the clinton years

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clinton with buddy (4.29.1998)CHAPTER VI:  1999-2000 THE POST-IMPEACHMENT PRESIDENCY: Following the Senate acquittal, the president was able to reenergize his domestic agenda and to focus more intensely on foreign affairs.  Clinton also had to prepare himself for another difficult transition.  Instead of being the man in the spotlight, Clinton would now have a supporting role as fundraiser and campaigner for his wife and his vice president. This chapter concludes with analyses of what may ultimately be the Clinton legacy.
sections
Learning to be the Foreign Statesman

The Challenge of the Middle East

Mrs. Clinton Goes to New York

The Comedian-in-Chief

Election Night

The Legacy
Learning to be the Foreign Statesman
Within weeks of his Senate acquittal, the president embarked on a high stakes military campaign in Kosovo. It marked a more surefooted president than the one whose early foreign policy disasters included Somalia, Haiti and, in the view of some, not enough action on Bosnia.

Podesta: I think we had hoped to avoid it. We couldn't avoid it. Milosevic had expelled 900,000 people out of Kosovo. We were determined to reverse that. And he ordered the beginning of the bombing. I think there weren't too many people who were not in the administration who weren't second-guessing that decision.

I remember just in the first week of the bombing campaign, as people were being buffeted about, criticized -- I mean, I'm talking about our senior national security people. I remember the president coming in saying, "Look, I made the decision. If it goes wrong, it's in my lap. You know, just do what you think is right, do your job." Kind of calmed everybody down.

Lockhart: He didn't go into this and say, "Let's use the air campaign because that's a much safer way of doing this." I mean, that's a given. He pursued the air campaign because he was convinced that it would work and that he would get the result that he eventually got. I think he took very seriously the risks of escalating that campaign by sending in ground troops and was very aware of it, but had gotten to the point where, if necessary, [he] was willing to do it.

Podesta: At some level ... I'd describe this through impeachment, through the trial, et cetera, from my period in the White House, this was the hardest time. To know that there were consequences to this, there was collateral damage, there were innocent people who were being put in harm's way, but that we were doing the right thing. But we needed to persevere and press on. Very, very difficult to go through that, but I think he felt like we were doing the right thing, and he just stuck with it.

Albright: Well, I think if you remember, there was always a lot of discussion about what we were doing in the Balkans anyway, why did we have forces in Bosnia, why did we care. And the president systematically made the argument that the Balkans were important to what we were trying to do in Europe, generally.

When the president came in, he felt that it was very important to have a Europe that was undivided and free, democratic, and a lot of the things that we did, directly, were part of that. And understanding what the mission of NATO was to be in the 21st century. Enlargement of NATO, I think, is one of the really important landmarks and credits to President Clinton, in dealing with the Balkans as the missing piece of a Europe that could claim that it was undivided and free -- was an essential aspect of what we were doing.

Podesta: And I think over that period of time, what the president spent a great deal of time on was consulting with the other NATO ally leaders, and making sure that we stuck together, we pursued the course. And that ultimately I think Milosevic understood we were not going to back off, we were in this thing, we were going to reverse what he had done. And he finally reversed course, and we were able to get the refugees back in.

Berger: You know, Milosevic started his rampage in 1991, before we arrived, and had dominated, had preoccupied us for most of our administration. We supported the opposition very strongly in ways that were appropriate during that election to oust Milosevic. And so when you saw Milosevic toppled and fall like a ship that sinks, it was a great sense of power of the people, of democracy, vindication for having stuck with it for as long as we did.

But one of the things about leading and about being engaged in the kinds of things that we are is you don't get to enjoy your victories very long because, of course, the next day things began to unravel in the Middle East. And so notwithstanding the fact that in a single week we had signed a bill to let China into the WTO, Milosevic had fallen, and a number of other positive things that happened, we got to savor that, maybe, for about 24 hours, and then turned and throw ourselves into a crisis in the Middle East.

In the fall of 2000, the country woke up one day and saw a remarkable picture of people taking the streets in Belgrade and essentially Milosevic being forced out. What was the president's reaction to that day?

