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Party Guy The barren ex-presidency of Bill Clinton.
By Byron York From the March 11, 2002, issue of National Review
As he began his last year in office, Bill Clinton also began a long series of farewell interviews about his presidency and his plans for life after the White House. Of course he would write a book and make a living, Clinton often said, but his true goal was something far more important: "I'm going to try to maintain a high level of activity in the areas that I'm particularly interested in. I've spent a lot of my life working on reconciliation of people across racial, religious, and other lines. I'm very interested in using the power of technology . . . to help poor countries and poor areas overcome what would ordinarily take years in economic development and education. I'm very interested in continuing my work to try to convince Americans and the rest of the world that we can beat global warming without shutting down the economy . . . I'm very interested in promoting the concept of public service among young people. . . . Those are four things I'll do."
Two years after he said that, in February 2002, former president Clinton, in Miami to earn $100,000 for a speech to a pro-Israel group, spent his time, in the words of the local paper, "partying like a rock star," starting at Nobu, the hip South Beach restaurant, and later making the rounds at the trendy nightclub Rumi. A few days earlier, Clinton had been at his headquarters in Harlem, where he hosted a Super Bowl party for a group that included, according to the New York Post, "[actor] Chris Tucker, Israel's Shimon Peres, nightclub queen Amy Sacco, and Alec Baldwin." And a few weeks before that, Clinton was in London, where papers reported that he and his party of 17 hit Soho's hot Groucho Club, running up a $14,000 tab before the former president finally returned to his room at the Ritz around 3 a.m.
While it would not be fair to suggest that such stories - and many more like them - represent the sum of Clinton's life during the first year of his ex-presidency, they do stand in stark contrast to the seriousness of the goals Clinton set for himself outside the White House. Whatever their attractions, Rumi and Groucho are unlikely settings for the work of resolving religious and ethnic conflicts, empowering the world's poor, solving global warming, and promoting national service. Clinton aimed to create an ex-presidency that rose to the highest levels of statesmanship. What he has done, after a year of hanging out in fashionable watering holes in New York, Los Angeles, and Europe, is create a pattern for an ex-presidency that will likely be as undisciplined and ultimately unsuccessful as his years in the White House.
A Bon Vivant, Not A Memoirist Clinton had the worst beginning of an ex-presidency since Richard Nixon flew to San Clemente in 1974. First there was the pardon scandal - still the subject of a criminal investigation - and, at the same time, the controversy over the gifts both Clintons took when they left the White House. By the time those died down, September 11 arrived to shed a merciless light on Clinton's failure to address the threat of international terrorism that grew exponentially during his time in office. Added to the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the campaign-finance scandal, and a host of lesser misdeeds while in office, these new developments left Clinton with an enormous task of self-rehabilitation if he were ever to achieve his lofty goals.
Perhaps the best first step an ex-president with a major image problem can take is to write a serious book. "Part of what Nixon did was invest very heavily in the writing of his memoirs, which was in fact 60 or 70 percent a Watergate memoir," says Princeton historian Fred Greenstein. "He used his strengths: his tenacity and his intelligence." Nixon's memoirs, confounding the low expectations normally given to presidential recollections, were actually quite well received and were a critical step in his rehabilitation.
Clinton has a similar opportunity, but there is evidence that he is throwing it away. Last August, he signed a book contract for more than $10 million - the exact figure was never made public - with the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. It was the largest amount ever paid for a nonfiction book. Reports at the time stressed that Clinton planned to write the book himself, under the supervision of Robert Gottlieb, the former New Yorker editor and Knopf man who has become legendary in publishing circles for working on a number of bestsellers. Publication was set for fall 2003.
Now it appears there is real concern in Clinton circles about whether that deadline will be met. Sources say Clinton has not only not written anything but has also not organized his thoughts in the fashion necessary to produce a serious book. While he has asked Ted Widmer, a Harvard-educated historian who served as a speechwriter on Clinton's national-security staff, to assist him, at this point Clinton finds himself in the position of being ill prepared to turn in the multimillion-dollar project he has promised to produce within a year. It's a situation that doesn't surprise some who worked with Clinton through the years. "Lacking something [major] to do, he falls victim to entropy, which was always his biggest problem," says former political adviser Dick Morris. "Unless he had a goal [bigger than writing a book], he could never organize himself - and then entropy took over and he became sullen and disorganized and confused." In the end, Clinton may have to resort to bringing in a last-minute book doctor to assemble a book from interviews with the former president.
Whoever writes it, the Clinton book, if it is to do him the sort of good that Nixon's memoirs did, would have to deal seriously with the scandals that defined large parts of his presidency, particularly the independent-counsel investigation that led to his impeachment. But sources who keep tabs on the work say no one should expect real candor. "He's going to paper over the whole thing," says one. "If he had put energy behind it instead of screwing around for this last year, it would have helped the reputation of his administration."
