Ray Suarez puts the 42nd president's eight years into perspective with historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, Roger Wilkins and Haynes Johnson.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Tonight I want to leave you with three thoughts about our future. First: America must maintain our record of fiscal responsibility. Through our last four budgets, we've turned record deficits to record surpluses and we've been able to pay down $600 billion of our national debt; on track to be debt free by the end of the decade for the first time since 1835. Staying on that course will bring lower interest rates, greater prosperity, and the opportunity to meet our big challenges.
Second: Because the world is more connected every day in every way, America's security and prosperity require us to continue to lead in the world. At this remarkable moment in history, more people live in freedom than ever before. Our alliances are stronger than ever. People all around the world look to America to be a force for peace and prosperity, freedom and security. The global economy is giving more of our own people and billions around the world the chance to work and live and raise their families with dignity.
But the forces of integration that have created these good opportunities also make us more subject to global forces of destruction, to terrorism, organized crime and narco-trafficking, the spread of deadly weapons and disease, the degradation of the global environment. The expansion of trade hasn't fully closed the gap between those of us who live on the cutting edge of the global economy and the billions around the globe who live on the knife's edge of survival. This global gap requires more than compassion, it requires action. Global poverty is a powder keg that could be ignited by our indifference.
Third: We must remember that America cannot lead in the world unless here at home we weave the threads of our coat of many colors into the fabric of one America. As we become ever more diverse, we must work harder to unite around our common values and our common humanity. We must work harder to overcome our differences in our hearts and in our laws. We must treat all our people with fairness and dignity, regardless of their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, and regardless of when they arrived in our country.
My days in this office are nearly through, but my days of service, I hope, are not. In the years ahead I will never hold a position higher nor a covenant more sacred than that of President of the United States. But there is no title I will wear more proudly than that of citizen. Thank you. God bless you, and God Bless America.
JIM LEHRER: And to Ray Suarez.
RAY SUAREZ: Putting this President and these eight years into some perspective, we're joined by NewsHour regulars, Presidential historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss; journalist and author Haynes Johnson; historian and presidential biographer, Richard Norton Smith; and historian Roger Wilkins. Well, I want to ask you all this question: How will history assess Bill Clinton, and how will today's news that he will not be indicted have an effect on the eventual answer? Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It's all the perfect metaphor for the Clinton presidency. We've not seen anything like this in our lifetime. Here-- we just watched-- last night he gives this farewell address, the public President, priding himself for all these great things that have been accomplished. And then, within hours, not even knowing it, we're going out, literally on the eve of a new presidency, wallowing, if you use that word, in all of this sort of scandal, the special prosecutors, even Linda Tripp's name emerged today. So all these aspects of the past... you can't separate the two of them, Ray. They are bound together. He did accomplish great things in many ways, more... Not that he gets credit for it. But also the personal qualities of this President, the private President versus the public President, we've just watched it right now. And that's what we're going to have to deal with for years and years to come.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Norton Smith?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think Haynes is absolutely right. You know, one is tempted to say nothing so becomes Bill Clinton's presidency as his leaving it. I have been thinking all day about the duality of this presidency. You know, we've known, for the last few years now, this is the first President in the history of polling for whom pollsters required not one but two questions to gauge public opinion -- obviously, the job approval rating-- which, by the way, he leaves with record approval-- offset to a certain degree by personal approval. He also, however, today, in effect, became the first American President to go out of office with two farewell addresses. We saw the official version last night, which-- as is the manner of these things and with justifiable pride-- he tried to influence people like us and others who are going to be writing the first draft of history. And then this afternoon, you saw the second very unofficial farewell address in the statement that came out of the White House. And, again, as Haynes said, it gets to the extraordinary depths within depths within this man, a man of enormous ambition and abilities, those abilities and that ambition, I think, were equaled only by his appetites.
