Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)

Chapter 13. IT’S MONICA, STUPID!

WILL BILL CLINTON, LIKE JIMMY CARTER, NOT BE able to fix his presidential legacy, and, in the end, have to settle for being judged a better postpresident than president?

“I think Bill Clinton is following in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter,” says Susan Davis, “in being probably a more important leader and figure in his postpresidency than even while he’s president.” She does not blame the scandals for weakening his presidential legacy—those scandals were “amplified,” she says, “because you had full-time forces working to try to generate scandal, his personal failings notwithstanding”—but the very nature of politics that keeps a leader, no matter how talented, from achieving significant change. She admires Clinton’s postpresidency, she says, because “he could be just making lots of money and playing golf.” Instead, “he has displayed great leadership and been a convener and mobilizer for citizen action…and social entrepreneurs.”1

Tim Wirth sees Bill Clinton as having finally, in a sense, grown up, having finally come to accept that the appellation “rock star” is just silly. When asked if he thinks that it annoys Jimmy Carter that Clinton is always referred to as a rock star, Wirth says, “Jimmy Carter wouldn’t want to be a rock star…. When you think about Jimmy Carter, you think of a great humanitarian, and Bill Clinton’s learning how to do that, too.”2

When, at the dedication of his library, George McGovern introduced Clinton, he said that the former president, “very possibly will do more in the years ahead to reduce disease and poverty and hunger than any other person on the planet.”3

And while some scoff at Clinton’s celebrity, seeing it as an affectation that impedes accomplishment, others see it as a positive in a world in which communication is global and celebrity can move millions. Tony Coelho sees Clinton as “the most recognized person in the world today since the previous pope’s death”—bigger even than Nelson Mandela.4

Some see Clinton as a man who is simply better suited to the postpresidency than to the presidency. It’s as if the missteps and the pain of his presidency were necessary to forge this enormously impressive postpresidential product. Peter Hart characterizes Clinton’s postpresidency as “miraculous.”5

Clinton’s personal charisma and his popularity are keys to this larger-than-life, okay, rock star, quality that clings to him through illness and time. Yes, he now looks his age, and then some. Yes, the boyish quality is gone. But what remains is a character that Patrick Creadon relished after filming Bill Clinton for his movie Wordplay. He and his wife and an assistant “played a little game. How could we top this? Who on earth would we be able to interview who would be better than Bill Clinton? We thought about it for a long time. We threw out a couple of names and they paled by comparison and we realized of all the people on the planet there’s really nobody else that we would rather have interviewed for our film…. If you had 125 world leaders…, and Bill Clinton was in the room, I would say most people would be really excited to go meet Bill Clinton.”

Clinton would even walk away with the honors, Creadon says, if the room were full of the hottest stars in Hollywood. “It doesn’t matter if Bono and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Tony Blair, even Nelson Mandela…. There is a glow around Bill Clinton…. I’ve seen it first-hand and I’ve experienced it and I think that’s why I say that I think history will be very good to him.”6

SOME MIGHT say that the boyhood struggles Clinton faced and, for the most part, overcame, explain the later lapses. Still, the disturbing parts of the Clinton legacy cannot be wished away or excused away. To some extent, what’s behind today’s celebration of the Clinton presidency is the shrinking of the George W. Bush presidency because of the fiasco in Iraq.

It is surprising how many people who know and like Bill Clinton come to the same sad conclusion: Monica Lewinsky and impeachment are an implacable part of Clinton’s White House legacy, and all the wondrous works in the years ahead may enhance his reputation as an ex-president, but not as a president.

In the end, Bill Clinton was old enough to be her father; he was the one with all the authority, and he took advantage of her because he thought he could. His friends may blame Monica for flashing her thong, or Tipper Gore for being such a bluenose, or even Hillary for looking the other way or for not being much fun as a companion, but no one says it with much conviction.

