Barbara Olsen on Bill Clinton

Posted: Oct 16, 2001 12:00 AM
The relevance of Barbara Olson's posthumous Clinton book -- its relevance, I say, to the hijacking that cost the author her life last Sept. 11 might or might not be discernible to the naked eye. Suppose we get out our spectacles and lorgnettes. Mrs. Olson's publisher, Regnery, considered scrapping the book, which roundly slammed Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Clinton for the circumstances (the last-minute pardons and newly issued regulations and appointments, etc.) in which they vacated the White House. Printing was to begin Sept. 13. What to do, what to do? There was consultation with family and friends: chiefly, one imagines, with the grieving widower, Theodore Olson, solicitor general of the United States and recipient of his wife's final cell phone call before the hijacked plane hit the Pentagon. It was agreed that publication should go forward. "The Final Days" is in bookstores now. It's likely to have a fine, invigorating run, Afghanistan or no Afghanistan. Which brings me to the question I stated above, concerning relevance. Do we want -- do we need, is the larger consideration -- to know more about the toxic cloud amid which the Clintons packed up and left the White House? Does it matter, for instance, that our former chief magistrate further soiled his, ah, legacy by pardoning or commuting the sentences of people notable chiefly for sleazy personal histories and evidently impeccable access to the White House? You would logically suppose so, as did Barbara Olson. But need we plow this particular field again? Don't we live in a new world since Sept. 11? We do, undoubtedly. But consider. The Clintons remain part of that world: he the old trouper loath to let the curtain fall, she the new star of the long-running family act. And there are vital lessons to be grasped here. Actually, to say there are lessons is to put it mildly. The Clinton administration is a seminar -- no, a semester course -- no, a whole university department -- in the matter of moral leadership. A question sometimes posed during the Clinton years, directly or inferentially, was, what do we want moral leadership for? If the stock market is rising, and there's no war (unless maybe in some unpronounceable place like Bosnia-Herzegovina) then morality would seem a second-tier concern. And anyway, who gets to define morality? If you have yours and I have mine, doesn't that suffice? It might for some purposes, but not for those of leadership and trust. These two indispensable civic attributes go hand in hand. We follow leaders we trust. The untrustworthy, the shifty, the unreliable command at most our indulgence. "The Final Days" does get you to thinking: What if those hadn't been the "final days"? Suppose it had fallen to the Clinton administration to organize American response to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks? What would have been the level of trust the White House might have commanded in the eyes of the nation and the world, in the wake of -- leave aside pardons -- "that woman Ms. Lewinsky," the meaning of "is," disbarment, hair's-breadth escapes, and a variety of other trust-busting considerations? It's uncommon to risk life and limb for those you think are mainly looking out for No. 1, or who you fear will cut some lousy deal to get themselves out of a bad or inconvenient spot. Trust -- a leader who can't inspire it in moments of crisis is no leader at all; more a danger to himself and others than anything else. The long-haul quality of George W. Bush's leadership remains to be tested. Nor is it absolutely clear that Bill Clinton could not have summoned untapped resources from inside himself. Are you glad anyway you don't have to find out? -- as glad, maybe, as Barbara Olson would have been? The aroma of that gladness you can all but smell in "The Final Days" -- Mrs. Olson's potently concocted Last Will and Testament.