President of the World? Legacy Hunting With Bill Clinton

Greatness may be closer to Bill Clinton's grasp now than ever before. He is shorter on resources than he was as president; but the impediments he once faced have fallen away, too.
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Monday night, watching "President of the World," the Chris Matthews documentary on the post-presidency of Bill Clinton, one sensed a man in a race against time. One day Bill Clinton's in Northern Ireland, the next in Malawi, then it's off to Kosovo. He's sharing a stage with Bill Gates, he's holding hands with Nelson Mandela, he's wowing Mick Jagger. The adulatory film barely mentioned the underside to Clinton's globe-trotting, high-powered philanthropy: his globe-trotting, high-powered personal moneymaking. But even allowing for the time and effort he expends to feather his own nest, we should all be impressed by his post-presidential record of doing good.

Like so much about Bill Clinton, his energy is not that of an ordinary human being. Even so, his frenetic pace suggests that this man is trying to cram as much activity as he can into the remaining years of his life. He denies that his post-presidency has been devoted to making up for his shortcomings as president -- although he does approach such an admission when talking about Rwanda. But whether he thinks so or not, the rest of us can't help but see what he's doing now as a way to compensate for not doing enough while president of the United States.

How much does he have to compensate for? That is, how good a president was he?

And will history judge him a great man, even if not a great president?

In trying to evaluate Bill Clinton's time in office, there are three main obstacles. First, he served during a time of relative quiet, after one war, the cold war, had ended, and before another, the war on terror, began. Clinton himself has spoken of his regret that he didn't serve at a time of great national crisis, of war or depression, as did his heroes, Lincoln and FDR. Would he have risen to such an occasion? I think he would have. In April 1995, four days after Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City, Clinton gave a magnificent speech at the Oklahoma State Fair Arena, a speech that comforted not just the families of the dead but the nation as a whole, that helped the country make sense of the tragedy, and gave it resolve to fight the terrorists who would commit such murders. The speech marked the real beginning of his rehabilitation after the midterm losses in 1994. But he never had to deal with a crisis of greater and more extended proportions.

Second, there is always the sex. During the time I was working on my biography of the man, whenever I would meet someone new and would answer the "So what do you do?" question, that person's follow-up to me would always be, "What did he see in Monica anyway?" Or, "Who's he sleeping with now?" Or, "How could he have been so stupid?" Never, "Gee, what a bang-up job he did on the economy." Or, "What a great job he did of restoring fiscal sanity to the government." Or even, "Man, he really blew it on health care" or "That SOB screwed the middle class on NAFTA."

For all his accomplishments as president, Bill Clinton is stuck with the image of a sex-crazed dude who loves to party, an incorrigible lech who can't resist a piece of ass no matter how awkward or inappropriate or dangerous the circumstances. As Doug Brinkley, the historian from Rice University, pointed out to me, consider the words we associate with individual presidents. John F. Kennedy? "Ask not ..." Ronald Reagan? "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." What words first come to mind in connection with Bill Clinton? "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." (During bookstore talks the audience and I spontaneously chant the words together.)

And third, he failed to come up with that one large and unambiguous accomplishment, that singular achievement to which you can point and say, "Here is what this man accomplished as president of the United States to better the lives of his fellow citizens of this nation and the world." He attempted two grand projects: At the beginning of his tenure it was health care, which went down because it was the wrong plan at the right time or the right plan at the wrong time, or because Hillary was the wrong person to put in charge of the initiative, or simply because the country was not ready for substantial health care reform in 1994. And at the end of his tenure there was the conflict between Israel and Palestine. That dream of a resolution to that historic dispute ended for Bill Clinton just days before he left the White House, when Yasir Arafat sat in the Oval Office and said thanks but no thanks to the peace deal Clinton had fashioned.

