The Clinton Presidential Center and Library opens this week in Little Rock. Like him or not, we must admit that William Jefferson Clinton leaves a powerful legacy, one that vastly expands the ability of political leaders to misbehave and remain in office.
One of the most embarrassing but in many ways illuminating endeavors of academics, media pundits, and certain recent inhabitants of the White House, is to focus on something called a 'Presidential Legacy.' Bill Clinton spent an inordinate amount of time 'building' his. Of course, most presidential legacies take years to develop and evolve. Harry Truman, for example, was basically deemed a failure at the end of his term, requiring the election of war hero Ike to repair the damage. But because of his acknowledged strength during the Cold War, and the promotion of a socialist 'Fair Deal,' Truman is now considered by many historians as one of the, 'Great Presidents.'
In contrast, John Kennedy, due most certainly to the shock of his tragic death, was instantly acclaimed with accolades that would embarrass a Churchill, Lincoln, and Jefferson combined. Now, slowly, his legacy is being revised to its more proper status as an interesting, transitional, style over substance, three—year episode.
Bill Clinton is truly unique, to say the least. His legacy, one can argue, began even before he was elected. It is based on a pure, now uncontestable, although lamentable, political truth. It is this: no matter what gaffe or crime one commits, there is little danger of long—term harm. He quite clearly recognized that the public has a tremendous capacity for forgiveness, a love of the sensational, and, most important of all, the attention span of a flea.
How can a serial—adulterer, a lying, draft—dodging, dysfunctional pot—smoker get elected to the presidency? Bubba, in his genius, showed us the way.
Poor old Tricky Dick, getting caught trying to cover—up the crimes of his underlings made a big mistake, —— resigning. Clinton proved that the key to survival is to hang tough, be disgraced gracefully, and then forget about it, because soon everyone else will forget about it too. Of course, in Nixon's defense, Clinton was aided and abetted, not hounded unmercifully, by a sympathetic big media press corps. But the suspicion remains nonetheless, that Nixon need not have resigned.
Imagine if you will, that instead of a burglary occurring on Nixon's watch, something else happened. Perhaps a key aid and trusted friend committed suicide while the First Lady ransacked his office? Or, perhaps, hundreds of FBI files of potential political enemies were discovered stolen by a man no one seems to have hired? Or what if Pat Nixon fired the entire White House travel office to help old friends? Or what if China gave laundered money toward his re—election? Or what if Nixon were caught having sex after church on Easter Sunday with an intern in the Oval Office? Or what if Nixon were caught lying to a federal grand jury? Or maybe convicted felons were pardoned for no good reason in the last hours of his term? Had these and a couple of dozen other unpleasant things occurred, what should he have done?
Deny. Deny again. Blame enemies. Admit, with an ingratiating (or repulsive) Tom Sawyer like smirk that mistakes were made. And then, the most magical of all words, 'move on.'
A simple formula, but more effective than ever was imagined by lesser political beings.
Clinton understood that issues, policies, and legislation, hold no interest for the vast majority of Americans. To be honest, he himself had little interest in such things except as a means to an end, being President. What really matters is appearance, style, the charismatic persona. Events come and go, but what excites or enrages today induces yawns tomorrow.
The Legacy lives on, but not everyone gets it right. Jim McGreevey in New Jersey almost got it right. After 9/11 he gave the job of his state's homeland security chief to his unqualified secret boyfriend. Pretty bad doings it must be admitted. But he needn't have 'pledged' to resign. Two months later his approval ratings are up!
Clinton's own Assistant National Security Advisor Samuel Berger knew better. Proximity to the Master led this unelected official to grasp the lesson by osmosis. In July it was discovered that he 'accidentally' stuffed highly classified notes into his pants and socks to take home and 'misplace.' He quietly announced it was a 'mistake' and disappeared from public view to let time do its magic. He was soon enough able to become a key member of the Kerry's campaign staff. Clearly he learned the lessons of the 'Legacy' of the Master.
Andrew Sumereau is a free—lance writer residing in East Stroudsburg, PA