Let's not stop bashing Clinton just yet

Jonah Goldberg

12/7/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
"If we members of the Vast Right-wing Conspiracy don't get back to our daily routine of obsessive Clinton-bashing, (ITAL) then the terrorists will have won (ITAL)." I had pretty much given up writing -- or thinking -- about the former president until I read that in an essay by Mark Steyn in the National Review. Steyn's words, however, brought me to my senses. It's darn near unpatriotic of me to ignore the man I think is most likely to spend eternity in hell, sandwiched between the casts of "Cats" and Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance." Fortunately, there's even a news peg. The Metternich of McDonald's broke ground on his new $200 million presidential library Dec. 5. This opens a new front in his relentless war to win a positive historical legacy. At the groundbreaking, Bruce Reed, Bill Clinton's former domestic policy adviser, told The Washington Post, "George Orwell was right: He who controls the past controls the future." His point: There's always a battle to buff up or smudge down the historical legacies of presidents. For example, it may surprise you that JFK was actually a tax-cutting, commie-hating, redbaiting, cold warrior who began America's involvement in Vietnam and for the most part ran to the right of Richard Nixon. And, speaking of Nixon, you do remember that this alleged American dictator was the one who created the EPA, launched affirmative action (the "Philadelphia Plan"), implemented "wage and price controls," made peace with Red China and yanked America out of Vietnam. But the former is a liberal icon and the latter a conservative tar baby. Bill Clinton knows all this. Indeed, Bill Clinton was, by even friendly accounts, the most legacy-obsessed president in modern memory. From the outset, he was determined to bolster his standing in the history books. He told audiences that he was the first president to know anything about farming, which would have come as a surprise to everyone from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter - men who all actually made a living from the land, something Bill Clinton never did. More damning, Bill Clinton lamented to aides that the country faced no threat along the lines of World War II that would have provided him the opportunity to show his "greatness." More recently, it was reported in The New York Times that he wished Sept. 11 happened on his watch, again, so he could trade American lives for his legacy. And this exposes Bill Clinton's biggest problem right now -- and I'm not talking about his insatiable appetite for pork rinds, interns and lying. Prior to Sept. 11, it was anyone's guess what history would have to say about Clinton. His boosters hoped, more than knew, that he would go down in history as the president who saved the economy and the Democratic Party, and thwarted the rising tide of mean-spirited conservatism. That was even his spin at the groundbreaking. "I believe the fact that we stood up to this right-wing movement ... will be something that will redound to my credit in history," Clinton said. "I don't think it will be a black mark." Meanwhile, we Clinton-bashers hoped, more than knew, that Clinton would go down in history as a man who abused his power, became a peripatetic proselytizer for prurience and lowered the moral tone while surfing a rising economic and technological tide for which he deserved little credit. But Sept. 11 changes all of that. Suddenly the Clinton era has become radically redefined. It has become the prelude to the World Trade Center attacks and the subsequent "War on Terrorism." The bad news for Bill is that he did very little right and a great deal wrong in the effort to combat and prevent terrorism; his repeated refusal to accept Sudan's offer to extradite Osama bin Laden to the United States is just the tip of what increasingly looks like an iceberg of cowardly half-measures and poll-driven foreign policies that eventually crashed into the World Trade Center. Neville Chamberlain, Mark Steyn reminds us, wasn't known as the emblematic "appeaser" of Nazism in 1940. If, somehow, WWII hadn't happened, Chamberlain's legacy would be totally different (as would Churchill's obviously). Who knows what the "future history" of Bill Clinton would have been had Sept. 11 not happened? But it did. And, suddenly, Bill Clinton's efforts to nationalize health care and thwart Newt Gingrich's conservative steamroller are in danger of becoming footnotes to a record that set the stage for a long era of conflict. It may be too soon to call Bill Clinton the Neville Chamberlain of the next World War. But if I were Bill Clinton, I'd build a big exhibit in my new library explaining why I wasn't.