It was said of Lyndon Johnson that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. LBJ, the very definition of “bigger than life,” rarely let the spotlight warm to another, and upon taking the reins of presidential power he had grand ambitions for his legacy on par with those of his political hero, Franklin Roosevelt. But just over five years later, when he packed his bags and left the White House after forgoing another run for his party’s presidential nomination, the Vietnam War, which raged on with no end in sight, compromised his place in the presidential pantheon.
Bill Clinton, the only other President in the last two generations who truly fits the definition “bigger than life” and matches up to LBJ’s legendary ego, also had great aspirations for his presidency and, like LBJ, obsessed over his presidential legacy. Six years after relinquishing office, however, Clinton finds his historical standing threatened not by his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair–or other scandals left in his wake–but over whether he did enough to combat the growing threat of Al Qaeda.
Unlike LBJ, who retreated to his ranch in Texas Hill Country and threw himself into exile, unplugging almost completely from the political and media worlds, Clinton has remained as actively engaged as almost any of his predecessors–and as defensive of his presidential actions. Clinton’s September 24 appearance on Fox News wasn’t the first time he has taken exception to the media’s evaluation of his presidency. In his first year out of office, his press aide got used to being stirred in the wee hours by phone calls from the boss “ranting and raving about something.” “Sir,” the aide learned to respond dispassionately, “Are you watching Fox [News] again?” This time however, the diatribe took place in front of the camera.
Since the 9/11 attacks, Clinton has been particularly sensitive about his Administration’s handling of terrorism, readily pointing to his Administration’s record: breaking up twenty Al Qaeda cells; thwarting plots involving the bombings of Los Angeles International Airport and New York’s Holland Tunnel timed around the millennium; more than tripling the budget for the government’s anti-terrorism efforts; and attacking Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan training camp, narrowly missing bin Laden himself. As Clinton said in 2005, “I always thought bin Laden was a bigger threat than the Bush Administration did,” adding that he “desperately” wished he had been President when the FBI and CIA confirmed that bin Laden had been behind the USS Cole bombing on October 12, 2000, at which time he would have driven the Taliban out of Afghanistan.
“I don’t know if it would have prevented 9/11,” he said. “But it certainly would have complicated it.” While ABC’s The Path to 9/11 may have misled viewers on Clinton’s efforts, the 570-page 9/11 commission report on which it was supposedly based was almost as damning, accusing both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations of not understanding “the gravity of the threat” from Al Qaeda due to a “failure of imagination.”
In fact, it will take at least a generation–well after the Clinton Administration’s record can be used for political purposes–to get a sense of how Clinton will play in history. LBJ died four years after he left the presidency, the day before Nixon announced to the nation that peace was at hand in Vietnam, when the forest of his Administration could barely be seen for the trees. During the Fox interview, Chris Wallace referenced an earlier interview in which Clinton was asked if he could wind up doing more good as a former President than as a President. “Only if I live a long time,” Clinton had responded. That may also be the only way Clinton will get a true sense of the light history will ultimately throw on his legacy.