Prepare for spin. Now that Bill Clinton is no longer president, we can expect his people to attempt to define what his presidency was all about. Call it pre-emptive history. And if you think this cannot succeed, consider that we've seen it work before.
In the weeks and months after Ronald Reagan left office, opinion central began to spin what his administration had meant. Reagan was respected and admired by a large majority of the American people as his term came to an end -- and for good reason. Though he had inherited an economy in crisis from his predecessors (inflation was not the fault only of Jimmy Carter), and a weak hand in the Cold War as the Soviet Union continued to extend its power; he departed as a wonder worker. He had revived America's economy and had defeated, without firing a shot, one of the two totalitarian giants whose enormous crimes stained the 20th century.
But the spinners had other ideas. Keen to delegitimize the Reagan years, they transformed the economic boom into the Decade of Greed and the victory in the Cold War into Mikhail Gorbachev's achievement. Through constant repetition, they planted the idea that supply-side economics had been refuted, whereas in fact, it had been vindicated. Meanwhile, the Iran-Contra scandal, basically a policy confrontation between the executive and legislative branches, was transformed, by repeated invective, into one of the two great crimes (the other being Watergate) of modern political history.
The media echo chamber can change people's minds. After the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, majorities said they believed that Thomas was truthful and Hill the liar. After a couple of years of "re-education," those numbers flipped.
What ideas will the Clinton spinners aim to plant in our minds? It's not hard to guess. The outlines are clear.
1) President Clinton was impeached for a trifling personal lapse by savage Republicans bent on his destruction.
The president's law-breaking (perjury, obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury) will be obscured and buried, as will his 7-month-long bald-faced lie to his family, his cabinet, his friends and his country. His own later acknowledgment that his offenses were grave -- for example, his "agreement" with Sen. Joseph Lieberman's Senate floor indictment -- will be forgotten, as will the fact that leading Democrats Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt had to plead publicly with President Clinton to stop lying.
2) President Clinton's accomplishments far outweigh his failures.
Accomplishments? Yes we enjoyed a wonderful economy during Clinton's tenure. But what did he contribute to it? Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin gets high marks, as did Clinton's adherence to free trade, but beyond that Clinton was simply lucky enough to take office at the start of a prolonged boom.
As for the accomplishments Clinton usually boasts of -- welfare reform and the balanced budget -- they truly belong to the Republican Congress. Yes, he campaigned "to end welfare as we know it;" but he then proceeded to propose record spending increases in every traditional welfare program. The advent of the Republican Congress in 1994 saw the first serious drafting, without administration input, of welfare reform legislation. And even then, Clinton vetoed it twice and signed it only after becoming convinced that a third veto would doom his re-election.
It takes your breath away that Clinton and his cheerleaders claim credit for the balanced budget. What, if not that, was the government shutdown about? The Republicans capitulated on some spending but won the larger point -- that the budget had to come into balance.
This above all we must recall as the spinners begin their whitewash: Clinton permitted major Democratic donors to compromise our security by selling military technology to the highest bidder, the Chinese. During his tenure, our military secrets suddenly became insecure and our nuclear labs were compromised. Finally, President Clinton's worst depredation of the presidency had nothing to do with sex. It was the surpassing cynicism with which he abused his power as commander in chief. Clinton put our people in danger and killed foreigners just to provide distraction from his domestic/legal difficulties.