“I was thinking about something the other day,” says Don Hewitt. “Do you know there’s not one kid who has died in Iraq who wouldn’t be alive today if there never was a Monica Lewinsky. Monica Lewinsky changed the world. Had there been no Monica Lewinsky, Tipper Gore wouldn’t have insisted that she didn’t want her husband campaigning with Bill Clinton; they would have won two more states if they had allowed him to campaign with them in the South…. I think [Monica] did more to change the world than Cleopatra.”7

One friend and former supporter of Bill Clinton’s—he’s now in the Obama camp—says with some bitterness, “I hope it was a really good blow job. But you think about what he gave up for that. If he had not been morally compromised, publicly,…Al Gore would not have run from him but toward him and Gore would have been elected and we’d be finishing the second term of the Gore presidency and the world would be a different place.”8

When Peggy Noonan, who has composed some important speeches for Republicans, wrote a tribute in the Wall Street Journal to Gerald Ford on his death in December 2006, every word seemed a rebuke to the legacy-obsessed Bill Clinton. “One of the greatest things about Gerald Ford as a former president was that he didn’t say much. He had no need for the spotlight…. There is no evidence that he was obsessed with his legacy. He didn’t worry and fret about whether history would fully capture and proclaim his excellence, and because of this he didn’t always have to run around proving he was right…. The legacy of a man who spends his time worrying about his legacy is always: He worried about his legacy…. Gerald Ford fought for his country. He didn’t indulge his angers and appetites. He seems to have thought, in the end, that such indulgence was for sissies—it wasn’t manly.”9

Larry King, who loves Bill Clinton, recalls the days when Clinton was governor of Arkansas and King had a radio show: “He called up my old radio show at two in the morning about an issue we were discussing and I said, ‘What are you doing up at two in the morning, Governor?’ And he said, ‘Never mind.’ I think people regard him as a guy with a weakness who happens to be a tremendous person, who if he didn’t have this weakness would be up there with Jefferson and Washington and Lincoln.” King is one of many who promises, “History will be very good to Bill Clinton.”

Especially if the historians can somehow sit across from him, have a conversation with him. “Not doing it quietly like Carter,” says King, who probably has it just about right when he says, “You could take his strongest critic. Put him alone in a room for five minutes and he likes Bill Clinton. I’ve never met a political figure like that.”10

To one important Democrat, Lou Susman, who ran the finance end of the Kerry campaign and has aligned himself this time with Obama, in the end what Clinton does postpresidency is irrelevant. The history books that generations to come will read will focus on Clinton’s presidency; it won’t matter how many trips to Africa he makes, how many babies he holds, how many billions he raises at CGI conferences. What matters is what he did or didn’t do as president. “His legacy will be his morals,” says Susman, adding as his frustration rises, “How do you have an affair with an intern in the White House? You don’t have to let that happen. That shows total lack of judgment and discipline.”11

Hillary, again, pays the price for her husband’s sins: “I think Hillary’s a very bright woman,” says one man who works at the top of the Democratic Party, “but…I’ll kill myself if she’s the nominee.”12

Bob Clifford, another of Bill Clinton’s supporters, who has switched to Barack Obama, says about the former president, “He’s just a unique human being, as unique in politics as Muhammad Ali or Barry Bonds are in sports.”13

The operative name is Barry Bonds, whose home run record will carry, if not a literal, then a figurative asterisk for alleged steroid use. Bill Clinton’s legacy will also always carry an asterisk, although there is nothing “alleged” about the fact that he was impeached. (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton are the only presidents in American history to be impeached; both were impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate.)

“I don’t think it’s any great mystery,” says Leon Panetta, “that what happened in the second term obviously created the shadow [over] a lot of the good things that I think President Clinton did,…would have made him one of the great presidents but for what happened in that second term.”14 Elaine Kamarck calls Clinton’s “an interrupted presidency.” Coming off his big reelection win in 1996, he had the political capital to revamp the entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, pension reform, which only a Democrat could do, just as it took a Republican to open up China. Clinton “squandered his chance to be Franklin Roosevelt’s true successor” and instead “had to use every bit of his political capital to save his presidency in the impeachment vote.” The consequence was that he took “a very promising second term and basically threw it away.”15

When historian Douglas Brinkley is asked whether Lewinsky and impeachment will appear in the first sentence of Clinton’s obituary, he responds that if it’s not in the first sentence, it will be in the first paragraph—no matter what Bill Clinton accomplishes in the years to come.16