Jewish World Review June 24, 2002 / 14 Tamuz, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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The Clinton legacy: An autopsy | LITTLE ROCK There may be hope for the Clinton Library here after all. It could turn out to be more than the usual presidential shrine if it follows the lead of a seminar just held at Fayetteville, Ark., home of the University of Arkansas.

Despite its typically soporific academic title ("Vantage Points: Perspectives on the Clinton Presidency") the two-day meeting turned out to be a serious, if early, exploration of the weird decade we've just gone through. The seminar brought together an assemblage of experts on the Age of Clinton and, glory be, most of them didn't come across as experts at all. They made sense.

As usual, the almost geological divide over any subject connected with Bill Clinton soon divided this panel, too. Despite his constant talk about wanting to unite Americans, it's hard to think of another recent American president -- except Richard Nixon -- who proved so constantly divisive.

Bill Clinton's bigger-than-life persona overwhelmed his politics, whatever they happened to be at any given time. In that, too, he was a nixonian figure. If Tricky Dick was a conservative who adopted liberal policies, whether he was ordering wage-and-price controls or courting Chairman Mao, it was never clear what policies Slick Willie was adopting or surrendering at the moment.

A professor of history from Purdue, Randy Roberts, predicted that the now former president would continue to be a celebrity. "He's way beyond a politician," Professor Roberts noted. And always has been, he might have added.

Even in office, Bill Clinton was less a commander-in-chief than a celebrity-in-chief, flitting from one crisis to the next, none of them very relevant now, but each of them riveting at the time. It was a little like living with an adolescent: a combination of the harrowing and hilarious. Bill Clinton's great contribution to the presidency was to trivialize it, to turn it into a Hollywood production.

Even his impeachment and trial, for all their theatrics, lacked any real drama or suspense. It was as if the country had decided to take a decade-long break from history and go for entertainment instead. There were times when it felt as if the Roaring Twenties were back. The surreal Clinton Years had the phony feel of a docudrama even as they were taking place in so-called reality.

Veteran reporter Ken Bode predicted that in the end the judgment of the historians may mirror that of the people -- that the personal failures of this president were so integral a part of his presidency that it is the scandals people will remember. What a pity. For here was a president with political talent to burn, which he proceeded to do.

Bill Clinton's presidential years now seem as ephemeral as the dot-com bubble. Ken Bode's sad conclusion: "He wasted too much of his presidency on trivia." So did the country.

Bill Clinton didn't just set the tone of the '90s, he reflected it. He wasn't an aberration, he was the pattern. Much like one of his speeches, the whole decade seemed to go on forever without reaching any clear conclusion. The Nineties added up to a strange combination: sentimentality without emotion, leadership without direction, idealism without sacrifice, ambition to no clear purpose. Perhaps the best description of the Spirit of the Nineties is spiritless.

It was a decade marked by a self-absorption remarkable even for this remarkably self-absorbed society. Looking back, the most mystifying thing about the Nineties is how little there is to see -- despite all the sound and fury.

Ken Bode, who was moderator of "Washington Week in Review" back in the '90s, said he caught on to Bill Clinton early on, when the new president dumped Lani Guinier, whom he'd nominated as assistant attorney general. And the president did it in particularly shabby fashion; he withdrew her nomination even before the lady had a chance to defend herself at a public hearing.

Mr. Bode could as easily have traced his disillusion to Bill Clinton's choice of Lani Guinier for the job in the first place, for her views (though she would try to downplay them later) perfectly capsulated the New Racism that came into vogue during the Nineties.

For example, Professor Guinier proposed requiring super-majorities to pass legislation -- so nothing could be done without the consent of black voters. She called the idea "proportionate interest representation."

John C. Calhoun's name for it was "concurrent majority" when he proposed a similar system to give slave states a veto over any legislation that might endanger their "property." Moral: Bad ideas don't die; they just get revived by separate but equally fervid ideologues.

In the end, Bill Clinton said he was withdrawing Lani Guinier's nomination because it was "divisive" -- as if making it hadn't been.

One has to admire Ken Bode's judgment in picking the Guinier fiasco from among so many others as the defining moment of the Clinton presidency. From first to last, it was a typically ad-hoc disaster. It set the pattern. Like so much of what would follow, its tone was desperate but never serious.

When judging the Clinton Legacy, the best parallel may not be Richard Nixon, who dealt with great issues and dark forces, including those within himself. Much like Shakespeare's misbegotten King Richard, he seemed born to the villainy that his every awkward movement telegraphed. Whatever criticisms one might make of Richard Nixon, he was serious, terribly serious. But I've never been able to think of The Hon. William J. Clinton as wicked; he lacked the character for it.

Bill Clinton, ever smooth, was more like the series of hapless Republican presidents during the Twenties who never saw the Thirties coming. Warren G. Harding comes most readily to mind. And as Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who always had something memorable to say, summed him up: "Harding wasn't a bad man; he was just a slob." If Richard Nixon's presidency was the stuff of tragedy, Bill Clinton's was closer to farce.

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