Living to Tell the Tale

Living to Tell the Tale

Former Presidents have a difficult, even awkward, role. They cope in different ways, but if the past half-century is any guide, we can be certain of one thing: They write their memoirs.


Former Presidents have a difficult, even awkward, role. They cope in different ways, but if the past half-century is any guide, we can be certain of one thing: They write their memoirs. Usually, these are variants of campaign biographies, only now their campaign is for History. Ex-Presidents battle to define their legacy, and their memoirs are the opening salvo.

The accounts compiled by Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush have little value as historical sources. They are relentlessly celebratory, merely chronicling successes. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower at least sporadically offered revelations, with occasional introspective backward glances. But leave it to Richard Nixon to offer the most interesting, useful account. Nixon, being Nixon, could not help but reveal himself, often in spite of himself. For example, describing John Dean’s devastating Senate testimony in June 1973, Nixon wrote: “Dean’s account of the crucial March 21 meeting was more accurate than my own had been. I did not see it then, but in the end it would make less difference that I was not as involved as Dean had alleged than that I was not as uninvolved as I had claimed.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, presidential memoirs are usually dull, uninformative and embarrassingly self-congratulatory. Now comes William Jefferson Clinton, one of our best-educated, most intelligent Presidents, a man known to spare few words when discussing himself–or anything. To be sure, his memoir launches his campaign for history. But to dismiss My Life as a whiff of grapeshot, as have the instant first reviews, underestimates the man. Most relentlessly try to fit the book into the Age of Oprah, carefully scouring index entries for Monica, Paula and Gennifer, and concluding that Clinton has written a long, dull book, once again squandering his talent.

Give him a break; Clinton has many tales to tell, particularly a rich, sometimes moving account of his years before the public life, fit for future analytical historians and biographers. Clinton, true to form, is enchanting and infuriating, fascinating and perplexing, with some lies and evasions, as well as some truth and revelations; and always accommodating, eager to please. The personal and the political are intertwined. Vintage Clinton.

Clinton is a man who learned to live with secrets, among them alcoholism and abuse in his family. He apparently never met a teacher or professor he did not like or cannot recall; he engaged an extraordinary array of people, from preachers to bootleggers and, yes, women. He has much to say about his wife, including, “I had always loved her very much, but not always very well.” His life has been a seamless parade of campaigns, which he remembers exhaustingly and exhaustively, whether it be Boys Nation or a presidential election. He offers an encyclopedic account of his presidency that almost rivals Johnson’s numbing rendition of his legislative achievements in the cadences of biblical begats. Yet Clinton always manages to inject a human element.

My Life reminds us of the Clinton who enraged some and exasperated others. His account of the questionable pardons at the end of his term is self-servingly selective. Pardons, Clinton tells us, “were for people of modest means who had no way to break through the system.” He justifies the Marc Rich pardon by taking cover behind Rich’s Republican and Democratic lawyers, when, as Clinton well knows, lawyers work for money and the situation. He does not mention his pardon of his brother; he is also silent on Carlos Vignali, a convicted cocaine dealer, with powerful family and political ties, who makes Rich’s case look like small potatoes. Earlier, he says he “disagreed” with President Bush’s pardon of Caspar Weinberger but chose not to make an issue of it. The Ex-Presidents Club, after all, does not look kindly on intramural criticism. He does not recall cutting off his first New Hampshire campaign to return to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a murderer with an IQ of 64. Nothing more neatly illustrates historian William Berman’s pithy description of Clinton as “politically skilled and ideologically ambidextrous.”

The book is a cascade of the names of those who crossed the stage with him, but they all get a bow, and Clinton utters hardly a critical word. “My Mother had raised me to look for the good in everybody.” Kenneth Starr is of course a justifiable exception, for he littered the landscape with indictments, false confessions and ruined lives of Clinton’s friends who resisted his threats. As for the “vituperative” Henry Hyde, Clinton “was sure there must be a Dr. Jekyll in there somewhere, but I was having a hard time finding him.” Dick Morris gets a free ride–“triangulation” is never mentioned. Bob Dole almost makes it into the American Pantheon; Newt Gingrich is treated as a political genius. Yasir Arafat told Clinton he was a “great man,” but the President replied (sharply?), “I am a failure, and you have made me one.” And someday he intends to apologize to Webb Hubbell for failing to pardon him.

Perhaps the most disappointing omission is Clinton’s failure to discuss his role–or rather, lack of it–in the 2000 campaign. For Clinton, it must have been like a cold-turkey withdrawal cure from nearly a lifetime habit. It is amazing that during the Bush-Gore debates, the impeachment issue was never raised. Perhaps a stand would have made Gore uncomfortable, and Bush would not dare criticize his party. But then, the debates are not intended to be tough. Gore might have tapped into Clinton’s still-powerful support, but he failed to use the President, and probably at some cost. Can it be that Clinton has no thoughts on this? He owes Gore nothing now; but he does owe us some explanation. Was there no role for Clinton, that master politician and campaigner?

Clinton’s accomplishments compare favorably with those of other Presidents of the past half-century; unfortunately, however, his shortcomings were more spectacular than most. And history is prone to preserve and magnify the failures. Perhaps his real achievement was a negative, for as he noted: “I had the good fortune to stand against…the forces of reaction and division.” His failure on healthcare severely impaired his future credibility. The plan devised by his wife and her team failed to consider the needs and interests of the varied parties, including health professionals and the insurance business. In classic Washington terms, the plan was “dead on arrival.”

