Monday, April 11, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part XIII Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton nearly destroyed his ability to govern before the end of his first week in office.  Then came even closer to destroying his presidency in his last years in office. Historian William Leuchtenburg claims that he most certainly did destroy his legacy with his antics in those last years, writing that - regardless of anything else, Clinton will always be remembered as the only elected president to be impeached by the House of Representatives.

His non-sexual destruction began during that first week of his term when - inexplicably, according to Leuchtenburg - he made 'gays in the military' the first focus of his administration. Worse, Leuchtenburg claims, after having raised the issue, he caved to the Joint Chiefs of Staff by settling for 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'.  Leuchtenberg writes, "the episode brought into question Clinton's capacity as chief executive. Quite possibly because of uneasiness about his evasion of service in Vietnam, he failed to establish his authority over the Joint Chiefs, who were hovering toward insubordination. No less disconcerting was his lack of political acumen in allowing the question to take such prominence at the very outset of his administration."

The deficit was really the first issue that should have been addressed [Clinton's campaign mantra, after all, had been "It's the economy, stupid"]. Clinton relied heavily on Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, who advised focusing on the deficit more so than any other economic issue.  As Leuchtenberg writes, "Clinton's acceptance of Greenspan's advice to focus on the deficit had significant implications for the institution of the presidency. It marked a transition from Keynesian fiscal policy engineered from the White House to monetary policy directed not by the president but by the Fed."

The Whitewater 'scandal' occupied most of Clinton's two terms.  By late-1993, Republicans were in a fiery uproar, demanding an investigation, particularly after the suicide of Clinton aide and boyhood friend Vince Foster.  As Leuchtenburg recalls, "The mainline press, not beset by paranoia, made no attempt to link Foster's death to possible misbehavior by the Clintons until December 1993, when it headlined a shocking revelation: 'Foster's office was secretly searched. Hours after his body was found,' and files labeled 'Whitewater' were removed by the White House counselor and turned over to the Clintons on the grounds that, since Foster had been their attorney, these were private documents protected by lawyer-client privilege. It developed that in, lifting the papers, [Foster] was carrying out Hillary Clinton's orders....The press, without ever uncovering anything felonious about the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater, ran scare stories day after day implying there was, or might be, something."

Indeed, as despicable as Leuchtenberg found elements of the Clinton presidency to be, he agrees that there was a visceral hatred of the Clintons that targeted both Bill and Hillary for unprecedented harassment by some in the media..  As Leuchtenburg writes, "Newspapermen sneered at Hillary Clinton when she said that her husband was the target of a 'vast right-wing conspiracy', but she was correct, although 'vast' overstates the numbers involved. An unsavory ring of enemies of the Clintons in Arkansas connived in a ruthless campaign against him financed by the Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who spent millions of the huge fortune he had inherited. No accusation was too ludicrous for Scaife and his associates, who depicted Clinton as a drug kingpin and murderer who 'did away with' scores of victims [and this was 20 years before Frank Underwood]. Paula Jones was able to carry her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court because she was bankrolled by far-right outfits."

Then came the fateful decision Clinton came to regret for the rest of his presidency and - no doubt - the remainder of his days.  White House advisor David Gergen - and other top Clinton aides, advocated naming a special prosecutor for Whitewater. Only the White House counsel objected, saying presciently, "They will broaden the investigation to areas we haven't even contemplated. They will chase you, your family and friends through the presidency and beyond."  Thinking it could quell the Republican firestorm, however, on January 12, 1994, Clinton asked Attorney General Janet Reno to name a special prosecutor, what Clinton called the "worst decision" of his presidency.

This visceral hatred of the Clintons is examined by Leuchtenburg and others.  Why did so many people hate them, and why?  In the historiography of the Clintons, Leuchtenburg writes, "That puzzlement and the quest for an explanation infuse all of the literature of the Clinton presidency." Journalist Richard Reeves has written, "The 60s! It's the 1960s they [Clinton's opponents] hate. The passion of the people who hated what was happening then [in the 1960s] does not seem to have diminished [in the 1990s]. The hatred is not because of the great events of [Clinton's] presidency, such as they are, but because of the great events of the recent past, particularly the 1960s - the anti-authoritarianism, the undigested revolutions, the attacks on great institutions from government to education to religion, the overthrow of patriotism and traditional American history. Bill and Hillary Clinton…symbolize the 1960s to many Americans; they symbolize civil rights and feminism, sexual tolerance and abortion. For a lot of people, that's when America went wrong."

Leuchtenburg, however, disagrees with Reeves. Leuchtenburg countered, "Never a disenchanted radical, Bill Clinton sought from his teenage debut in student politics to work within the system. Far from being a child of the counter-culture, he had all along been an ambitious careerist, a striver in the mode of a Horatio Alger protagonist. He made himself at home not in Haight-Ashbury but in Georgetown classrooms, where he was a grind who worked hard for high grades. His hero was neither Che Guevara nor Timothy Leary but President Kennedy."