Albright: Well, you know, part of the problem was I wasn't with him, I was on an airplane, and I was told about this myself, and thanks to my office, I actually taped everything that was on television. I could see the excitement of it. But when I got back, we obviously talked about the fact that this was a truly important victory for the Serbian people, and how we were pleased for them, and that it was something that we'd done that had worked.

When he came back, there had been some criticism that after this lengthy air war, Milosevic was out of Kosovo, but he was still the leader of Yugoslavia. When it became clear that Milosevic was in fact being forced out, did the president have a sense of vindication about what he had done, what you had done?

Albright: Absolutely, and I think that we felt that it was obviously very difficult to stay focused on what had to be done in the Balkans. It still is going to be difficult to stay focused about what has to be done in the Balkans. But I believe we did the right thing. The president certainly believes we did the right thing. Because we have given the Serbian people an opportunity that the rest of Europe has, which is to choose their own leader, and to choose their own way of life, and be part, not only of a functioning Balkan peninsula, but, ultimately, of this new Europe that is integrated and free and undivided.

And so it was the last piece left. The president's determination, and the skill of the American military made this happen, and of course it's a vindication.
The Challenge of the Middle East
From the historic handshake between Rabin and Arafat to the Wye River Accord to Camp David, Bill Clinton spent more time on attempting to broker peace in the Middle East than any other American president. But the dream of the seven-year peace process came crashing down in a storm of stones and bullets in the fall of 2000. In the last months of his presidency, Clinton desperately tried to avoid war and hold on to the bare threads of his foreign policy legacy.

Berger: And, in fact, we made I think quite extraordinary progress. And I don't know anybody who could have done what the president did in those negotiations or what he did in the Wye negotiations or many other circumstances where I've seen him, where he is able to help bridge differences, help close gaps through a combination of intellectual power, a sympathetic ear, listening to others, respect from and for both sides. And we got, actually, far closer at Camp David than ever before, but not, unfortunately, to total, to total closure, but....

What was Mr. Clinton's mood like during this time?

Lockhart: Well, I think you've got to put this in perspective. He went in thinking that there was probably a ten percent chance of getting an agreement. But he had been convinced and agreed with the line of reasoning that said that this is the only chance we have, that if you just let this continue to disintegrate, it's going to cycle downward, disintegrate, and you'll have violence on your hands.

So I think he was determined to try to take this shot, understanding that it was a long shot. But I think in the back of his mind he had a sense that if he could keep the parties together long enough and talk to them enough, he could help them find common ground. So I don't think he went in and thought this was impossible. He understood how difficult this was. And I think after a couple of days of it, sort of looked back and said, "I can't believe I didn't understand how incredibly difficult this was, because once they started talking about Jerusalem, you know, it was like it took it to a whole new level of difficulty."

Was the president relying too much on his own political skill, his own charm? Was there some hubris in suggesting that he might be able to make an agreement here, given how far apart Barak and Arafat --

Berger: No, I don't think so at all. First of all, as I say, this was something that Prime Minister Barak had been asking for a month, insisting upon. Chairman Arafat also wanted a summit. He wanted to put it closer to the September 13 deadline, which he thought would give him more leverage. We thought a little bit of distance from that deadline would create a little more space.

But I don't think that the president felt that, through some magical power, you can breach differences that have existed for, in some cases, centuries, in some cases, 50 years, in some cases since the Oslo process. These are very hard issues of how you make peace in the Middle East, and they have not been solved up till now, and I hope they will be solved. I think that some progress was made at Camp David. I think both parties felt there was. But I think that sometimes you have to try in a situation where you know the consequences of not trying are certain. The consequences of our not having gone to Camp David would have been, I think, turmoil breaking out. Now, as it turned out, we made progress, but by virtue of subsequent events, we've had a very, very difficult patch.

Lockhart: I don't think the president went in thinking that, you know, somehow he could ride to the rescue and be the big hero. I think he realized that the United States has an essential role in this process, and it was a difficult call to make of, do we play it now, do we play a card now or do we wait? But this was not a case where he overestimated his ability to bring them together.

What was the president's personal reaction when he saw violence erupt in the fall of 2000? After all Clinton had invested so much in the Middle East through the various Camp David agreements, he met with Arafat more than any other foreign leader -- enormous personal contribution here. How did he feel when it fell apart in the fall of 2000?

