Sunday, September 03, 2006

Paul Johnson on Bill Clinton

An interesting article on the Clinton presidency -- both good and bad, both praiseworthy and blameworthy, by historian Paul Johnson. In the book "Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House", by a panel of historians left, right, and center, Clinton is rated 24th of 42--about right up the middle.

Presenting a just estimate of the Clinton presidency will pose perhaps insoluble problems to historians. The printed record of his doings, misdoings, and omissions is unarguably deplorable from start to finish. Yet he was reelected without difficulty, and many would argue that, had it been constitutionally possible for him to run for a third term, he would have been easily elected again. It is a fact that historians will have to take into account, for it is central to the success he enjoyed that William Jefferson Clinton was a formidable personality, at least in one sense:
Face-to-face, it was almost impossible to dislike him. Indeed it was difficult not to like him very much. As Tony Blair put it to me: "I found I had to like him, despite all the evidence."

Yet who, or what, was one liking? Other men who have gotten into trouble in the White House--one thinks of Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon--were distinctive personalities, to be made the subject of deeply etched portraits. They could be grasped. Clinton was, and still is, elusive.

Like Ronald Reagan, he was a consummate actor. But whereas Reagan devised his own part, wrote his own lines, and passionately believed in both, Clinton ad-libbed. He believed in nothing, or perhaps one should say in anything, since most positions received his fleeting endorsements at one time or another.

He certainly believed in himself, that is, in his capacity to occupy high office, and this self-justification by faith carried him through all the embarrassments and humiliations to which he was subjected during his eight vertiginous years of power. One day he would (as in 1994) be answering questions on the MTV Network from a silly teenager about his underpants; later that same day he would pick up the phone and speak to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, seemingly unaware of any incongruity.

This confidence in his star and his survival was not attended by arrogance. There was nothing subjectively arrogant about Clinton; had there been, he would have been much easier to destroy. His power, rather, lay in his capacity to edit unwelcome reality out of his life. This may have been hereditary. Clinton's family background was unfortunate, to put it mildly, and there is no more to be said about it other than to applaud his strength in rising above it. His mother, Virginia Kelley, provided a clue in explaining how she survived her rackety life: "I construct an airtight box.
I keep inside it what I want to think about, and everything else stays beyond the walls. Inside is white, outside is black. . . . Inside is love and friends and optimism. Outside is negativity, can't-doism, and any criticism of me and mine." Bill Clinton would not have been able to describe his defensive technique so clearly. But that is what he did, with great success. As a result, while never arrogant, he was always secure.

He was clever, quick, and capable of huge efforts over short time spans. He has been compared to a geyser. From a marshy launching pad in Arkansas he got himself to Georgetown, to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, to Yale Law School, and to a law professorship at the University of Arkansas. This quickly propelled him into the attorney general's chair in Little Rock, then to the governorship. He was barely thirty-two when first elected governor in 1978 and, though he lost his reelection bid in 1980--his only defeat at the hands of the voters--he thereafter served another ten years, 1983--92, relinquishing power only to take up the presidency.

This performance can be taken either way. When he ran for the presidency, one commentator noted: "Anyone who has been elected governor of Arkansas five times cannot be an entirely honest man." On the other hand, his record in winning and holding voters was there for all to see. In particular he learned exactly how to befriend and win over the local opinion-formers whereever he went from town to town in Arkansas--"the car salesmen if white, the funeral parlor owners if black," as he told his staffers.

He was affable, easygoing, uncontentious, friendly to all. It is true that as governor he accomplished little or nothing. But there were advantages ininactivity: Clinton got to Washington with few enemies and virtually no intellectual baggage. He had a bland support for all "progressive" left-wing causes, but this was a veneer over the innate conservatism of a man who knows he can always persuade voters to give him good jobs.

Such baggage as he did possess was the property of the clever woman he met at Yale and married, for better or for worse. Hillary Rodham, a year younger, came from Chicago and quickly became a fierce Democrat partisan courtroom fighter, her first significant job being as counsel on the staff formed to impeach President Nixon in 1974.

Hillary gave an ideological edge to Clinton's general fuzziness when he got to the White House. She also stuck a left-wing feminist finger in appointment pies, especially of women, sometimes with embarrassing, indeed hilarious, results. Thus Tara O'Toole, nominated assistant secretary of energy, turned out to be a devout member of a Marxist women's reading circle. Roberta Achtenberg, assistant secretary for fair housing, revealed herself as a militant lesbian who persecuted the Boy Scouts for not allowing homosexuals as scoutmasters. Joycelyn Elders, made surgeon general, after many public rows, had to go when she advocated compulsory sex education for children far below puberty, even to the point of teaching about masturbation.

It has to be said that, from start to finish, there was always a comic aspect to the Clinton presidency. Funny things happened to him on his way to the White House, and in it, and wherever he went. The scandals began early in his first term and never let up, some trivial, even surreal. You had to laugh. Clinton held up traffic for an entire hour at Los Angeles International Airport, one of the world's busiest, while a barber came on board Air Force One to give him a haircut. When he stayed on the supercarrier George Washington, members of his staff were accused of carrying off embroidered bathrobes and fancy towels as souvenirs. Clinton said it was an outrageous lie and blamed the media for the thefts, but a White House payment of $562 told a different story.