President Kennedy. Ironic. When one considers Monica Lewinsky. The day President Kennedy died, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was working from home on documents confirming that his brother had engaged in an extramarital affair with an East German spy. Before receiving the phone call telling him the horrific news from Dallas, Bobby Kennedy was seriously worried about his brother being able to get out of this most recent scrape - especially after the British Profumo scandal. While John Kennedy didn't live to see what would have happened in his most recent sexual scandal, Bill Clinton would live through it all - and somehow survive.

After the first stories broke of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky, he made disavowals. After giving grand jury testimony in the Paula Jones case [all stemming from that special prosecutor - now Kenneth Starr - that was appointed to investigate Whitewater], evidence [in the form of that dress] forced Clinton to acknowledge the affair in a nationally televised addressed.  Here, Leuchtenburg said, Clinton botched what might have been his only opportunity to avoid impeachment - and it would have still only been a small chance.  According to Leuchtenburg, instead of taking the opportunity to heal the wounds of his lies, "Clinton came across not contrite or remorseful but furious and resentful. It did not take long for Clinton to be made aware of how grossly he botched his opportunity."

Incensed by his response, Republicans moved forward with what became known as the Starr Report. They fully expected him to resign after it's release, especially after they released a video from his Paula Jones testimony. Yet, the consequences of the Republicans' actions with the public took them completely by surprise. Even Democrats were shocked by the reaction.  As then-Congressman Barney Frank recalled, "people said, 'Oh, is this what this is about? The stupid bastard went and had oral sex with a kid? Shame on him. Now what's for dinner'."  And Leuchtenburg writes, "Asked to choose between Bill Clinton and Ken Starr most of the many millions who watched the videotape on television knew instinctively which man they preferred....Yet if Clinton imagined that the popular response meant he was going to come away unscathed, he greatly underestimated the fierce determination of the Republican Congress to get him out of the White House."

But Republicans were overconfident about impeachment. Leuchtenburg notes, "Every survey of opinion found that two-thirds of the country opposed impeachment...The ballot count [at the 1998 mid-term elections] jolted Republicans without enlightening them. Instead of picking up more than [40] seats in the House [as they had predicted], they lost five. Still more significant was the outcome in the Senate, which would decide the president's fate in an impeachment trial. Anticipating big gains in the Senate, Republicans failed to win even one addition. Not for close to two centuries had there been such a result in an election in the sixth year of a presidency. As a consequence, Republicans could not remove Clinton from office, even if every member of their party in the Senate voted to do so, unless twelve Democratic senators joined them - a highly unlikely eventuality. Simple arithmetic alerted Republicans that the time had come to settle for a resolution censuring the president, which would have attracted a host of Democratic votes, but they refused to heed."

The House voted to impeach Clinton for committing perjury in his Paula Jones testimony and for obstructing justice by tampering with witnesses and withholding evidence.  The Senate trial, beginning January 7, 1999, lasted 37 days, before Clinton was acquitted on February 12, 1999.

So, what of Clinton's legacy? Leuchtenburg writes, "As it is turned out, historians have had a hard time assigning a grade on Clinton's presidency because Clinton seems so elusive....When historians set out to write about Clinton, they absorb these impressions and share the puzzlement....Scholars who examined dispassionately not Clinton's ethics but his legislative accomplishments found little of historical significance.... All of these many, often well reasoned, accounts of Clinton's shortcomings ran up against one countervailing consideration: his extraordinary popularity. Despite the impeachment, Clinton ended his tenure with the highest approval rating of any president in the post-1945 era, better than that of Eisenhower or Reagan....A number of scholars underscored the most conspicuous reason for his high standards: piping prosperity. Clinton presided over the greatest boom in American history, with gross domestic product growing by one-third in just eight years. From 1994 to 2000, every quarter recorded growth - a performance never before achieved. Joblessness fell from 7.5% to 4%, and inflation dropped to an almost infinitesimal 1.6%. Economic gains benefitted the working class as they had not under Reagan, and a higher percentage of American families owned their homes than ever before. When Clinton took office federal deficits totaling a staggering $290 billion in 1992 appeared to be out of control, with each year worse than the one before, but Clinton's second term brought exhilarating tidings, with an economy fueled by the revolution yielding rising revenues at a dizzying pace."

Still, Leuchtenburg concludes, "In the last analysis, none of these considerations loom nearly so large as the Lewinsky episode in determining Bill Clinton's place in history.... Clinton's position in the country's annals is secure not because of all he sought to do, and did, but because he is the first elected president in the more than 200 years of the American Republic to have been impeached."

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