Jewish World Review July 6, 2004 / 17 Tamuz, 5764
Life in the rearview mirror
He' s baack! every TV channel has offered yet another "exclusive" interview with Bill Clinton promoting his autobiography. He had seemingly put the scandals behind him, but the media simply couldn't forget that this immensely engaging and phenomenally talented man was the same man who led us through seven months of denials, misled his family, recklessly risked his presidency, and played with the dignity of a nation, memorably wagging his fingers as he lied to us from the White House podium.
It is to Clinton's undoubted frustration and chagrin that much of the public interest and private chatter focuses not on the many accomplishments of the world's leading policy wonk but on the salacious personal issues and legal hairsplitting that earned him the sobriquet "slick Willie." Yes, there was candor in his answer to Dan Rather's question about Monica Lewinsky. "I did something for the worst possible reason just because I could." But it also reminded many of his narcissism and appetite for self-indulgence, traits seemingly unchanged today even though they nearly cost him the White House. That self-indulgence is manifestly on display in his soap-opera-style, door-stopper memoir. Just listen to him talk and talk and talk and read what he writes and writes and writes. Of Milton's masterpiece Paradise Lost, Samuel Johnson wrote, "None ever wished it longer than it is." Of Clinton's My Life, at 957 pages, one might observe that "almost everyone wished it shorter." The book is filled out with mind-numbing details of Clinton's day-to-day life. If it happened to him, Clinton evidently believes it must be interesting.
The Joneses. The story of Bill Clinton is that of a man with enormous political and intellectual gifts who, quite simply, squandered too much of his potential. It is not surprising that he saved his anger in the book for his nemesis, Independent Counsel Ken Starr, the crash-test dummy of the long impeachment battle.
Clinton's critique of Starr as one who abused his prosecutorial authority in the pursuit of a partisan agenda is dead on the mark. But it was Clinton's recklessness that made him so vulnerable to enemies like Starr. Fortunately, the American public saw through the vindictiveness of Starr & Co. and rejected impeachment. Clinton's behavior, they believed rightly, turned on immorality rather than illegality. So, thanks largely to the booming economy, Clinton left office with the highest approval ratings for his performance as president and the lowest personal approval ratings. People voted for Dow Jones, not Paula Jones.
Clinton's approval ratings for his performance as president were richly deserved. He moved the Democratic Party to the center, recognizing that as a coalition of narrow special interests, it could never command an electoral majority. To that end, he recast welfare, took a tough stand on crime, substituted an active and downsized government for a bloated federal bureaucracy, and demonstrated that Democrats could run the economy both by expanding international trade through NAFTA, despite internal opposition from organized labor, and, most critical, by a program of fiscal responsibility the latter without Republican support in either the House or Senate. This, happily, gave us lower interest rates and contributed to an unprecedented economic boom, as well as the federal government's first balanced budget in decades.
Clinton, as the first post-Cold War president, had a less salutary record in dealing with new global menaces. He did focus intensely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he misjudged the true intentions of Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader saw the Oslo peace accords not as a means to a two-state solution but as a means to the substitution of a Palestinian state for the State of Israel. Clinton simply couldn't believe that Arafat meant this when he said it and so stood by while Arafat violated most of the essential elements of Oslo, inciting Palestinians to hatred while erecting and empowering a murderous terrorist network. Thus it was that Clinton's last-gasp efforts to broker an agreement at Camp David, while obviously well intentioned, came to naught.
As for the rest of the record, Clinton, wracked by scandal, lacked public, media, and congressional support and failed to rouse the country to confront the threats he understood we faced, especially from terrorism. Instead, military and intelligence services were downsized; nuclear dangers from threats like North Korea and Iran were barely contained rather than confronted; and Afghanistan, largely ignored, became the training ground for the worst attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor.
My Life, in the end, is not so much a memoir of what was but a tantalizing reminder of what might have been.
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© 2004, Mortimer Zuckerman