WASHINGTON -- Since 1960 we have had only two politically successful presidents -- reaffirmed and re-elected, dominating their decades: Reagan and Clinton. (Except for Kennedy, whose presidency was cut short, the others -- Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush 41-- were repudiated.) Clinton's autobiography, appearing as it does in such close conjunction to the national remembrance of Reagan, invites the inevitable comparison.
The contrast is obvious. Reagan was the hedgehog who knew -- and did -- a few very large things: fighting and winning the Cold War, reviving the economy and beginning a fundamental restructuring of the welfare state.
Clinton was the fox. He knew -- and accomplished -- small things. His autobiography is a perfect reflection of that -- a wild mish-mash of remembrance, anecdote, appointment calendar and political payback. The themeless pudding of a million small things is just what you would expect from a president who once gave a Saturday radio address on school uniforms.
Small, but not always unimportant. Clinton did conclude NAFTA and did sign welfare reform. His greatest achievement was an act of brilliant passivity -- he got out of the way of one of the largest peacetime economic expansions in American history. And though he takes personal credit for all the jobs created -- a ridiculous assertion to make about the decade of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates -- he does deserve credit for not screwing things up. Presidents often do. He easily could have.
His great failing was foreign policy. Viewing the world through the narrow legalist lens of liberal internationalism, he spent most of his presidency drafting and signing treaty after useless treaty on such things as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. All this in a world where the biggest problem comes from terrorists and rogue states for whom treaties are meaningless.
Like the 1920s, the '90s were a golden age permeated by a postwar euphoria of apparently endless peace and prosperity. Both decades ended abruptly, undermined ultimately by threats that were ignored as they grew and burrowed underground. Clinton let a decade of unprecedented American prosperity and power go without doing anything about al Qaeda, Afghanistan or Iraq (where his weakness allowed France and Russia to almost totally undermine the post-Gulf War sanctions). And although al Qaeda declared war on America in 1996 and, as we now know, hatched the Sept. 11 plot that same year, it continued to flourish throughout the decade.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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