Also comic, but to many Americans shocking, was the news that Clinton had agreed to let celebrity seekers sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House in return for hefty donations to Democratic Party campaign funds. More serious, indeed deeply serious, were the allegations that campaign contributions had been accepted from communist China.

There were also, as the Clinton presidency progressed, endless stories of business corruption involving Clinton and his wife in their Arkansas days, senior staffers in conflict-of-interest accusations, associates like Vince Foster and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown who mysteriously died, and White House people who went off to become lobbyists. But most of these stories were complex and dreary to follow, hopelessly enmeshed in contradictory evidence. And there were too many of them. One clear, deadly scandal bullet is more likely to finish off a president than a scattering of scandal shrapnel coming from all directions.

Moreover, scandals about money and death had to compete with sex--a topic that eventually came to dominate the Clinton presidency. Indeed, it could be said to have been Clinton's salvation. His womanizing cropped up early in the presidency when it was revealed that, as governor, he had used state troopers to round him up partners. This was nothing, especially to Democrats hardened by covering up for John F. Kennedy. Presidential illicit sex in the White House, which gradually emerged, albeit of an uncomfortable, hurried, and furtive kind, might have been another matter if Hillary had taken offense and begun divorce proceedings. But she kept her eye on the real ball: Each presidential peccadillo led her to demand and get more political say, with her own future political career in mind. So long as Hillary was forgiving, the nation could be too.

That Clinton covered up his womanizing by lying on oath was dangerous, of course, because courtroom perjury and obstruction of justice might be construed as "high crimes and misdemeanors." Indeed they became the engine of the eventual impeachment proceedings. The trouble, however, was that the independent counsel made them the sole engine--questionable dealings with communist China, for instance, were left out.

Clinton clearly lied, glibly and easily, unselfconsciously and gaily--even unnecessarily--all his political life, often justifying his deception by legal quibbles on words, a skill he honed to perfection; his admission that he "smoked" marijuana but "never inhaled" was a characteristic distinction.

But to try to nail him for lying about sex was a serious tactical, indeed a strategic, error. Most men, including most members of the Senate, have lied about sex at some time. Of all the different kinds of lies it is the one that carries the least opprobrium, either among colleagues or with the public. This was probably the real or main reason why the impeachment proceedings, though serious enough to barely clear the House, could not succeed in the Senate.

But in the meantime, the Clinton presidency had come and gone. It is most improbable that it could ever have been a success story, even on Clinton's own terms. He was indeed a fountain of energy, a geyser, but a spasmodic and uncontrolled one, propelled by galvanic appetites and generating chaos.

Aides testified: "He reads half a dozen books at a time." "He relaxes not by watching a basketball game on TV or reading or picking up the telephone or doing crossword puzzles, but doing all simultaneously, while worrying an unlit cigar." "When he would eat an apple, he would eat the whole thing, core, stem, and seeds. He would pick up a baked potato in his hands and eat it in two bites."

The womanizing fitted in well with this dynamic but incoherent approach, but careful and systematic policy planning did not. Indeed to the question "Did Clinton have a strategy in the White House?" the answer must be no. His foreign policy was a long list of failed, aborted, or abandoned initiatives, punctuated by bouts of somnambulation, which, in the case of international terrorism, was to have serious consequences in the future. However, most of Clinton's time and energy as president were spent not on policy or executive activity but in defending himself against accusations. The theme of his presidency might be described as "The Inconvenience of Sexual Appetites." Clinton in fact did nothing. It was not so much masterly inactivity as mistressly inactivity.

That inactivity had one outstanding virtue. It turned the Clinton years into one of the longest periods of laissez-faire free enterprise in U.S. history. If Clinton had been a continent man, and so with the time and focus to be a left-wing activist president, the consequences would almost certainly have been disastrous for the American economy. As it was, with the president busy elsewhere, the nation thrived mightily, as it always does when politicians do not meddle. The stage had already been set by the Reagan years, but under Clinton all surged forward. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, more than $5 trillion in real terms was added to America's gross domestic product. This was the central paradox of the Clinton presidency, and of course the leading reason why he remained popular.

Not even Clinton's notorious end-of-term list of pardons for notorious gangsters and corrupt former pals could quite extinguish popular support for the man. The charm continued to work, not only in America but abroad. I last saw Clinton near my own house in the celebrated Notting Hill district of London in 2002. He decided to do a walkabout, and plunged into the crowd, an activity he enormously and palpably enjoyed, and which delighted everybody. No one ever matched him as a simple campaigner. It was the thing he did best. It might be said, indeed, that he almost never did anything else.

In Notting Hill he was not running for office. The locals were not his voters. But he behaved as if they were and they loved it. The old political master was in his element. He found himself in a pub and ordered drinks all round. All cheered. The news spread to the vast crowd outside, and it cheered too. Adrenaline racing, fists thumping chests, hugging and handshaking, wisecracking and slogan swapping, Clinton worked that crowd for twenty minutes, leaving it hoarse and exhausted, delighted and deeply impressed when he swept off in his limo. There was however, one unhappy man -- the bartender, who was never paid for ol' Bill's round.


Mr. Johnson is author, most recently, of "Art: A New History"
(HarperCollins, 2003). From the book "Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House," edited by James Taranto and Leonard Leo. Foreword by William J. Bennett. Copyright 2004 by Dow Jones & Company Inc. A Wall Street Journal Book, published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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