Alternative Insight

Clinton's Legacy
What are the Facts?

During a debate in the 1992 primary campaign, Jerry Brown criticized Hillary Clinton and provoked candidate Bill Clinton. In a sincere and spontaneous manner that placed Brown on the defensive, the Arkansas governor ably defended Hillary. The former California governor struck back sharply. He accused Bill Clinton of deluding the American public, of being nothing more than a shrewd and slick politician, and intimated that Clinton had been guilty of previously undefined illegal acts. Clinton's sincere demeanor and eloquent words diminished Brown's charges. Bill Clinton won that day, and the next day, and the next....until the day after he left office with a greater popularity then Ronald Reagan, 65% of the populace. After that final presidential day, ex-president Clinton's awkward behavior made many Clinton supporters wonder if former Governor Brown might have been correct. Did Clinton use contrived approaches and clever expressions to solicit listener support and defend him from the threat of an adverse opinion? Had Clinton's accepted image been only a smooth appearance?

The immediate impression of a president's standing after leaving office depends upon appearances. Harry S. Truman, especially in dismissing General Douglas MacArthur and not weathering the difficulties of the Korean War, left office in 1953 with an unfavorable appearance. He had bad press. Now, the same Harry S. Truman is recognized as one of the great American presidents. Conversely, Jack Kennedy, mainly due to his tragic death, had tremendous public approval. Now, his 1000 days in office appear empty of any major accomplishments.

President Clinton had an award winning appearance the day he entered the White House. He had been born fatherless, struggled in a dysfunctional family with a brutal stepfather, and while his brother fell into drugs, William Jefferson Clinton succeeded to become well educated, well trained and successful. He had ambition, drive and a strong belief in himself. The bus that carried him from Thomas Jefferson's Charlottesville home to the White House inaugural carried a message that his administration would not entertain favoritism, would not appeal to special interests, would be devoid of Washington corruption and would encompass all of America. The favorable message and his initial appeal never faded from his strongest admirers. He had already accomplished against great odds. Any other accomplishments reinforced their earlier judgments. His moral failures became interpreted as a fight against impossible odds. He was human and couldn't win all his struggles. He was a Hollywood story and the Hollywood world of America embraced him.

Clinton's Accomplishments and Failures
As appearances fade into memory, accomplishments and failures become more apparent. Future judgments will study all of the accomplishments and failures of the Clinton administration, and not only the prosperity that his supporters consistently use to characterize his presidential performance.

One striking feature of Clinton's Democratic administration is the lack of a major unique initiative, such as Truman's "Marshall Plan," Johnson's "War on Poverty," and Reagan's "Reaganomics." His administration had an historical opportunity and missed with its failed Health Plan. NAFTA and trade agreements might be considered major initiatives if they had support from traditional Democratic Party interests, but they didn't. Reinventing government was a follow-up of Reaganomics. Reshaping the Democratic Party was a political strategy for which Clinton will be remembered as a great politician, but not as an administration initiative.

Another striking feature of Clinton's tenure is the lack of administrative control and close contact with advisors. Clinton's administration exhibited a large turnover in administrative positions. He had several press secretaries, several chiefs of staff and many cabinet resignations. An unusual amount of department scandals included: Travelgate - the firing of long-term travel arrangers and shift of travel arrangements to friends of Hillary Clintion; indictment of associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, departure of Clinton aide Dick Morris after being discovered with a prostitute, death of White House counsel Vince Foster, campaign contributions frauds, and "lost documents." After an initial burst of energy, several cabinet functions such as Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing went to sleep. Secretary of Housing Cisnero faced an 18-count indictment for conspiracy, obstructing justice and making false statements to the FBI about payments to his former mistress, Linda Jones. Secretary of Agriculture Espy was indicted on 39 counts for allegedly accepting favors from companies doing business with the Agriculture Department. Accusations of negligence enveloped other cabinet members. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary engaged in extravagant trade missions and other overseas travel that cost the government more than $4.5 million. Internal DOE auditors found that expenditures for the trips were improperly managed and, at times, taxpayer funds were spent foolishly or haphazardly. An independent counsel had started an investigation of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown when he died in a plane crash in 1996. Attorney General Janet Reno remains condemned by progressives for her negligence at Waco and by her peers for allowing Justice lawyers to testify for the first time before a congressional committee.

The Clinton administration appeared to go from chaotic to silent. In the early years of his administration, scandals periodically erupted and officials left the government. In the later years, his attention to his own scandals prevented an intense involvement in cabinet affairs. Noting all the upheavals and pressures, Clinton's administration of the executive office was not exceptional.

