The Clinton Legacy
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JIM LEHRER: They come from NewsHour regulars: Presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and former government official and advisor and editor David Gergen, now a political science professor; and from former Republican Senator and Reagan White House chief of staff Howard Baker.
Haynes, what did you make of the President and his speech?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I thought it was one of the most fascinating performances I’ve ever seen on a political stage. Now I don’t mean it was like Lincoln, malice toward none or any great ringing rhetoric you’re going to remember. But if you think about who this President is, where he is at this moment — five years ago the jeering and hooting when the Republican Congress took over and behind him was the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. And then two years later it’s Monica and they had a split screen with O.J. Simpson and diversion and scandal and so forth. In fact five years ago nobody would have thought Clinton would be a two-term President to say nothing of that. And here he was last night at the peak of his form — taking credit for everything in the world and promising that the golden horizon is here tomorrow. It was quite astonishing. He looked comfortable. I mean I thought he was the best I’ve ever seen him in this period of time. David, you worked for him. You’re a critic. We’re all critics here. I feel like Napoleon sergeant at wars.
JIM LEHRER: Best you’ve ever seen, David?
DAVID GERGEN: Is it over?
JIM LEHRER: I got… Sorry. You mean the speech? Is the speech over?
DAVID GERGEN: The penny dropped. That’s okay.
JIM LEHRER: Sorry.
DAVID GERGEN: I thought he was… I thought he was in good form. But I didn’t think he captured the spirit of the time. I didn’t think people were looking for, you know, 45 or 50 proposals. And so that there is a quality about it you feel like it’s ambitious but it’s not realistic and there’s no price tag. You don’t have any idea how much this all costs. I think it’s incumbent, when you’re going to propose large scale programs, to tell us how much it’s going to cost? And what I do think it’s done, Jim, is it’s thrown down the gauntlet in this campaign. We now have two very clear choices about where we’re going. What are we going to do with the surplus that’s building up? Everybody agrees take $2 trillion and save it for Social Security. What to do with the one to $2 trillion that’s still left? President Clinton said let the government deal with it through spending and tax credits and the Republicans, George W. Bush most obvious to the point says let’s give it back in taxes and there are others who say let’s save it — put the rest into the surplus. But the President clearly has taken a view that the government is going to deal with most of it. And Republicans will come right back and say no. And that’s a classic division, and it’s going to set up a really interesting campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Senator, that the campaign outline was right in the speech?
HOWARD BAKER: Oh, I think so. And I think it was well done, I really do. I join with Haynes Johnson in saying I sat there and watched and thought, I cannot believe this is the man I thought was politically dead. I really did think that. I didn’t think he would survive another month. And I was talking to people, we were debating whether he should resign or not. I thought he should not resign because I thought it was bad for the system. But when I watched him last night, when I watched him on this program a couple nights before, he seems absolutely impervious to a recollection of any of those events. He must have the strongest ego or the greatest ability to isolate bad news from the past of any person I ever saw. But the speech last night, it s distinctly good. It was perfectly good but it was not perfectly great. It lacked the..
JIM LEHRER: Say that again now.
HOWARD BAKER: I said it was perfectly good but it was not perfectly great. It seems to me that it lacked the symbolism, the call for a greater America… America’s reliance on itself, on the free enterprise system. Everything in there was a government program. And that’s fine. He spelled it out with even some precision. And he set the stage for a legislative session. But the country by and large, I have found, doesn’t give two hoots about the legislative programs. They’re worried about the overall welfare of the country and where we’re going next. Ronald Reagan, for instance, could paint that picture of the city on the hill and go forward and make you believe that… and indeed he made us believe that the country has a great future and we’re part of it. And this one, we have a great political agenda and we’ll see what Congress does with it. That’s the way I came away from it.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, your overview?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: To the extent that it was a campaign document for Vice President Gore, it was absolutely successful. It laid out popular proposals I think will be the ones that Gore can run on. And for Clinton’s living legacy, that is, the amount of years he is going to live as a young man before he dies as opposed to the historic legacy after he is dead, that’s really important. Nothing is more important, I think, than electing Gore. If some of the proposals do get passed over time, they’ll go back to Clinton’s credit, just as JFK earns credit from the proposals that passed under LBJ. And also he will have a friendly person in the administration saying good things about him as all people will as opposed to Bush victory night saying this is the beginning of the end of the Clinton era. So, for his camaraderie, for his sense of solace and comfort in the next years, this helped. However, in the long run for his historic legacy it seems to me it was still like so many of his other State of the Unions, a fabulous one night stand but the next morning you don’t remember what was said. State of the Unions are supposed to be the beginning of a process where you move people to action, you create a sense of urgency. You get the Congress, you get the country. If the Congress doesn’t want to do it, you get the country to force them. That’s the gap between always these State of the Unions and what happens the next day — neither ringing words that really got us going and inspiring us nor commitments that have priorities that have focus. So many laundry lists and we forget where to move first.