Berger: I think he thinks this is a tragedy. I mean, this is two people who are side-by-side. That fact is not going to change. And either this will, you know, they will descend into conflict, which has the potential for engaging the broader region or, or they will find a way back into some kind of negotiating process. But as we sit here now, the most important objective is to try to break this cycle of violence. And it is, in my judgment, it's in everyone's interest to try to do that.

When you look back, what is the single largest regret about the way Clinton handled foreign policy? If you can name one.

Albright: Well, I think that that's very hard, because he's handled it well. I think that our main regret, all of ours, is obviously that we haven't been able to accomplish more on the Middle East.

And I think a big regret is the fact that we haven't gotten all the support out of Congress that is necessary to carry on a robust foreign policy. So the size of the budget for foreign policy I think is something that he regrets. We've talked about that. That he wishes that there were a way for us to be able to support the new democracies better, but there's not enough money. I think that is the regret.
Mrs. Clinton Goes to New York
On the very day her husband was acquitted by the Senate, Mrs. Clinton met with adviser Harold Ickes to plot a campaign to run for the Senate in New York. Within months she would announce and become the first first lady to run for Senate.

Podesta: Well, I think that the first cheerleader on this was [Rep.] Charlie Rangel, and other New York Democrats, but Charlie especially I think was really nudging her and pushing her and talking it up. And I think at first, it was probably flattering, and I'm not sure she took it all that seriously. And then a number of New York Democrats were coming to see her and calling her and really trying to get something going.

I'm not sure whether the president took it completely seriously. I think he thought that if she ran, she'd be a great candidate, and if she won, she'd be a great senator. But it took a little while to get going.... And then the more she thought about it, I think she thought she could make a difference in that role and decided to get out there. And she went through that phase in which she traveled around New York, still thinking it through and then finally made a decision to go ahead and do it.

Lockhart: Here was an outlet. You know, here was a place where she very much wanted his advice and involvement, which was not always the case with the presidential campaign, and he very much wanted to give it.

And, I'll never forget the scene the day she was announcing. They were working on the announcement speech, and she had never given one of these before, so she was really nervous. And she had all of the consultants and speech writers around, which were making her crazy.

So she ended up going upstairs in the house in Chappaqua, and out in sort of a finished garage. The speechwriter set up the computer. And the president was the one who shuttled back and forth because she couldn't deal with the rest of them. He calmed her down, and you know, helped her with going through and making the changes.

And he went back and forth, and at one point, he kept coming down and saying, "Okay. She likes this change, but she doesn't like this change. Let's try it this way." And he would tell someone, and they'd try to type it in. He eventually kicked the person out of the chair. So you had the president sitting there, you know, putting in some changes on the computer. And you could tell, on this particular Saturday afternoon he was having more fun than he had had in a long time.
The Comedian in Chief
In the last year people noticed a more relaxed, wistful president who was wowing the crowds with his comedic timing and his theatrical entrance at the Democratic Convention.

Lockhart: I think by the middle of 1999, especially after the success in Kosovo, he was very confident in his ability to do it, and I think it was a lot more fun. And I think if you look at the last 18 or 19 months, it was a time of progress and success at the White House and a time where for him it wasn't a struggle of "Do I have the right staff in the right place? Are we doing things the most effective way we can?" He felt that was true, and I think it was a lot more fun for him.

Did you notice that he was funnier?

Lockhart: He's always been funny. And I think he was a little more willing in the last year and a half to poke fun at himself. I was always a proponent of that. I mean, he understood that, you know what -- if you make fun of yourself five times, you can make fun of the guy you really don't like once and get away with it. But if you just go out and say, "This guy's a jerk" in a funny way, you're going to be seen as someone who's got a problem, and you know, is trying to get even.

Shalala: I think he's beginning to see his place in history and realize that it's almost over, his presidency is almost over. So he's relaxed on one side, but, on the other side, he's totally energized and driving us crazy in terms of getting things done.

You went out to Michigan for that ritual passing of the torch, and then at the end of the day, the president went into McDonald's. What was that supposed to mean?