It is odd, certainly, to speak of a man as an underachiever when he spent a dozen years as a governor and eight as president. His accomplishments were not insignificant: He steered the economy to twenty-two million new jobs, the budget to surplus, and the tax code to a bit more fairness; he signed the Family and Medical Leave Act and welfare reform; he foresaw globalization and acted, as he saw fit, to ease the nation's adjustment to it; he helped calm the Balkans and Northern Ireland; at great political risk, he took action to save Mexico from financial ruin. But shouldn't this rare politician have been able to accomplish more? Shouldn't there be more to his legacy than putting out regional fires and acting as a competent steward of the nation's business between wars?

The feeling of disappointment in Bill Clinton goes back to his time as governor of Arkansas. Here's how Ernie Dumas, often called the dean of the Arkansas political press corps, recalls it:

All those years Clinton was governor, I was an editorial writer at the (Arkansas) Gazette, and all those years we always endorsed him warmly, saying 'He's still got a lot of promise. One more term and he's going do it right.'

He was good for Arkansas -- a better governor than the vast majority of our governors or other southern governors generally. Yet he was so smart, with so much talent, such rare political gifts. That was always it. There was so much promise and he didn't deliver. He led us to expect miracles and all we got was modest good works. I think that's true of him as president as well.

Of course, part of the failures as president was because of Whitewater. If the Republicans had not taken over Congress in '94, and if Whitewater hadn't been there, we might have a national health care system, and he might have done a great deal more. I still think he was a pretty good president, but that's it: pretty good. Maybe a little above fair, but that's all.

You look back all across his career and you see so much waste. So much promise unfulfilled.

Greatness may be closer to Bill Clinton's grasp now than ever before. He is shorter on resources than he was as president -- he is no longer supported by the vast apparatus, civilian and military, he commanded as president. But the impediments he once faced have fallen away, too. No Republican Congress blocks him at every turn. No press casts doubt on his every move.

Not only have his external tormentors fallen away, his inner obstacles are less formidable as well. Does he still seek sexual gratification outside his marriage? Maybe -- rumors abound, and he is, after all, still Bill Clinton -- but his intimate life no longer threatens to derail his public endeavors. Tom DeLay and Linda Tripp and Paula Jones and Ken Starr have moved on. His wife is not president; the national press cares little about ungentlemanly behavior from the man who is first gentleman of only the State Department, not the nation. If any of the CEOs, prime ministers, and movie stars who can help him advance his humanitarian work care about his private moral failings, he can always find others who don't.

Although he gives no sign of losing his driving curiosity, he has conquered the inability to set priorities that bedeviled the early years of his administration -- he has restricted his foundation's portfolio to a handful of narrowly focused areas: among them AIDS, childhood obesity, and, more recently, climate change. His temper and his sense of aggrievement, so vividly on display during his wife's campaign in 2008, seem irrelevant now, as well: Unless Hillary rethinks her 2009 announcement that she will not again run for president, or unless Chelsea seeks elective office, there will never again be a political campaign in which he is so personally invested that he makes a public fool of himself. He is still mostly free to pursue his newfound interest in making money; indeed, the Obama Administration, with the conditions it laid down when Hillary was nominated to be secretary of state, may have done Bill Clinton a favor by frowning upon some of his more questionable associations. And if he makes the occasional trip to a Central Asian country and his traveling partner comes away with his pockets full, the New York Times may write about it, but few people will be bothered.

Bill Clinton's work on HIV/AIDS has lifted the circumstances of millions. As the United Nations special envoy to Haiti he is intimately involved in that land's effort to rebuild after the 2010 earthquake. But negotiating with drug manufacturers and seeing that medicines make their way up remote African hilltops, and even overseeing the reconstruction of a poor Caribbean nation, are child's play compared with another goal he has set for himself: fighting climate change, which affects not just those who carry a virus, but everyone who breathes, and every economy of every nation on Earth. Can the "president of the world" bring enough influence to bear not only to affect climate change but to confront it with force and courage? Can he go beyond a pilot program that will make the Empire State Building green and move toward meaningful, global solutions? Or will he leave the environment to Al Gore and find some other Gordian knot -- nuclear weapons, maybe, or Israel and the Palestinians after all -- that he and only he can untie?

Can the president of the world save the world?

Maybe now Bill Clinton will finally fulfill his promise.

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