RAY SUAREZ: Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, I think precisely because of what has been said, it is going to take some years before we can get perspective on Bill Clinton. In the sense we know what the elements of his presidency are to be judged. There is impeachment on the one hand. There is the booming economy on the other. There's Kosovo, there's the failed health care, there's squandered opportunities, there's talent, all the things we might be saying now. But what it takes times to figure out is what weight to give to these various elements. For example, when Lyndon Johnson left office, there was Vietnam and civil rights -- much deeper divisions in some ways than what we're talking about with Bill Clinton. And at the beginning, Vietnam swallowed up the memory of Lyndon Johnson. Now, this many years later, when historians go to rank him in the polls, it's not that the memory has faded entirely, but the memory of civil rights have come up to maybe even go beyond Vietnam in terms of what we took for granted what he did in civil rights. At the same time, the transcripts have come out, so we see him in actual progress and working in a way that we didn't at the time. So these reputations go up and down. Eisenhower, for example; when he left office, people thought he was an amiable, wonderful guy. They liked him, but thought he was probably run by a lot of people in the White House while he read westerns and played golf. Only when the public papers came out did you see how complex, how clever, how much in control he really was. So I think we're going to have to wait until these feelings we have about impeachment and the economy subside, and until we see the public papers, till see the memoirs that come out of his administration. Did these people like him, did they respect him? We don't know a lot. I think that's why historians wait for a while before they judge.
RAY SUAREZ: So, Roger, what is your best guess, when the dust does settle, as Doris suggests, about what will endure?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, I think he is feeling, right now, "ouch." I have a law license which I have not used in almost 30 years, but if I had to give it up for five years, I would be hurting. And I think that is going to be remembered by a lot of people, that on the way out, he had to take punishment. He did some good things along the way, but the weaknesses are real, and the injuries to friends. We kind of forget that, the people who believed in him and came and worked for him and who took heavy hits in the reputation, in the pocketbook, in the psyche. Those will weigh heavily on the scale, I think.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: A big part of the historical judgment is that historians are interested in human beings and they're going to have to make a judgment on what kind of human being this really was. And, you know, there is a theme here that goes from tonight all the way back to the beginning of this administration. Remember, at the beginning of '93, a lot of the people around Clinton were saying, "we're after the Cold War, we Americans are now grown up; we only expect the President to be a political manager, it's not really so important that he be a unifying chief of state." Obviously, Clinton is going to have a hard time doing that because of the doubts about him that were raised in the campaign of 1992. And if you take that and trace it all the way through these eight years, even absent Monica, Clinton has not had the kind of influence that his enormous intelligence and people skills and many convictions and ability just to manage hour by hour, would have given him. It's really been like a low- grade fever for eight years. He has not been the President he could have been. But I think when historians get into those papers, as Doris was saying, ten or fifteen years from now, they're going to be knocked over by how smart the guy was, how articulate, what command of detail he showed in his private meetings, and this was someone who managed, hour by hour by hour, in a way that few Presidents can. If Clinton is trying to make the argument, "I'm responsible for this great economy, I'm responsible for foreign policy, the world being largely at bay for eight years," that's going to be a big weapon for him.
RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead.
ROGER WILKINS: The papers will also show the enormous amount of attention and energy that was diverted from the people's business to the defense of this man.
HAYNES JOHNSON: No question.