Podesta: I'm not sure it was supposed to mean much of anything other than he saw there was a crowd out in front of McDonald's on the way into town, and he and the first lady decided they wanted to stop and get something to eat. It was quite a riot in McDonald's because even though it was kind of middle of the afternoon, there was still quite a crowd in there. And people were stunned that he was in there, and it actually turned out to be a lot of fun. We all had a good time. Things got a little slow, so I got behind the counter and started punching the buttons, serving the fries. So, you know, it was a time to kind of let your hair down. We did that and got out and then got a few days to relax.

You say he's been wistful lately.

Begala: A little wistful. I mean, I think he misses it, and I've talked to him about it. Again, I don't like talking about private conversations with him, but as a general matter, he's shared with me that he loves the job. He absolutely loves it, and for all that he's been through, he'd go back and do it again in a heartbeat, absolutely, and he's going to miss it desperately.

Now, when he gets out of that wistful mode, he's still dominating the agenda. And this is an astonishing thing. Again, President Reagan was sort of an amiable presence out at the ranch by the last six months of his presidency. He had no effect on national policy at all. Here is Bill Clinton, gives an hour and ten minute long State of the Union address, packed with issues, every one of which is now dominating the presidential campaign and the congressional season.

On top of that, he's a fair bet to get nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize again, both for what he's done Ireland and in the Middle East. Since I've left, he's waged and won a war in Kosovo in the teeth of horrific partisan opposition, the likes we've never seen during wartime. So I think he's been stunningly successful. So the big notion that somehow this impeachment was a blot on him, I think that's a bunch of bull.
Election Night
The final weeks of the presidency were filled with drama, but this time Clinton was not at the center. While election night produced a victory for the first lady, who became junior U.S. Senator from New York, the night was not so glorious for Al Gore. After five weeks of legal wrangling and contradictory court decisions, the vice president conceded the election to George W. Bush.

Did Clinton feel stabled in a certain sense? Some of the political people we've talked to have called him "the Secretariat" of political thoroughbreds. And he was really restricted in this campaign. He didn't even campaign in his home state.

Podesta: I think that his analysis was quite similar actually to the Gore campaign's analysis, which is that he could be helpful but in ways that were the things we tried to concentrate on -- do the work of the presidency, keep moving the country forward. He spent quite a bit of time over the summer and in the fall trying to raise funds for Democratic candidates and that he might be able to be helpful in the last week,. But I think he had a very keen sense that people wanted to hear from Al Gore; they wanted to hear from the House and Senate candidates in New York; they wanted to hear from Hillary Clinton. They didn't wanted to hear from the president, and that he could help in certain ways, but in other ways they had to be out there making their own case. And so I think he was actually quite comfortable with that.

When we come to the election, two parts. First, Hillary Clinton wins the New York Senate race. To what extent does Bill Clinton see that as part of his legacy? He helped Hillary Clinton quite a bit -- he helped her write speeches; he helped her with the announcement speech; he was more a part of her campaign than he was of Al Gore's campaign.

I don't think he thinks that it was about him. I think he thinks that it was about her. I think he is very proud of the way she ran the race, and in fact it was -- I think it was unusual from all of our perspectives that as public a figure, she had obviously not been a candidate and there was that time in the early part where she was just getting going when people were questioning her campaign skills,. And she turned out to be, I think, a brilliant candidate and presented her case well to the people of New York. And then won the race . I was confident she was going to win the race, but I was surprised she won it going away. And she just did a great job and I think he was extremely proud of her. But again, I think he was pretty clear that was about her and he did what he could to support that effort.

To what extent did Hillary Clinton rely on Bill Clinton for political advice in this campaign?

Lockhart: Oh, a large extent. I think she understands that he has a vast reservoir of political skills and experience, and she relied on that, just as he relied on her political sense, and sense of what was in his best interest over eight years. I mean, this goes back and forth between the two. It just happened that once she decided to run for Senate, she became the person who needed the day-to-day advice and he was always there.

Do you recall the president at the moment when New York was called for Mrs. Clinton?