Clinton’s enemies fought him with righteous fervor and mean spirit; his presumptive allies on the left often found themselves uncomfortable with his “dynamic centrism.” The irony is that Clinton has been defined by his enemies and detractors, yet few Presidents have left the White House with such high approval ratings by the public. That popularity, by all accounts, persists. Why? Certainly, unlike Reagan, he has not had a servile media, determined to give him a free ride.

Jacob Weisberg has written that Clinton had been more “faithful to his word than any other chief executive in recent memory,” yet voters continued to mistrust him, in part because “the media keeps telling them not to trust him.” The media have been Clinton’s most formidable nemesis. Perhaps it began with his equivocations concerning his draft status, his inability to inhale and his relations with Gennifer Flowers. Running on their own track, with their own purposes, the media nevertheless were handmaidens to those who considered his election and tenure illegitimate. They give the impression that Ross Perot unintentionally made him President, as he siphoned off votes from the Bush base.

The Slick Willie Times was inaugurated along with Clinton. The usual right-wing suspects thrived with criticism ranging from the scurrilous to the obscene. The Wall Street Journal offered a pathological disconnect between the netherworld of its editorial-page judgments of the President and the professionalism of its news columns. Howell Raines’s New York Times editorial page turned in a similar direction, encouraging a corps of reporters eager to be Woodstein wannabes. The suffix “gate” offered a shorthand trivialization of Watergate, as the media, dazzled by Watergate and O.J. Simpson, casually segued from an alleged haircut on the Los Angeles airport runway to “Travelgate,” Vince Foster’s “alleged” suicide and other mercifully forgotten trivialities. The story was always Clinton–all Clinton. Finally, the Times thought it had Watergate all over again with something called Whitewater. Nothing ever developed to substantiate the endless array of wild criminal charges against the Clintons. But the charges spawned Starr and a legal juggernaut to drive Clinton from office. His most important tale, the basis for his history and legacy, is of the conspiracy–that’s the only possible word–to destroy, not just defeat, him. After special prosecutor Robert Fiske, a Republican, determined that the Whitewater story had no relation to the President or his wife, a panel of federal judges, appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, dismissed Fiske and appointed Starr in his place. Starr revived and expanded the investigation; “it was,” Clinton writes, “about whatever Ken Starr could dig up on anybody in Arkansas or my administration.” Clinton found his Javert.

Clinton’s enemies knew they probably could not force his removal, yet they targeted his most vulnerable point–his personal behavior. The Starr report and its descriptions of his behavior with Monica Lewinsky were designed to humiliate the President and force his resignation. Censure never was an option for his enemies, for it meant his continuation in power. Tom DeLay bluntly called for Clinton’s resignation. After his committee voted to impeach Clinton, Henry Hyde publicly pleaded with the President to simplify matters and step down. Resignation was easier and had the virtue of being risk-free. Unfortunately for his enemies, and fortunately for our constitutional system, however, Clinton proved tougher. A Wall Street Journal reporter asked if he had considered resigning: “Never…I’m just going to keep showing up for work.” A resignation, forced by partisan enemies, would have had profound implications for the system.

Failing to get Clinton to leave on his own, the Republicans resorted to impeachment. The House proceedings were transparently partisan, and the Senate trial was nothing more than a bizarre charade, for when the trial began, Clinton had his highest approval ratings. Much to the Republicans’ dismay, he delivered his State of the Union address as scheduled, as though nothing were amiss. After all, he never doubted that he was President.

Impeachment is Clinton’s Scarlet Word. He likely will be best remembered as the first elected President to be impeached. He is deservedly bitter, but his bravado–that it is a “badge of honor”–fails to consider his best defense. Only a forceful recognition that the impeachment was a farce from the outset might protect his reputation. The tack taken by Senator Ted Stevens, that most loyal of Republicans, might offer Clinton a beginning. Stevens cast one of those curious, bifurcated votes, clearly to appease the more fanatical partisans, as he voted to convict the President on one charge and acquit him on the other. But Stevens had no illusions. For him the world was still a dangerous place, and he said he would not support removal if he thought his vote would be decisive. With striking candor, Stevens said that Clinton had “not brought that level of danger to the nation which…is necessary to justify such an action.” Stevens correctly gauged the national mood; the trial simply was not serious.

The impeachment proceedings left Clinton more popular than ever. History had meant nothing to his pursuers, despite wrapping themselves in the Constitution as if it were a fig leaf. But now our choices seem plain: Either impeachment will be used with promiscuity as a partisan weapon, or it will be moribund once again. Sad business, for either approach will be bad for the American constitutional system.

Clinton’s story very much reflects the man we know. We never had such a public President and presidency. He was so much in our eye, and not always by his choice or by ours. He was the ultimate media President. He embodied “the government,” and he was the rallying point both for those with hope and those with anger. You could not be indifferent to him. If he was the focus of your grievances, he consumed you; many of his defenders loved him largely for the enemies he had created.

Four years after he left the White House, Clinton’s enemies continue their voodoo rituals, although they now seem so trivial. Meanwhile Clinton is likened to an international rock star, although Bono may have done more to improve the world over the past four years. Ex-Presidents can have a useful place. One example is Theodore Roosevelt, who was 51 when he left the presidency (Clinton was 55). TR went to Africa, returned home and then was willing to risk his accumulated political capital. You can’t take it with you. Remarkably, in 1912 TR ran the most radical presidential campaign in our history. Clinton, of course, is constitutionally barred from another term. But in the last decade of his life, Roosevelt spoke out forthrightly on myriad progressive civil, social and economic concerns; he boldly criticized Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy; and he opposed Wilson’s 1918 Sedition Act. He did not chase money for his monument; his ideas and actions offered his enduring contribution. He did not walk softly. Et tu, Bill Clinton?

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