the whole goverment shut down. Republicans took the heat.

"I think it was very important," said Clinton friend and supporter Judith Lichtman of that battle between the president and the congressional Republicans. "It's not only of great political significance, but I also think it was of great political, psychological, and sociological importance. But once he did that, they realized the real limitations of where they could take their agenda."

Mr. Clinton also figured out how to co-opt Republican issues. He signed on to welfare reform. He came out for a balanced budget. He cut government regulations. The economy took off - and he was reelected in a landslide.

Historian Joseph Ellis says Bill Clinton has changed the Democratic Party for all time.

"He has ended the traditional definition of liberalism as we knew it - and I think what Clinton has done is associate the liberal tradition with capitalism, with the marketplace," Ellis says. "It's a recognition that you must engage the entrepreneurial energies of the public in order to generate the kind of wealth that can then spread out and assist people at all levels."

Like his domestic policy, President Clinton's foreign policy has been a rollercoaster ride. His mission to restore stability in Somalia failed, symbolized by the image of the body of an American soldier dragged through the streets. Mr. Clinton engineered the famous handshake between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, only to see the Middle East explode back into chaos. He helped forge peace in Bosnia - and waged and won an air war in Kosovo.

But there is one issue that dominated his second term in office. The mere fact of President Clinton's sexual liaison with one-time White House intern Monica Lewinsky was scandalous.

"The woman was young enough to be his daughter. But much worse than that - I think people have forgiven that - was the instinctive refusal to face up to it with the lying and the ducking." says Andrew Sullian of The New Republic.

And it was the lying under oath that got him impeached - and that could bring an indictment when he leaves office.

"I think he will be remembered for impeachment," says Sullivan. As for Mr. Clinton's character, he says, "I think he has none. And when you know that your president is that cynical about the truth, you can't help but think that he's demeaned the office permanently."

But one of the other contradictions about Bill Clinton is that even with doubts about his character, his ability to connect with people remained. When you watch him plunge ito a crowd, you get the sense that he's enjoying it as much as they are, that he's getting his batteries recharged.

And his rhetoric can soar. For example, in Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, when he spoke of American veterans who had fought that day.

"Today, many of the them are among us," Mr. Clinton said then. "Oh, they may walk with a little less spring in their step and their ranks are growing thinner. But let us never forget: when they were young, these men saved the world."

In times of despair, as after the Oklahoma City bombing, his was the voice of comfort.

"Those who are lost now belong to God. Someday, we will be with them," said Mr. Clinton at that time. "But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives."

So how will future generations view Bill Clinton?

While the Lewinsky affair is certainly going to always be part of the shadow over his presidency and historians' assessment of it, it is a shadow that will recede," says historian Joseph Ellis. It won't be a stain on his presidency anything like Watergate has been on Nixon's.

And I think that as we go on in the 21st century, we're going to look back on Clinton and say, 'My god, we didn't quite realize at the time how extraordinarily talented this particular president really was.'"


As for his own assessment, well, Bill Clinton says there may be people who do a better job, but none who loved it more.

"Now some of you might think I've been busy writing my memoirs," said Mr. Clinton at a White House Correspondents' Dinner. "I'm not concerned about my memoirs. I'm concerned about my resume. Here's what I've got so far - 'Career objective: to stay president'..."

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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