Podesta: Yeah, we were up in the suite. We were in the hotel and we had set up a room, kind of a war room, where the president had been making phone calls to radio stations around the country to get the vote out, rolling from the east to west coast. And at the time that the polls were closing in New York, he went back to the suite. There were quite a few people that had gathered in the suite: mostly friends and family and a few staff. And Mrs. Clinton was there and the TV screens flashed her victory and a large whoop was let out by everybody in the room and everybody embraced and then after that there was this kind of separate room and the two of them went back there I think to get a little bit of a moment of together without the rest of us being around. It was a great and exciting moment.

Well, Mrs. Clinton won and then for the next 30 odd days we didn't have a winner [in the presidential race]. What was that period like for Bill Clinton?

Podesta: Well it started that night when obviously first the vice president was declared the winner in Florida and it reverted and they declared Governor Bush the winner. I remember the scene when they put up Governor Bush's picture and it said 43rd President of the United States and it was a somber moment I think.

And then the change and we were watching the vote tally coming down in Florida and the back and forth with Bill Daley and his crew as they were driving over to the site of the speech. And finally realizing that in fact the vote total was coming down and that the vice president was not going to concede that evening. And he talked to the vice president at 4 o' clock in the morning and said, you know, "Keep fighting you're gonna win this thing."

Could he believe how close it was? Was it surprising to him?

Podesta: Well I think it was surprising to everybody. I think that he felt the vice president was going to pull it out and he was going to come in ahead. And I do think that he thought Florida was going to be a critical state and one that was going to be very tight right down the end. Obviously with Jeb Bush being governor, he knew it was a challenge. He thought the vice president could win it. He thought he ran a really good race down there. They spent obviously--concentrating a lot of time down there. And we were all hopeful. As it turned out, most of the rest of the country where people were had given more dire predictions over the weekend about the vice president's chances were all coming in. So he won Wisconsin, he won Pennsylvania, he won Michigan, he won New Mexico, in the end, he won Oregon. And so everyone's attention was focused on Florida. And along with the rest of the country, the president was kind of looking at that really in real time almost. I can't remember how often they updated those numbers, but they were literally five or ten minutes apart on the internet.

So the president wakes up, he's in Ireland at this point. What's his reaction to that 5-4 Supreme Court decision?

Podesta: Well,obviously there was for all of us there was disappointment in the way the decision had come down, we were hoping for a different result. He was in the throes of doing his schedule there and trying to--I think they got him a copy of the decision and through the course of the day he was reading the various opinions. But there was disappointment and then I think relatively quickly came to the realization during the course of their day and now we were moving into overnight. I let the traveling party know that the vice president was going to make a statement that night and you're in this kind of odd time lapse that was going on. But he was just trying to digest it and -- the realization hit him that this was finally coming to an end in a way that we'd hoped it wouldn't. He then called the vice president and they talked and [had] a private moment while he was getting ready for a speech in Belfast.

Did the president have some concern about the reasoning of the majority decision of the Supreme Court?

Podesta: Well, I think we all will be able to pick at that and I'm sure that he'll have his own views on that and he'll probably express those views as we go on. But I think as he said after the vice president spoke, I think both of them accept the result. It is the Supreme Court. I talked to our staff this morning and we accept the result and we're gonna move on from here and try to do what we can to make the transition smooth. I think that that's where his head it at this point. I just talked to him.

Does Bill Clinton feel at all responsible for Al Gore's defeat?

Podesta: I think that just as the president wouldn't take credit for his victory --and again he got more than 50 million votes, he got a majority of the vote -- I think just as he wouldn't take credit for that, I don't think he bears the burden or blame of his defeat. They did good things together, they moved the country forward together and I think they share that they share the good times and we'll let others try to figure out what happened in this campaign that ultimately permitted Governor Bush to ultimately emerge as the person that's going to be inaugurated as the next president.

Did the president have regrets about the way in which Al Gore conducted the campaign?

Podesta: No. I think he thought that he ran a good campaign and a solid campaign and I think that when he had ideas, he let the campaign know what they were. And I think that the basic thrust of Al Gore's campaign was consistent with where Bill Clinton thinks this country ought to go -- a path of fiscal discipline, a path of what now has been described as a new democratic path, one that builds in the center and moves forward.
The Legacy
Everyone we interviewed spoke about President Clinton's potential legacy. Many believed he would be remembered as a good president who could have been a great president. He left the economy and country stronger than he found it, yet his questionable character and legal and political woes will also hold a place in the history books.

