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Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2001 / 7 Shevat, 5761

Joseph Perkins

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Unadulterated history -- Ring the bell. Close the book. Quench the candle.

The Clinton Years are finally over. And the man who will be forever remembered for the disgrace he brought upon the highest office in the land retires to private life, hoping to avoid the further ignominy of a post-presidency criminal indictment.

Clinton hagiographers will claim his presidency a success; they will note that he left office with a higher job approval rating than any outgoing president in the past half-century.

Yet, more than two-thirds of Americans say the two-term president will be remembered for his involvement in personal scandal rather than for accomplishments in office, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. More than half of Americans say they disapprove of Clinton as a person. More than half find him dishonest and untrustworthy.

This is the Clinton legacy. His was the most polarizing presidency in at least a quarter-century. He leaves behind a nation far more divided -- between white and black, rich and poor, old and young, male and female, religious and agnostic, gay and straight, Democratic and Republican -- than it was eight years ago, before he left Little Rock for Washington.

Indeed, no sooner did Clinton move into the Oval Office in 1993 than he lifted the military's long-standing ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military.

Rather than go about it in a thoughtful, deliberate way -- by, say, asking the Pentagon brass to study the matter for a few months, then return with recommendations for implementing the policy -- he forced it upon the military.

This placed him at immediate odds with the men and women in uniform. And it had the perverse effect of making gays in the military, who were getting along just fine before Clinton's ill-considered edict, the subject of unwanted scrutiny.

Clinton's demagoguery on Medicare and Social Security deprived him of the opportunity to make a lasting positive contribution to this nation's welfare. For with a robust economy, a federal budget surplus and a willing Republican Congress he could have rescued these two entitlements from future insolvency.

Instead, Clinton chose to use Medicare and Social Security for political gain -- to frighten seniors into believing that Republicans intended to cut the benefits on which so many older Americans rely. He suggested that only with Democratic control of Congress, or at least continued Democratic control of the White House, could seniors rest assured that these precious entitlements would be protected.

So, as Clinton departed office, Medicare and Social Security are on no more solid actuarial ground than before he first moved into the White House. And both entitlements are eight years closer to inevitable insolvency.

Clinton was no less shameless in playing the class warfare game. In 1993, he imposed the biggest tax increase in American history, with much of the burden borne by higher-earning Americans.

This was only fair, according to Clinton, because the so-called "wealthy" -- that is, those earning $200,000 or more -- had amassed their putative fortunes at the expense of the poor and middle class during the previous dozen years with Republicans in the White House.

Then, when the federal treasury started to generate huge surplus tax revenues, when the Republican Congress dared to suggest that some of that surplus should be returned to the taxpayers, Clinton countered by arguing that the tax cuts the GOP proposed would amount to nothing more than a "giveaway to the rich." So successful, albeit divisive, was this tactic in thwarting tax cuts, that Clinton's vice president employed it during his own failed quest for the White House.

Finally, there was Clinton's propensity to play racial politics. It first revealed itself in 1992 when the then-Arkansas governor ordered the execution of a mentally incompetent black man, Rickey Ray Rector, to prove to potential voters that he was not soft on crime.

Imagine if George W. Bush had done something like that in an effort to win the White House. Jesse Jackson would have descended on Austin. The NAACP would have aired commercials featuring Rector's grieving survivors.

The fact is that Clinton used race as a club to beat down Republicans, to cast the party of Lincoln as a confederation of bigots. And he delighted in nothing more than using race to put political foes on the spot, to portray those who opposed him on policy matters as racists (or, if they happened to be black, traitors to their "people").

Indeed, Clinton's recess appointment of Roger Gregory to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals during the waning days of his presidency was clearly meant to provoke racial discord. For even though Democratic lawmakers like West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd admonished Clinton not to make any appointments without the Senate's constitutionally prescribed "advise and consent," he decided he would seat the black lawyer anyway and defy the Senate Republican majority to unseat him.

Then, as his final symbolic, divisive gesture, Clinton decided to put new District of Columbia license plates on the presidential limousine bearing the protest slogan "Taxation Without Representation" (which replaces the older, nonpolitical slogan "Celebrate and Discover").

When and if Clinton's Republican successor removes the controversial new plate, elected officials in D.C. will no doubt accuse him of being insensitive to the "disenfranchisement" of the city's predominantly black (and overwhelmingly Democratic) residents.

This is the legacy of divisiveness Bill Clinton leaves behind. He will not be missed.

JWR contributor Joseph Perkins is a San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and television commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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