As you read this, you will know something I do not as I write: the results of the November elections. Whatever the outcome, we may rely on two things: (1) Political statisticians and savants of every stripe will exhaust half the world’s supply of newsprint explaining it all to us, and (2) Despite their best efforts, the true significance of this fall’s plebiscite will not become clear for many years to come—at which point, whole new forests will be leveled to explain why the original analyses were mistaken.
But whether Bush or Gore occupies the White House on January 20, 2001, the nation will have to deal with the ghost of William Jefferson Clinton. This will not be an easy undertaking. For one thing, Clinton is not someone who is likely to go gentle unto that good night. He is a relatively young man for an ex-president, and nothing about him gives us any confidence that he will spend or enjoy his enforced retirement in good grace.
His is a perpetually restless soul that will forever yearn for applause and the approval of others. He has been characteristically obsessed during the past year with the judgment of history, and having failed to secure its favor while in office, he will work overtime once out of office to manipulate the verdict. For all we know, four or eight years from now, his vanity may decree that the country yearns for him yet again.
Nothing so perfectly captures the man as the interview he gave to Esquire magazine, scheduled for publication in mid-November but leaked in late October. The cover photo, taken from about 30 degrees south of horizontal, features the 42nd president of the United States seated in a chair, legs spread wide, his hands on his knees. His facial expression is an unflattering mixture of preening and leering. Altogether, it is a picture of a man in full. And what he is mostly full of is himself.
The interview is also quintessentially Clintonian: gaseously verbose and filled with self-justification that in any other person would be thought laughable, pitiable, even clinical. Narcissism here acquires a whole new dimension. In Clinton’s view, he is both blameless victim and selfless hero: he saved the Constitution, the nation, and the presidency by resisting a mean-spirited, conspiratorial effort to oust him from office. The unkindest cut of all is that his enemies have yet to apologize to him. This from a man who disgraced his family, dishonored his office, lied under oath, and became the second president in history to be impeached by the House.
Yet for all his narcissistic bravado, there lurks beneath the surface of his words a gnawing fear that the people and, eventually, the historians may not see it his way. As he has elsewhere, Mr. Clinton indicates that he has forgiven himself for what he delicately calls his personal “mistakes” (without ever specifying what they might be). Whether history will bestow its absolution so easily is another question, which is why we can expect endless self-justifications from him in the future.
His policy legacy, such as it is, remains a work-in-progress of dubious distinction. On the foreign front, it is at best a thing of shreds and patches, mostly showy gestures, utterly lacking in theme, with little in the way of tangible success. In domestic policy, his major achievements—fiscal restraint, welfare reform, NAFTA—probably would not have occurred but for a Republican Congress and were, in any event, the continuing legacy of the Reagan Revolution. Give the man credit for this much: he read the tea-leaves correctly and adjusted himself and his party to a new political reality. He made the Democrats competitive again by co-opting Republican rhetoric.
For that, he will not soon be forgiven by the hard left, which sees him as a traitor to the cause that revolutionized the Democrats in the 1960s. They despise everything that Bush stands for and will seek to frustrate his presidency; they will work equally as hard to ensure that Gore governs like George McGovern. We shall see what happens.
In the meantime, we can be assured that Clinton will still be working to refurbish his tattered reputation. History, however, cannot be written on a wish. He may succeed in part and for a time, but soon or late he will come face-to-face with the fate of Shelley’s Ozymandias:
…Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.