Wednesday, June 23, 2004

My only comment on Clinton Week, Promise.

John Derbyshire at NRO claims he never got the Clinton "charm." Neither did I. I remember seeing him on TV during the Democratic convention in 1992, with "Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac playing in the arena, and getting a feeling in the pit of my stomach and thinking, "This turkey is going to win." Then, that summer and fall, I watched as the media hyped "their" first President (in case you forget, he was the first Baby Boomer President), watched them downplay the economic rebound and, of course, watched Larry King cynically pimp Ross "The Li'l General" Perot to erode the Bush base. November saw my summer intuition born out.

Bill Clinton loved being President, especially being a popular President. His ideology was on the Left, but his pragmatic political sense consistently placed him on the winning side of many issues. (That's a nice way of saying he polled the hell out of any issue before taking a "principled" stance). First and foremost, Bill Clinton was concerned with Bill Clinton. He started trying to build his legacy from almost the first day he was in the Oval Office. His book is only the latest project. Unfortunately for the former President, his legacy is already etched in our minds. It is not Welfare reform or Middle East Peace. His legacy, what most of us remember first when we think of Bill Clinton, is a stain on a blue dress.

I guess the thing that always bothered me about the Clinton era wasn't Clinton himself so much as the fact that people couldn't see through him. To me, it came down to one fundamental thing: he cheated on his wife, more than once, and lied, repeatedly, about it. This was known BEFORE THE ELECTION. How could we have expected he wouldn't lie again? Should we have really been surprised with what happened when he was in office? But he was smart, he knew that what Americans want most from a sinner is overt contrition, and Bill Clinton excelled at public displays of emotion. He was the master of "The lip bite" and the downcast eyes. He was the consumate empathic politician. Ronald Reagan was an actor who became President, but Bill Clinton was an Actor President.

Perhaps the answer to the question of how the American people could have accepted a person of such questionable character lay in the fact that his very character faults made us feel, somehow, better about ourselves. Heck, many thought, if this rogue could be President, what could I achieve? This sort of collective ego-boost was also cultivated and aided by the timed-released fertilizer of moral relativism sown by the postmodernists. The 90's saw the emergence and prevalence of the "Who knows what I would have done in his shoes..." or "It's not my place to judge..." attitude among the general population. We were told by the media, by academia, by the "thinkers" that we shouldn't judge unless we were ready to be judged. Implicit was the idea that only those living up to a moral ideal could make such judgements. Of course, rare is that sort of individual, especially when moral codes are all relative, after all? (At least to a postmodern). So, we were told it wasn't our place to judge, it was "just sex" and, after all, Clinton was really smart (Rhodes Scholar!) and cool (he played the saxaphone!) and could relate to the average Joe (Bubba!).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukayama said that the 90's were the end of history. (He has, for obvious reasons, come off of that point since 9/11). Now, it looks like it was merely a decade long spring-break party, and Bill Clinton, President of the wealthiest fraternity in the world, led the way. The media and others often refer to the 80's as the "me" decade, but they are wrong, for that is descriptive of the 90's. With our own President as an example, we believed that anything was OK, and if someone got hurt while we indulged ourselves, well, we just apoligized and kept on going. Hedonism was in and morality was something to be dispensed with until it was really needed, if ever. Life was a party, the USA was hosting, and there were no permanent repercussions, until, finally, Clinton went too far.

His illicit affair with a young intern was a turning point. Some people awoke out of their stupor and decided it was time to get back to reality, some, predictably, defended him to the end and urged us to keep the party going. Some, who were suspicious all along, let their long simmering anger get the best of them and, like Prohibition-era police, attempted to break up the party by taking bats to the kegs, which resulted in making the guilty President appear less criminal and more victim. Those who pushed for the proper punishment pushed the American people too hard, too fast. They lost the propaganda war, the President pulled his contrition act, and the Senate saved his bacon. The result was impeachment, but not removal from office. History will probably show that this was, in the end, the proper conclusion. Clinton was rendered ineffective and his unserious Presidency simply withered away. Yet, importantly, the whole affair left a bitter taste in the mouths of the majority of Americans. We took stock and realized that someone more serious was needed to occupy the Oval Office. In 2000, we were lucky in that there appeared to be two candidates who fit the bill. (Al Gore was viable then, what has happened since...who knows?) Finally, most of us woke up from the 90s' hangover and realized that character does count.

So, perhaps that is truly Bill Clinton's legacy. Perhaps we now realize that not just anyone can be President. Our President needs to have moral clarity, a core set of values and the willingness to make tough decisions, be they popular or not. This is true, regardless of party or ideology. We aren't electing the Fraternity President, we are electing the President of the United States. In this, we should be serious. We've made the mistake before. We knew Bill Clinton lied before he was President, he lied as President, and I suspect his glorious book may contain a few lies as well. If that's the kind of thing that appeals to you, enjoy the book. I have no time for autobiographical fiction.

No comments: