For eight years I have looked forward to the day I could write my last column about Bill Clinton. Sadly, this is not it. Although Clinton will leave the White House on Saturday, he will not leave the stage. I fully expect him to be the most active ex-president in history, a constant presence on the national scene. Thus, I expect that I will have many, many occasions in future years to continue commenting on Clinton and his presidency.
I wish it were different. I wish Clinton would go the way of Jerry Ford and just disappear from view except when an ex-president dies. I would happier still if Clinton were treated like Richard Nixon and suffered public disgrace for his debasement of the presidency. But I know this is not going to happen. It is doubtful that Clinton will suffer for one second. Quite the contrary, I expect him to gloat all the way to the bank as he pockets millions for speeches and books, and enjoys all the trappings of celebrity normally reserved for movie stars.
The certain knowledge that Clinton will not only never pay any price whatsoever for his sins, but probably be enriched by them, is at the root of why so many conservatives hate him. They believe that there is justice in this world; that virtue is rewarded and the guilty are punished. So it offends them deeply when they see someone get away with snubbing his nose at the law, propriety, dignity, honesty and humility, among other things. To be rewarded for doing so only compounds conservatives' frustration and sense of injustice.
Of course, Clinton is well aware of what conservatives think of him and it gives him endless joy. It just makes his day when he can tweak their noses by doing something he knows will drive them crazy. In fact, I sometimes think that the central philosophical core of the Clinton administration is not so much liberalism as anti-conservatism. It may amount to the same thing in terms of policy, but its motivation is quite different. Liberals want to change the world. Bill Clinton did not. He only wanted to infuriate conservatives -- something he accomplished brilliantly.
But Clinton infuriated his friends, as well. They know too well how little of the liberal agenda he implemented. Indeed, Clinton's greatest accomplishments were to abolish welfare and balance the federal budget. Even Ronald Reagan couldn't do that. Nevertheless, liberals stuck by Bill Clinton and suffered in silence because their fear of conservatism is greater than their disdain for Clinton's sell-outs.
In the end, the left's paranoia was Clinton's greatest asset. Liberals convinced themselves that putting a conservative back in the White House was the equivalent of putting the Ayatollah Khomeini in power. I think some of them really believe that if Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft had his way, daily church attendance would be mandatory, nothing but the "700 Club" would be available on television and every school textbook would be replaced with the Bible. Given this mindset, liberals had to stick with Clinton until the bitter end. No matter how bad he was, the alternative was unthinkable.
Richard Nixon was very much like Bill Clinton, in this respect. Many conservatives were disgusted with him for constantly selling them out, by establishing the Environmental Protection Administration, signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviet Union, imposing wage and price controls, and many other liberal actions. But they generally stuck with him because they viewed liberals as little more than communists in disguise, who would do far worse if given the chance.
Conservative support for Nixon was similar to liberal support for Clinton in another way, as well. Despite his liberal accomplishments, the left continued to despise Mr. Nixon until the day he died. Something in his personality grated on liberals the same way Clinton irritates conservatives, despite his conservative accomplishments. I have no doubt that most conservatives will vilify Clinton to his grave.
In one of his letters to Mandell Creighton, the great historian Lord Acton said that "historic responsibility has to make up for want of legal responsibility." I think this is very much the case with Bill Clinton. Despite the wishes of some of his enemies, I don't think he will ever face any meaningful legal sanctions for his lies under oath, violations of the campaign finance laws and other potential crimes for which he has long been investigated. Indeed, continued pursuit of Clinton is more likely to make him a martyr than to bring forth any apology from him for his transgressions.
Anyway, I think there is a more appropriate punishment for Clinton and I think it will soon be forthcoming. What would hurt him more than anything else is for history to condemn him as the "worst person ever to have been president," in George Will's words. I believe that in coming years we are going to see a flood of books by Clinton's confidants detailing facts about his personal behavior that will make what we already know seem trivial.
Furthermore, I expect that all the liberal reporters who have been covering up for Clinton will finally reveal the truths they have known all along. I think every White House reporter has notebooks bulging with facts, stories and anecdotes that were withheld from publication while Clinton was in office. They will say that the material was given to them on background or off the record and couldn't be reported in the normal way. But the truth will be that most reporters share Clinton's politics and values, and thus did what they could to prop him up for the last 8 years.
But with Clinton gone, there is no longer any reason to hold back. Hence, I believe that Clinton's ideological friends and political allies will now pounce on him with a vengeance. They will blame him (rightly) for failing to enact significant liberal reforms and bringing conservatives to power in Congress and the White House. Scorned liberals will do more to destroy Clinton's reputation, I believe, than anything conservatives have been able to muster. If I am right, then perhaps the cause of Lord Acton's historic justice will have been served.