Of course, it's at least theoretically possible that Clinton might be secretly planning to offer up a revealing and measured account of his presidency. But at the moment there is no reason to think so. A good preview of his approach can be found on the website of Clinton's presidential library, which contains a timeline of Clinton's two terms. For 1998 - the Year of Lewinsky - the timeline says, in full: "For the first time since 1969, the federal government has a budget surplus. The President supports using the surplus to 'Save Social Security first.' President Clinton plays a major roll [sic] in the Good Friday Peace Accords between Catholic and Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland and in the Wye River Memorandum between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yassir Arafat." Neither does the overview of 1999 take notice of Clinton's impeachment trial in the Senate. The website does, however, invite readers to "learn more about how Bill Clinton worked and continues to work for the betterment of America."
Beyond going to parties and not writing his memoirs, Clinton's principal activity in his post-presidential year has been giving speeches. Since September 11, one of Clinton's stock presentations has been the "struggle for the soul of the 21st century" speech, a rambling, 6,000-word meditation on the origins of terrorism and Clinton's efforts to fight it. Clinton has delivered the speech at major universities across the country-at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown-as well as to trade groups and at fundraisers.
For all its length and scope, the one thing the speech does not do is give a comprehensive account of the Clinton administration's response to international terrorism. One finds only brief and insubstantial references to the first World Trade Center bombing and the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa; there is no mention at all of the bombings of the Khobar Towers military barracks or the USS Cole. Instead, the speech has moments of cringe-making self-centeredness, as when Clinton says of the victims of September 11, "The people who perished represent not only the best of America, but the best of the world I worked hard for eight years to build." It has moments of classically Clintonian self-promotion, as when he says, "In the years that I served as president, we worked very hard to improve our defenses and to bring terrorists to justice in the hope a day like September 11th would never come." And it has moments of late-night, dorm-room philosophizing, as when Clinton says, "This is a big fight for the soul of the 21st century about three things: What is the nature of truth? What is the value of life? What is the content of community?" Some of it sounds appealing-particularly the upbeat, we-can-lick-this-thing-if-we-all-work-together conclusion-but it ultimately never really says how to do anything.
The Coolidge Fate "Here's what's unique about Bill Clinton," says Richard Norton Smith, the historian and author who has served as director of the Reagan, Ford, Eisenhower, and Hoover presidential libraries. "He had the luxury during his presidency of being the first president in American history who was assessed not by one poll but by two polls." Smith is referring to the Lewinsky-era polling practice of asking Americans to rate Clinton's job performance separately from their approval or disapproval of him as a human being. "But since [George W. Bush's] inauguration day, that luxury has disappeared. Clinton is no longer doing the job as president, and with the passage of time, memories of the job performance, however high, tend to be subsumed in the rush of successive events."
Smith continues: "He should talk to Calvin Coolidge, who, in his last address, rather complacently took credit for the overwhelming prosperity associated with his name. A few months later, literally overnight, he came to be seen in a radically different light, and fairly or unfairly, 70 years later, he's never quite escaped from the shadow of the Crash." Smith pauses for a moment. "September 11, it can be argued, is Bill Clinton's Black Tuesday."
The terrorist attacks made Clinton's ex-presidency vastly more difficult. When he discusses his administration's actions on terrorism, he appears to be defending the indefensible. And when he discusses the rest of his administration's record, including its actual accomplishments, it all seems small in light of September 11. There's nothing he can do about that; he has no more chances to be president.
But Clinton could improve the public's perception of him by long, hard, focused work in some useful role. Jimmy Carter left office a failed president, and whether one approves of his post-White House career or not, it is indisputable that Carter raised himself in the public's esteem by working very hard at his new role-sometimes under unpleasant conditions and sometimes without the presence of admiring celebrities. So far Clinton has shown no inclination to do that kind of work, although he is said to want the kind of admiration that Carter enjoys. But one is not possible without the other. "You can't have it both ways," says Douglas Brinkley, the Carter biographer and sometime Clinton supporter. "You can't want to be considered a great ex-president like Jimmy Carter and not do the grunt work. You can't want to be wining and dining around Manhattan and do that work."
When asked for a list of his accomplishments as an ex-president, Clinton's office declines comment, saying only that he is a private citizen and his activities are private matters. Later, after the deadline has passed for this article's appearance in National Review magazine, a spokeswoman sends a list of the activities the former president considers most important. Clinton, the office says, is working with local leaders in Harlem to "design a set of economic development projects focused on the needs of small businesses." He has also created the Clinton Democracy Fellowship Program, a sort of AmeriCorps volunteer program for young people in South Africa, and serves on the board of foundations that work for AIDS treatment and prevention, Indian earthquake relief, and the families of September 11 victims - all, according to Clinton's representatives, "in an effort to continue to act on his belief in global interdependence and common humanity."