Foreign Policy
Foreign policy is the major responsibility of a U.S. President. It is the major policy on which the president should be judged. From Somalia to Kosovo, Clinton's foreign policy never accomplished its objectives and resulted in deaths of many innocent people:
Somalia: In a humanitarian mission, U.S. forces killed tens of Somali, including two children shot when they climbed upon jeeps. The U.S. military suffered many deaths. On October 3, 1993 Somali ambushed elite units of the US Army's Rangers and Delta Force and left eighteen Americans dead and eighty-four wounded. No objectives accomplished.
Sudan: Despite no substantiated evidence that it manufactured anything but pharmaceuticals, the U.S. military destroyed the only pharmaceutical factory in the impoverished country.
Iraq: Humanitarian organizations estimate that continuous sanctions have been responsible for deaths of ~1,000,000 Iraqis. According to Baghdad, U.S. and British air strikes on an almost daily basis over the past two years have caused deaths of 323 Iraqis and more than 950 wounded. No U.S. pilots have been harmed. In his last days in office, for an inconceivable reason, Clinton ordered an air strike on Iraq. Witnesses said six were killed and three wounded in a raid in which missiles hit a cattle feed depot run by the agriculture ministry and damaged a nearby house. The bombings had no clear objectives and had no measurable accomplishments.
Kosovo: NATO bombings destroyed much of Yugoslavia's infrastructure and caused the deaths of hundreds of Serb and Kosovar people. One missile hit Yugoslavia's TV headquarters and killed 16 employees. Kosovo is technically ruled by a UN authority and its ethnic problems are not entirely resolved.
Russia: Clinton's support of Yeltsin contributed to Russia's impoverishment.
Mid-East: Seven years of Clinton mediation resulted in war and violence rather then peace.
Latin America: Violence and insurrection continue in Columbia, Peru and Ecuador. Ex-president Carter's last minute compromise with Hatian officiials prevented a Clinton invasion of Haiti. Mexico still delivers drugs to the United States. No well-defined Latin American policies in all of Clinton's years.
Africa: Continuous turmoil throughout Africa during the 90's decade without Clinton initiating policies to ameliorate the severe conditions.
Asia: Clinton had active and beneficial policies with China, the two Koreas and Vietnam.
Europe: Clinton managed good relations with the European nations, especially Great Britain. He had partial success in resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Social Policy
Welfare reform - A significant program that received approval from the general public.
Protection of Federal lands - Environmentalists approved last minute orders that banned road building and logging in 1/3 of the country's national forests and designated millions of acres of western land as national monuments.
Global warming - Futile policies and lack of cooperation with other governments didn't warm many hearts.
Health Plan - Failed to propose an aceptable plan.
Social Security, including Medicare - No initiatives for growing problems.
Crime and drugs - Federal assistance decreased crime but not hard drugs.
Civil rights - Clinton had many initiatives that supported gay rights, but the gays in the military policy remains controversial. Although his administration lacked highly publicized initiatives that improved the Afro-American status, subtle initiatives, such as neighborhood empowerment, assisted the Afro-American community who embraced him as a friend.

Domestic Policy
Economy: The ending of the Cold War during Ronald Reagan's administration greatly enhanced Reagan's reputation as President. Still, it is difficult to prove that Reagan directed the events and was directly responsible for the resolution of the Cold War. Was he only in the right office at the right time. The excellent economy greatly enhanced Clinton's reputation. Clinton did everything to assure a growing economy that reduced inflation and increased jobs. He promoted low interest rates, trade agreements, increased immigration and wise tax policy. It's difficult to know if a president's economic policies are the only factors in determining an economy. Clinton had advantages. He entered office during the end of a recession, expanding capital markets, emerging technologies that increased productivity, and increasing global markets. One criterion for judging an economy is to observe what happens afterwards. Was the advantageous economy a short term maneuver, similar to that employed by some successful CEO's, or did the economy have a sound support that guarantees it will continue functioning well into the future? The answer to that question is beginning to be revealed.
NAFTA: Although labor rebelled against NAFTA, Clinton vigorously supported NAFTA. Low unemployment and low import prices seemed to validate Clinton.
Taxes: No great complaints about Clinton's tax plans, especially tax credits for the poor.
Budget: The first budget surpluses in years resulted from the prosperous economy, large corporate profits and the social security surpluses. The Clinton administration achieved a great success.

Personal Corruption
Previous presidents, such as Grover Cleveland, Warren Harding and Jack Kennedy, had their moral turpitude questioned. None of their scandals were as tawdry or infantile as the one that contained Clinton. All the world loves a lover. Few persons admire someone who engaged in the improprieties that engaged Clinton.

Although there are no facts that Clinton unfairly enriched himself while in office, the simple fact is that somehow he did. He entered the presidential suite as an underpaid governor from a poor state. He left the White House with property, luxuries and a future that predicted great earning power. He didn't do anything wrong or operate differently than his presidential predecessors. He operated out of character and inconsistent with his portrayal when he entered national office.

Clinton's Legacy
Historians can ignore the successes attributed to an outgoing president. Unless, a president has absolute identification with policies, such as Lincoln, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Harold Truman, etc. had with certain policies in their administrations, historians can find alternate reasons for successful policies. Federal Reserve chairperson, Alan Greenspan and Secretary of Treasury, Robert Rubin might emerge as the credited architects of the 1990's prosperity. If so, Clinton may remain remembered only as a brilliant politician who knew how to compromise and manipulate and didn't contemplate the moral obligations of his position. He understood power and catered to the power that provided his financial contributions. He spoke with a heart, and many times showed feeling and empathy for the less privileged. Nevertheless, his words disguised a support for the more privileged and powerful; for Wall Street financiers, high tech CEO's and Hollywood magnates. Upon leaving office, his unwarranted pardons, petty removals of White House furniture and gifts, and overly aggressive use of his post presidential position demonstrated contempt for the American people. Similar to an adolescent, who cheats behind his parents' backs and challenges them to find out, Clinton skirted legality and challenged the American populace to discover his iniquities. The airplane that carried him from the White House to his New York house carried a message that his administration had entertained favoritism, had appealed to special interests, was not devoid of Washington corruption and had not encompassed all of America.

After a mostly positive eight years, President Clinton's image flipped 180 degrees negatively in a few days. It's doubtful that the future will flip it back again.

february 16, 2001


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