ROGER WILKINS: That's a giant hole in this record.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And there will always be a sense of Bill Clinton, I think, of what might have been. The lost opportunities -- there is nobody that has ever sat with him, talked to him, met him... His worst enemies come away bowled over. The knowledge, the detail -- he reads-- he really reads books. He knows what you write, and you write, so forth. He is an amazing... and also, he deserves great credit for many things, not for all of the economy. But he was right. He did raise taxes, you know, in a slow economy. At the same time, he got his own party not... to cut spending and so all... and the result was the best economic period in American history. And yet there's this other thing of what this talent might have done had he not been diverted, as Roger and I think we are all saying, from that.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: The one interesting thing will be historians will find his presidency interesting, no doubt. So there will be lots of books written about him. And what that means each new historian has to come up with a slightly different slant on him. So it is likely to go back and forth as his presidency did. Nixon made this wonderful weird remark where he said, "I'm sure history will treat me fairly, even if the historians don't" - because he said, those historians are left-wingers.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me get Richard Norton Smith in here. Richard, if you could talk to historians writing in the future about the times, what would you want them to know about today and about the times that Bill Clinton lived in and was President in that would illuminate their work?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, that's a great question, Ray. Any historian who tries to write the story of Bill Clinton is going to have to write the story of the culture that produced and sustained Bill Clinton. He was a polarizing figure, there's no doubt about that -- but not like an Andrew Jackson or Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. People don't talk about the Clinton revolution. He was, if anything, an incremental revolutionary. His genius, among other things, was in repositioning his party-- sometimes against its will-- in the middle of the road. He preempted the middle of the road time and again, which drove Republicans up the wall, because if you're not in the middle of the road, ipso facto, you're on the fringe. But there's one other thing I think historians will have to take into account. Much has been made about the fact that we are at political equilibrium. The parties have balanced in a way we haven't seen in 100 years. But I also think that we have achieved a kind of cultural equilibrium. You saw it this week at the John Ashcroft hearings. For better or worse, Bill, and to an even greater degree, Hillary Clinton, I think, will always be seen by their defenders and detractors as embodiments of the boomer culture and particularly the decade of the 60s. I mean, there are millions of Americans who saw that period, that dividing and defining period in history as democracy finally taking root, the women's movement, civil rights, environmentalism, gay rights. For millions of other people, however, that era and indeed that generation is seen as the one that dismissed standards that began a corseting of the culture that has only accelerated. I think people who try to write the story of Bill Clinton inevitably will be writing the story of the Clinton generation. And that's why, as Doris said, this is going to go back and forth, up and down. These reputations bounce around like corn in a popper.
RAY SUAREZ: There have been nodding heads around the table. Reaction?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I've been spending four years trying to write that book, as a matter of fact.
RAY SUAREZ: You should get him to write your introduction.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Thank you very much. But you're right, the backdrop of the times. We're at peace. We're not challenged by any enemies, no depression, no world war. The country feels good about itself. He's leaving with the highest job approval rating of any President since they've started taking the poll ratings and all that. And yet there's this other side in the equation of these times, and more people cynical and distrusting of leadership and government.
ROGER WILKINS: Talking about cynical and distrusting, I had a discussion in a 50-person undergraduate class yesterday about Clinton and his legacy. And I listened and I raised questions and I pressed issues. Finally a young woman said, "look, nobody looks to these politicians as moral leaders. They look for hard heads, and on that score, I think he was terrific." There was clapping. I have never had students clap for another student ever.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: There was once a time when they did look to their leaders for moral leadership.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's heartbreaking to hear that because in a way the conclusion may be, Roger and Doris, that over eight years-- because Bill Clinton basically said this isn't something a President has to do, and because we always saw that dichotomy in the polls between public and private-- Americans really have lower expectations of what a President can do to ennoble this society as Roosevelt did and Reagan... many others in different ways. That's, just to me, heartbreaking.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I heard it said that President Clinton finds these discussions frustrating. I imagine if you are a living President, hearing your legacy talked about before you're even dead, it's very hard.
HAYNES JOHNSON: He was talking about it with Dick Morris.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: That's different. He likes to talk about it. But they said with Schlessinger, when he went with a '62 poll to Kennedy to show it to him and actually asked him to fill it out because he was a historian of "Profile in Courage," he started to fill it out and said, "no, I can't fill it out. Who the hell knows, except other Presidents, the way we can do." They only know the alternatives, the pressures, but he loved looking at the poll. He loved the fact that Truman and come up and Eisenhower had fallen down so he devoured every instance of it.
RAY SUAREZ: So, come back in 20 years and we'll have another discussion on this. Thank you all very much.