Bill, thanks for the memories

Posted: Jan 18, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. --It was probably too much to hope that he would simply fade into the sunset. He just couldn't do it. And so, two nights before his successor's inaugural, Bill Clinton had to make one last prime time, televised speech -- one last whack at the legacy he craves -- one last chance for us to feel his pain -- one last "look at me!" Of course, Bill Clinton isn't the first, and surely won't be the last American president to say goodbye. George Washington set the standard for the farewell address. Our first president didn't use the occasion to seek accolades or pardon for himself -- or others. The man who "couldn't tell a lie" didn't focus on his own accomplishments, but instead concentrated on what the nation had endured in achieving hard-won liberty -- and what we would have to do to preserve it. And Washington's farewell wasn't broadcast on prime time either. Unfortunately, the man who "couldn't tell the truth" ignored Washington's example. As I watched the Clinton Swan Song -- wondering if this was the first episode of "Survivor II" -- I could almost hear sobbing in the background, the tears of our media elite as they bid farewell to their hero. One of them, in Washington to cover the inaugural and the accompanying partisan assault on George W. Bush's Cabinet appointees, said to me, "Admit it, you and your right-wing friends are going to miss Clinton, aren't you?" I hesitated for about a nano-second and replied, "No, not at all." He looked at me skeptically, shook his head in disbelief and shuffled off down the hallway. I'm not going into withdrawal over the departure of William the Impeached -- but the appointment books of therapists from New York City to Los Angeles may well be filling up with the names of print and broadcast journalists suffering from anxiety over what to write and talk about without their buddy Bill around. Listen carefully and you can hear them whining about "writer's block" and a "dead day in the news" now that the fellow who embodied, embraced and exhibited their ideals and ideas -- and the Seven Deadly Sins -- no longer inhabits the White House. Instead of scheduling appointments with their shrinks, the reporters, columnists and commentators suffering from "post-Clinton syndrome" would do well to sign up for a few refresher courses in real, old-fashioned journalism. On the other hand, with the way the so-called mainstream media covered Bill Clinton's final days -- and their schizophrenic spin on his two terms in office - they may need both. Given human nature, it's understandable that William the Impeached wants to be remembered for something other than his DNA on a blue dress. That's why he demanded -- and got -- the prime time slot for his parting shots. But it's not the duty of a pandering press to let Bill Clinton, or anyone else, re-create reality. Yet that's precisely what happened this week. While most Americans were worrying about how to keep their jobs in a rapidly contracting economy, the masters of the media were in a rush to gush that Bill Clinton had "presided over an unprecedented, eight-year economic boom." While millions of us were struggling in the midst of a deepening energy crisis to keep gas in our cars, our homes heated and the lights on, the potentates of the press were creating the myth that Bill Clinton was the "Environmental President." And while he was eulogizing himself on Thursday night, tens of thousands of poorly equipped, under-paid and inadequately trained U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, on alert for more terrorist attacks, were freezing in the Balkans, frying in the Persian Gulf and sweltering in East Timor -- and the media waxed nostalgic about William the Peacemaker. The "Clinton Era" as his friends like to call it, is finally over. Critics point to his squandered opportunities, duplicity and deceit. But Bill Clinton's greatest flaw may well be the one made prominent in last Thursday's personal panegyric: an overwhelming inability to focus attention on anything bigger than himself. One of the principle responsibilities of a president is to set a course, to focus and inspire the American people so that they rise to the task at hand. That's how Franklin Roosevelt motivated Americans to sacrifice so much to defeat fascism. That's how Harry Truman persuaded skeptics that we had to rebuild our former enemies with the Marshall Plan and to educate our veterans with the G.I. Bill. That's how Ronald Reagan convinced our citizens that bringing down the Evil Empire was an obtainable feat. All of these presidents accomplished their goals by encouraging Americans to give their attention, energy and resources to a cause that was bigger than any one of us. And that's what Bill Clinton never did. He could only draw attention to himself. His great flaw is that of the Greek tragedies: hubris.