The Clinton legacy -- oops

Posted: Jun 23, 2004 12:00 AM

It is surprising that Bill Clinton, the most tactically adroit American politician of recent times, permitted his memoir to be published just a week after Ronald Reagan's death and state funeral. Already working from a deep legacy disadvantage, the close public juxtaposing of their two careers has predictably worked to Mr. Clinton's further detriment.
According to a new Associated Press poll, seven in 10 Americans say history will judge Reagan superior to Clinton. Eighty-three percent of Americans have a favorable view of Reagan as a person. Clinton scores only 41 percent. And by a 2-1 margin, those surveyed said, "Reagan was more effective at communicating his ideas to the American people than Clinton."

 Of course, a president's popularity while in office or shortly thereafter is not necessarily a good indication of where history will place him. Some, such as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, left office highly esteemed, based largely on the prosperity that existed while they were president. (Prosperity is the leading short term indicator of presidential approval, but it carries very little historic weight.) While both men have slipped badly over the decades, Coolidge still has his admirers (Ronald Reagan hung his portrait prominently in the White House.) Harding, more glamorous in his time, has fallen further due to the revelation, after his death, of his administration's corruption and his personal licentiousness.

 Other presidents left office almost in disgrace, only to see their reputation grow. Harry Truman is the preeminent example. When he left office, almost three quarters of the public disapproved of his performance in the presidency. Half a century on, Mr. Truman is judged a near great president. History has been kind to Truman because the international structures he created -- The Marshal Plan, NATO, the Soviet containment strategy -- came to be seen as major contributions to 50 years of American dominance that permitted the Cold War to remain cold, rather than turn hot and deadly.

 Yet other presidents left office in low regard and stayed there in history. James Buchanan is an excellent example. As the president who presided over the slide into the Civil War, he was described in his New York Times obituary in 1868 as a president who: "met the crisis of secession in a timid and vacillating spirit. Temporizing with both parties, and studiously avoiding the adoption of a decided policy." Buchanan famously confessed near the end of his presidency: "The South has no right to secede, but I have no power to prevent them." His successor, Abraham Lincoln, proved otherwise.

 Ronald Reagan left office in fairly high esteem (about 65 percent approval) but has steadily risen after his foreign policy efforts to defeat Soviet communism have become manifest. Bill Clinton runs the risk of moving in the opposite direction . And I suspect he knows it.

 The media in the last week has reported three major political themes to Clinton's memoir: confessing moral fault regarding Ms. Lewinsky; blaming partisanship for the impeachment; and confessing that not catching Osama bin Laden is one of his biggest disappointments.

 The first two points are fairly routine and predictable. The Lewinsky matter couldn't be finessed, so it had to be confessed. On impeachment, he basically took the Nixon path -- claiming he made mistakes, but his partisan opponents abused the constitutional process in going after him.

 Nixon said regarding Watergate and the impeachment process that he gave the Democrats a sword and they used it. Nixon admirers subsequently wrote articles and books suggesting a "silent coup" by the Democrats against him. Similar grumbling can be heard in Clinton's memoir and from his loyalists around town.

 While neither Nixon's nor Clinton's claim of outraged innocence is objectively sustainable, I suspect that they both were sincerely outraged. In any case, putting the best light on the impeachment scandal is probably a sensible political move by Clinton -- although he clearly went rhetorically over the edge in calling impeachment a badge of honor.

 But it is that third point about failing to catch Bin Laden where Clinton probably, and correctly, realizes he is historically most vulnerable. Whether or not Clinton tried as hard as he could, the cruel, objective fact of history is that Bin Laden and his al Qaeda emerged on Clinton's watch. He failed to nip it in the bud, and it has now blossomed into a malignant worldwide danger.

 Such was the historic fate of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had a successful domestic record of improvements in public housing and a sound fiscal policy. If only he hadn't ignored the rise of Adolph Hitler to dominance in the world, he would have been seen as quite a successful prime minister.

 Similarly, if, as seems likely, the next several decades will see chaos, massive death and disorder flowing from the scourge of terrorism which Clinton failed to extinguish at its inception, Clinton's timidity, temporizing and studied failure to adopt a decisive policy against Bin Laden will become his true historic legacy. The Lewinsky affair will probably be seen less as a scandal than as an explanation for his inattention to presidential responsibilities.