Reich: You know, I think about this administration a lot. I'm very proud to have been a part of it. On Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays I say, "Thank God Bill Clinton was there," you know, to hold back the right wing Republican tide, to preserve things that we believed in, to make the right decisions on a lot of very important issues.

And then on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Saturdays, I say to myself, "What a waste. All that talent and all that ability, and he did not do what he intended to do and get accomplished. Maybe if he had been more disciplined, both in terms of his agenda, and also his personal life, more could have been done." And then on Sundays, I don't think about it.

Podesta: From a policy perspective, one of the things that I greatly admire about him is the guy never gives up. I think probably the classic example is health care in 1994, and rather than just completely throwing it aside, he'll get back up and he'll say, "Well, if we can't do that, what can we do?" And we passed Kennedy-Kassebaum and this child health insurance program. Now we're working on Medicare and prescription drugs.

You know, he's kind of the Terminator. I mean, he just keeps going and going and going.... I think that he was a person who understood the transition to a new age, this age of our information economy and globalization. He was able to manage that both here and abroad, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy, and bring everyone along with it. Both his intellect and his ability to manage in that context will be seen as outstanding.

And I think he'll be known as a guy who could take a punch, who never got completely down on the mat, who always came back, who fought for what he believed in, fought for what he thought was right and kept going and just wouldn't stay down, kept coming back. Because, as I said, I think he always remembers the people who are out there who sent him to the White House and he gets energy from that and he fights for them.

Did the historical asterisk -- that he is the second president to be impeached -- in your view, did that get in the way of something that could have been better?

Podesta: Oh, I don't know. I think history will have to judge that. And, you know, obviously it would have been better if that hadn't happened. But history will judge. Ultimately, you know, things have kind of strange ways of bouncing around and what that meant vis-a-vis the position of the Republican Party and what the Democrats were and the long-term history will be something that I think people will chew on a hundred years from now.

Begala: I think he will be seen as a stunningly successful president. I think people today in journalism have no idea. Here's my standard: Did you do what you set out to do? Did you keep your promises to the American people?

When I traveled around with him in the country, these are the promises he made. He said, "I'll revive the economy." 22 million jobs later, this is the best economy in the history of the world, in the history of capitalism, the finest economic situation any people have ever had.

He said, "I'll reduce the deficit by half." I thought that was a little optimistic over-promising in the campaign. He's more than reduced it. He's now going to pay down the national debt if the Republicans don't squander it away in a tax cut.

He said, "I'll end welfare as we know it." Mission accomplished. He said, "I'll put 100,000 cops on the street and cut crime." The lowest crime rate in 30 years. He said, "I'll expand trade and be a new kind of Democrat, passing a free trade deal with Mexico and then later with China."

Mission accomplished on every critical juncture, except health care, where he promised national health insurance. But he did deliver on that. The Kennedy-Kassebaum Bill, which lets you take your health insurance with you, that keeps you from being denied for a preexisting condition. He passed and signed the Kennedy-Jeffords Bill, which helps disabled people get health care. He passed a children's health initiative that insures 5 million poor children.

What did he promise? What did he set out to do in the most grandiose over-promising campaign you ever saw? And what has he delivered now, eight years hence? I tell you, it's the most successful presidency since FDR, maybe LBJ if he hadn't had Vietnam, but if you look at what the man set out to do and what he accomplished, stack him up against anybody.

Carville: You know I work around the world, and there's never been a better time to be in America. Really ... so on the whole I feel good about things. Would I wish I would have done a few things differently myself? Sure. Do I wish he'd done a few things differently? Yeah, sure. But you know you never get everything you want in life. And it's been an incredible ride and I thank the Lord and I thank Bill Clinton everyday for letting me be in the car with him.

Myers: Obviously my feelings have gone through a lot of phases over the years. I still think in spite of everything that he's the most talented person I've ever been around. He has an incredibly high IQ. He has tremendous amount of curiosity. He has a mind like a steel trap, nearly photographic. He really can synthesize things in truly original ways.