JIM LEHRER: Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think Doris is absolutely right. You know, the thing with Clinton, he gives these wonderful speeches but if we dial back over the last seven years, if you think of a speech that he has read and try to look for a sentence that we really remember, maybe the era of big government is over, the State of the Union 1996. And beyond that it gets a little bit hazy. And that was true about last night but I sure was impressed with the fact that he loves being President and that was on display and I think will probably have to drag him out of the White House next January 20, he loves it so much. And that has to do with the purpose of the speech. He wants to be a lame duck this year. He wants people to talk about him, think of him as a political figure and debate the kind of ideas that he suggested. And more than probably most Presidents, he has had a way of trying to keep himself politically alive. Now it’s very likely he is going to be much more discussed in the eighth year of his presidency than most of our former chief executives, plus if he does get Al Gore elected, that — as Doris has suggested – is going to extend the kinds of things he wants to do. And furthermore, all those people in that chamber normally would be free about crossing a President in his eighth year. You figure he is going to be gone next year, no problem with antagonizing him. But if they think that a President Al Gore is going to be around next year to strike back, they’re going to be a little bit more careful about Bill Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Haynes, then, would you agree then that people may be talking more about what you and Howard Baker were talking about, what an amazing performance by this man who has been down and up and down and up and down rather than his vision for the country and what he wants to get done now?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes. That’s what you remember. This there isn’t one thing that will rings out in history’s bell that tells you this is the moment where the country changed but there was something that I thought was brilliant political theater. He is trying to claim for himself the credit for this great boom. I mean, all these wonderful things look what I have here for you in my box -
JIM LEHRER: Is he going to sell -
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well – and everybody says, gee, I want some of that too, you know. I want a safer society — I want this. I want things for my children. I want to be protected. Sounds pretty good to me. And the economy is taking off. And if he can sell that and if – a lot of ifs – the terrible ifs of history – the market went down today – who knows what it’s going to be tomorrow – but if it turns into some golden era, he will get credit -
JIM LEHRER: David, Tom Oliphant said last night on this program that – after the speech was over – he said it very late last night – that the President’s history laid out a surplus manifesto for the progressive or liberal wing of the Democratic Party – if we have a surplus and if we have all this money, here’s what we would like to do with it. Would you agree with that?
DAVID GERGEN: That’s absolutely right. He clearly has in mind a set of twenty or thirty or forty ways, all of which involve either more spending or tax credit, which is another form of spending, so you go at it differently, that the government would do. And the Republicans are going to come back and say George Bush issued a statement last night – George W. Bush – saying this proves my point. If you leave the money in Washington, they’re going to spend it. And that’s why we’ve got to get it back in tax cuts; that’s where the sharp division is. What’s interesting, though, Jim, is that in 90minutes, the longest speech ever, State of the Union, he did not deal with the two most important problems Congress really has to face in the next couple of years – and that is what is the future of Social Security and of Medicare – how are we going to solve those problems? Those are the big, big spending issues in the next few years. And he clearly is going to take a pass on that in the last year of his presidency.
JIM LEHRER: Well, why do you think he did that?
DAVID GERGEN: The choices were too tough. I think he made that decision last year when the Breaux Commission, a bipartisan commission headed by a Democratic Senator, came up with a proposal – his commission — on Medicare and he decided he didn’t want to go that way. I think a lot of political things go into it. This is a much more popular platform for Al Gore to run on without making tough choices but the most important question on the next President’s desk is how are we going to do this on Social Security and Medicare?
JIM LEHRER: Senator Baker, let’s come back to the point that you made a while ago and let me just ask you — Do Republicans, when they watch listen you said you admire what had he did just in a context of a performer — But does he drive most Republicans nuts when they watch something like that thinking, this guy, we thought we had him then — we thought we had him now. There he is. He is not only at the top of his form, if you believe what Haynes said and other said, he is setting the agenda, getting all this attention and he is supposed to be a lame duck?