But the accomplishment the former president's office lists first is a forum held recently by the William J. Clinton Foundation entitled "Islam and America in a Global World." Clinton's remarks at the forum were similar to those in the "struggle for the soul of the 21st century" speech, except that he now seems to be placing greater emphasis on the idea that cultural exchanges are more important than military action in the war on terrorism. "I believe all of us will have to make a very concerted effort to develop a way of dealing with each other which respects both our interesting differences and our common humanity," Clinton said. "It still seems there are many, many Muslims throughout the world including in the United States, who see most of what we are and do as a threat to their values, their economic interests, their political aspirations. Working through these matters is critical to building a world rooted in partnership not paralyzed by terror and fear."
So the talk goes on. This week, Clinton is in Australia for one of his biggest paydays yet-reportedly $300,000 for a single speech, along with a concert and numerous dinners in his honor. The hard, unglamorous work of resolving religious and ethnic conflicts, empowering the world's poor, solving global warming, and promoting national service will have to wait, at least for a while.
-- Maria (email@example.com), February 26, 2002
Yes, Maria, ex-presidents rarely rise to new heights after leaving office. Look at GHW Bush's activities since leaving office. And Ronald Reagan's. Like Clinton, they started taking huge fees for making unimportant speeches to obscure groups. They have all stopped mattering.
I should take that back. Clinton still matters to a few people like you. Judging by the number of times you bring him up, he matters enormously. I amazes me how, once some people got a good hold on Clinton's cock, they just can't let go.
Maria, take a hint from Ken Starr. Even he has moved on. Elvis is dead, too.
-- Little Nipper (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 26, 2002.
LN, I don't care one iota about Clinton's cock, and I don't think Maria does either. What I do care about is the fact that he betrayed the country in many different ways. We are not nearly as safe as a country now as we were when he took office. He did not do the necessary to keep us safe, he just pretended to. That is because basically he is just a lying little boy. If you get my fucking drift. I have had it up to here with Clinton defenders who say "oh, his critics are just preoccupied with his penis."
-- Peter Errington (email@example.com), February 26, 2002.
Congratulations, Maria. The score for your oponents is:
ad hominems - 1
counter-arguments - 0
-- lil' tripper (babbling@onAnd.on), February 26, 2002.
Maria is still jealous cuz Clinton didn't ask her to blow him.
Errorton is just plain confused, as usual. The Repugnants of the past have thumbed their nose at terrorism as much as anyone. They were all too busy making their corporate friends rich to give a shit about National Security. Dumbya wasn't doing shit about it either until 911 happened, and the only reason he's doing anything now is because the people would have had him thrown out of office if he didn't.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org!), February 26, 2002.
Laura, before you call me a delusional repug, be aware that I was a registered Democrat in Maryland until this summer when I moved to Virginia. In Virginia, you do not give a party affiliation to register to vote.
-- Peter Errington (email@example.com), February 27, 2002.
LN, thanks for the advice. I was bored yesterday and went surfin' and found this. It made me chuckle, so true. Funny, Cherri can post five to ten posts a day bashing Bush, not a peep from you, just a comment that the terrorists have won. I post once in five months and you attack. Now that made me really chuckle. I guess it got a little fire in you, didn't it? :)
Face it, all you liberals out there. Clinton sucks! Just think what Hillary can do for the state of NY.
-- Maria (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 27, 2002.
A small prediction---Clinton is young; in the next 20 years, he will become ever more irrelevant and sad and isolated. The world will ignore him except for occasional joke-references on late night TV.
His best chance is to go with the flow and become a caricature of himself. He could do TV guest shots, stand-up comedy, an MTV variety show.
If he takes himself too seriously, he may just become a lonely, embittered alcoholic. Has any ex-President ever committed suicide?
-- (email@example.com), February 27, 2002.
Maria, methinks you chuckle too much. Remember, small things amuse small minds.
Lars, there is obviously a huge difference between reality and wishful thinking on your part. Clinton is in demand around the World, many organizations can't wait to pay large amounts of money to hear the profound words of such an excellent speaker and visionary genius. His life is a neverending success story, and I'm sure it will continue until the day he dies. Which is more than we can say for Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Poppy Bush, as well as pretty much any Repug in the book. Once those clowns lost their power to do favors for corporations they became pretty much useless as anything except washed-up con men.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 27, 2002.
No, it's not "wishful thinking". I could not care less what happens to the fool. I simply make the prediction: he will become an ever more lugubrious figure. He will become a pariah. IMO, new Democrat candidates will avoid his contaminating embrace.
-- (email@example.com), February 27, 2002.
Perhaps the reason I didn't post a counter-argument is because I made a point of saying I agreed that Clinton was not doing anything important as an ex-president. Of course, this is what almost always happens to ex-presidents, unless they are lucky enough to be nominated to the Supreme Court, like Taft.
And, if Cherri posts articles "bashing" Bush, at least they have the advantage of some relevance, since Bush is still very much among the living (politically speaking). I don't notice Cherri posting articles specifically praising or defending Clinton's recent actions. What would be the point?
-- Little Nipper (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 27, 2002.