He is both the politician and a serious policy person. And I just don't think that his likes will come our way again soon, for better and in some ways for worse. You know, I'm disappointed in a lot of the things that he's done. I think he had potential for greatness. I don't think he achieved it. I think he's done a lot of good things for the country. And, you know, I have a lot of sadness about how it's all ended up for him. But I have a reservoir of affection for him that I don't really understand.

Morris: In understanding what is the core Clinton, you can't look for ideology. You have to look for achievements. If you sat down with Bill Clinton in 1991 and you said, "What do you want to achieve as president?" he would say, "I want to reduce welfare by half. I want to cut crime in half. I want to end the budget deficit. I want to reduce the student loan rate. I want to increase home ownership. I want to raise per capita income. I want to bridge the gap between the top fifth and the bottom fifth. I want to have a positive balance of trade. I want to lower tariffs around the world, and I want to reduce the number of conflicts throughout the globe." That's how he would talk, and that's how he thinks. And he sees goals, not ideologies.

You know, Felix Rohatyn was credited -- I think he said it -- with saying, "The difference between the French and the Americans is that the French value ideas above facts, and the Americans value facts over ideas." And Bill Clinton in that sense is the ultimate American. Don't tell me if it's liberal or conservative, or capitalist or socialist. Does it work to accomplish my goal, or doesn't it work?

And when they said, "We don't know where Bill Clinton stands," he stands where he needs to stand to accomplish the objectives he has in mind. And when you look at his legacy, he accomplished every single thing he set out to achieve, and then some....

History will be very good to Bill Clinton. At first, people talk about the scandals, but after ten years nobody's going to mention that. It'll be like Harry Truman. Nobody remembers there were scandals. We remember him for NATO and the Marshall Plan and the Korean War.

Bill Clinton will be seen as the president that solved every major problem America had at the end of the 20th century. Before he took office, we had a deficit; after, we had a surplus. Before he took office, we had soaring crime; after, crime was cut in half. Before he took office, welfare was going crazy; afterwards, the number of poor people in this country has dropped significantly, and will continue to drop. Before, the gap between the rich and the poor was widening; after, it was narrowing. Before, education was not a federal issue; after, it is a federal issue, and education standards are higher. Before, America was protectionist; after, it was free trade. Before, America was isolationist in terms of many of the global conflicts; after, we accept the idea that the president has a diplomatic role in resolving all of that. And if I had told you in 1992 that he would accomplish the things he accomplished by 2000, you would fall off that chair.

Gergen: I think Bill Clinton will, over time, fare better in the history books than he will immediately. I think he's going to look better over time. I also think that the country is better prepared for the 21st century than we think we are. We are in better shape as a people than we think we are. And I think people will look back and say, you know, Bill Clinton told us about this bridge and we never understood what the hell it was, but it turned out he prepared the country over the time he was president. A lot of things happened that made us better prepared for the 21st century and I think he'll get some credit for that.

Craig: Well, I think that this president will be seen as one of the most highly qualified, most talented, most skilled political leaders that this country has ever seen. In that measuring stick, he is up there, in my view, with the Ronald Reagan capacity to communicate with the nation, with the John Kennedy capacity to inspire a generation. I think he probably had more sense of politics and policy than we'll ever see again in a president, and more intelligence about dealing with it.

So I think people will be talking about William Jefferson Clinton as a president and as a person forever because of the combination of incredible forces that are wrapped up in this man. And we know about the flaws. And we know about the lost promise. And we know about the squandered opportunities. But they also shouldn't conceal the reality that this was a time of enormous achievement and transformation of the nation in ways that I think that I've discussed with you -- the diversity, the commitment to diversity, to recognizing and celebrating diversity in our country, to dealing with the post-Cold War era in a way that made sense. Where the country was not afraid of exercising leadership, of projecting power and influence at the same time that it developed a very powerful economy at home. So it's going to be a fascinating story that people will be retelling for ever and ever.

Lockhart: I think the great part about history is it's not written yet, so those who try to predict it generally don't know what they're talking about. I think we don't know the impact of the changes he's made on how we manage our economy, so, again, if the impact is profound, I think he'll be seen as a great president who understood things before his time.