HOWARD BAKER: And he is not a lame duck, believe me. We were talking about that a minute ago. I think 435 plus the 100 people in the chamber were not thinking about Al Gore. They were thinking about this man’s still got clout. And we’re going to have to watch and see what happens. He’s enormously powerful and persuasive with the American people. He has got a specific agenda. But as time goes on, they’ll start to think about it like Bill Frist suggested and others suggested about what it costs. But, more important, it seems to me, they’re going to think about what impact does it have on this marvelous economy. There is a lot of talk about how we’re going to spend the money but there was no talk about how we’re going to keep this engine running, how we’re going to keep the economy purring along like it is. By the way, the greatest thing President Clinton may have done, what he may really be remembered for is appointing Alan Greenspan again as chairman of the Fed. But he is extraordinarily fortunate. The country is extraordinarily fortunate to have this giant economic machine that’s producing wealth at an astonishing rate. But I was troubled last night – and I think many people will be when they think about it — there was almost nothing about how you keep that machine tuned and how you keep it going, but rather how you spend the money as if that’s all there was to it.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what did he do for repairing his place in history? I realize I’m not going to ask you to write the history of the Clinton administration or Bill Clinton at this point, but did he take some repairing steps, do you think, last night?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think there is no question that nearly by standing up and looking strong, providing a sense of his connection to this strong economy and America’s great moment in history, he is hoping to set the stage for being remembered for something very positive. The interesting thing is the next line he said after never have we been in such a fortunate position is, therefore have we never had so many obligations, so many opportunities. And I think what history will ask is given this unprecedented peace and prosperity, given his incredible talents, his ability to give a speech with passion and energy, why was he not more able to translate these larger dreams about our public lives, education and health, into reality? Why could he not get that Congress to work for him? Even in the beginning when he had Democrats, it is a mystery to me. This man should have been a Lyndon Johnson up on the Hill — given his love of politics and understanding of policy. It never happened. It will be so interesting to understand why that was so, why they ended up hating him so much — why the Democrats weren’t as loyal as we thought they should have been.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, when you look at… watched him last night as a historian, professionally as a historian, did you do it with a mystery kind of, what is there about this man? Or did you think, oh, my goodness, it’s all revealing itself. Are we going to be talking about this guy for 100 years?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We on the NewsHour will be back in 100 years, we’ll be arguing about him. I think historians will be arguing as strenuously as Americans have for the last seven years. And two big questions they will be arguing about — one is was the impeachment and the other investigations, were those things justified or was Bill Clinton largely innocent victim of other forces? And also, this economy, how much was he responsible for this? Or was it people like Bob Rubin and Alan Greenspan, technological change, rising productivity. We’re going to be wrestling with these questions for a long time. From his point of view, and it was very much on display in your interview with him on Wednesday, he wants to basically quash the question of impeachment and say that was illegitimate; that was a set-up against me from the beginning and turn up the volume from the economy. We’ll be back in 100 years and we can discuss it.
JIM LEHRER: David, what do you make of the way he handles this situation about the impeachment and of that and what he said in the interview the other night was that he regretted that he gave his enemies an opportunity to really go after him, meaning the Monica Lewinsky thing? But he has no apologies for the fight that he gave to survive because he was fighting for the Constitution. Is that going to ring?
DAVID GERGEN: It’s remarkably reminiscent of what Richard Nixon said. He said “I gave my enemies a sword, and they ran me through.” And that’s echoing so much what the President said. He’s one of the most remarkably resilient men I’ve ever seen in public life. And I think that’s one of his great strengths politically. He is able to bounce back. He does have this sort of vitality about him. He will never accept defeat. He wants to shape the future. I think Doris’s point early on that he very much not only wants to see Al Gore elected but wants to see Al Gore carrying out Bill Clinton’s agenda so that he will live on. He will help Al Gore get elected but, in turn, Al Gore has to help him look good in history. And it’s an interesting part of him.
JIM LEHRER: It was interesting what you said a moment ago, Senator Baker. You didn’t think Clinton should resign. An awful lot of people did. Now, do you think Nixon had to resign – could he have hung in there like Bill Clinton has?
HOWARD BAKER: That’s a very interesting question. As a matter of fact, I remember when Bill Timmons, who was White House liaison for President Nixon, was doing his head check and he came to me, I was Vice Chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee and appeared to be terribly tough on Nixon, I guess, and maybe I was, but he said I assume that you would vote to remove. I said, Bill, I’m not sure I would. He said what do you mean? I told him I’m not sure — I know what it takes to remove a sitting President. We’ve never done it. And the answer to your question is, I don’t think Nixon would have been removed. I can sit here and count… I can count 25, I know 25 Senators who would not have voted to convict. And I think Richard Nixon resigned not because he feared that he was going to be removed but because he just couldn’t stand it any longer.
JIM LEHRER: And Bill Clinton can stand almost anything, can’t he Haynes? Is that also a message of lifestyle?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah, it is, and last night it was – Banquo’s ghost was in the hall. There it was off the side there and he looked up and saw Hillary and then you saw Chelsea. And everybody in the country has a reaction to that. They know, we know things about this President we didn’t want to know about anybody in public life. And that’s going to be part of the problem. But if he can claim the good times and wrap them around and take credit for it, that’s pretty good.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what would you add to that, the Banquo’s ghost theory?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think the problem for forgetting the impeachment thing even though I would argue that historians will probably give him credit for fighting on for the presidency and the Constitution as opposed to giving in – is that they’re going to use journalists as their first draft of history later on and journalists and all of us living during this time, made a lot of this thing. We didn’t think it was nothing at the time. There was a sense that he triggered the events that happened. So that 100 years from now, historians are going to look at that and it will be hard to just think it was just nothing. That’s the difficulty with assuming it is going to go away but it will just get balanced. Everybody’s presidency in the long run, the strengths balanced against the weaknesses. It will just depend over time. The problem for him is when we look back at Warren Harding’s peace and prosperity, he was so popular when he left and yet his presidency was ultimately judged a failure. Harry Truman left unpopular at the end of his presidency. —- the economy in trouble, the Korean War dragging out, and yet he has turned around to be a great. So I don’t think we historians living at the moment are great judges of what’s going to happen in the future.
JIM LEHRER: Well, we’ll check in with you in 100 years and see what -
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I hope so.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Doris, gentlemen, thanks.