If we're headed off in the wrong direction or there's some changes that we have no way of anticipating or dealing with, or the leadership is lacking down in the future, then I think he will be remembered more for the limitations he placed on himself than on the things he did. But the great part about this is there's no way to know this. This is entirely a guessing game that you can't really begin to answer for another 20 or 30 years.

McCurry: In history, 20-30 years from now, when people think back on this time in history, Bill Clinton will be a part of it, but what they're going to really think of is the Internet. And what has happened is a revolution in the way we communicate with each other, the way we do business, probably in the way we report the news and run political campaigns. It's all a part of the change that's occurring.

And that happened on Bill Clinton's watch and it probably, arguably, may not have happened if the wrong set of policies had been put in place by this president. I think the beginning of the 21st century new economy will be associated in history with this president and this time. And we don't understand it yet, but I'm firmly convinced that it's going to be more of the historical legacy than Monica Lewinsky.

Panetta: I think history will look at this presidency as probably a tale of two presidents. One president, extremely bright, capable, compassionate, wanting to do the right thing for the country, wanting to do the right thing for the world, and I think in fact, providing the strongest economy that not only this nation but the world has ever seen. I think that will be a central legacy of that presidency.

The other presidency will be a tale of someone who made a terrible personal mistake, and I think the bottom line will be that that to some extent created a disappointment for what this presidency could have been for the country and for the world.

Rubin: I think he will be seen as a president who took office at a time that the economy was in a morass --unemployment was substantially above seven percent, large fiscal deficits and the rest -- and put in place, at great political difficulty, a dramatic change in economic policy that repositioned the country not only for recovery, but also for long-term economic well-being. I think he will be remembered as a president who, in that context, stood for fiscal discipline, for trade liberalization, leaving our own markets open, for dealing with inner cities, and education and the other areas that are so important for future productivity. I also think that he will be remembered as a president who understood the new forces, sometimes now referred to as the forces of change of the new economy, and who geared economic policy toward globalization, toward the needs of the new technologies, toward the enormous opportunities available to the spread of market-based economics around the world.

In time, as hopefully people will look at this administration with more perception and also more examination, I think he should be remembered as a president who brought a kind of managerial insight to the White House that has not always been there, and that is the insight that if structures are created and incentives are created for people to work together in a reasonably cohesive fashion, that that can result in a great deal more being accomplished than if people are constantly at odds with each other. And I think that he did a great deal in that respect, which would be well worthy of study by others who have to set up administrations.

Berger: I think that the president will get high grades. I think the accomplishments of this president in foreign policy from peace in Northern Ireland, to expanding NATO, from bringing China into the global system to Africa, to putting AIDS on the international agenda, and other issues like climate change, I think across a wide range of issues he'll be seen as the beginning of defining America's role in the global age.

Sherburne: I think, over time, the president will be recorded as a terrific president. He's brought us into an era of prosperity that is unprecedented, and I think that the scandal issues will eventually take a proper perspective. Certainly, in the first term, every single scandal that we worked on has been found to be nothing. There was nothing there. And I think that once history takes proper account of that, there will also be some account of how desperate the Clinton haters were to find something. And by "Clinton haters," I do mean this whole group of people that includes Starr, includes the Republican fringe in Congress, and includes, you know, all sorts of these other people, the Linda Tripps of the world. I think history will show that their effort to try and diminish this president just cannot survive.

Stephanopoulos: The obvious answer is I don't really know. I mean, I think it's just there is so much good and bad mixed up in him and in his record that it's impossible to sort out without any perspective. But I guess, you know, boy, he did a good job, but he might have been great. And, where people will end up coming down on either side of that I'm not sure. It would be hard to be seen as one of the greatest because he didn't face a great war or a depression or any kind of great national crises. But it turns out that he actually achieved so much of what he promised to do, left the country in such better shape than when he came in. And you can't give him all of the credit for that, but he certainly deserves some. He was a terrific steward, and he did try to point the country to the future, but he couldn't escape his past.

  • See the N.Y. Times collection of notable Americans' views on Clinton's legacy, as well as the N.Y. Times special series on Clinton.



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