Goodbye, Mr. Clinton

It's the moment for me to say goodbye to President Clinton and look at his years as our nation's leader.

Bill Clinton, still the governor of Arkansas, was introduced to the Washington press in September 1991 at a Monitor breakfast. That's when I met him for the first time, too.

Mrs. Clinton accompanied her husband that morning, and it was there that the two of them informed us that while there had been marital problems in the past, they had dealt with them and put them all behind.

Just before the 1992 Democratic convention that nominated him for president, Mr. Clinton again visited the Monitor breakfast, telling us about a private meeting he had just had with Boris Yeltsin at Blair House.

And then, while president, Clinton met with the Monitor group twice, first at Blair House at Christmastime of his first year in office and then, two years later, in the State Dining Room of the White House.

I cite this simply because Bill Clinton was most generous of the time he gave to the Monitor's press group, and I would be most ungracious not to mention it and, yes, to thank him for it.

But this relationship cooled abruptly when the Monica Lewinsky story broke.

There were no more of these friendly Clinton get-togethers with a press group that (including myself) had become strongly critical of the president for his reckless personal behavior and, later, for his continual unwillingness to tell the truth about the Lewinsky and the earlier Paula Jones incident.

I also am mentioning these press sessions we had with Clinton as a backdrop for providing my assessment of the Clinton presidential years.

Very early I saw how personally attractive he was. Indeed, I found him most likable and have been disappointed that he failed to fulfill his potential.

Some observers apparently have whacked Clinton with glee. Not I.

We must remember that Clinton had that Gennifer Flowers scandal swirling around him when he was running for president.

And as he took office, I examined Clinton's earlier political and personal life, and concluded that here was a man who loved to take risks and would probably be a president who would be a gambler.

He was.

Right from the start, he gambled away his big healthcare program (led by the first lady) by insisting that the full package be enacted when he probably could have persuaded Congress to accept large pieces of the program. This failure, to me, was a metaphor for the Clinton affair with Monica: He was a risk taker in both personal and public life.

How will history view Clinton?

Already, some historians have put him in the "average" category in their ratings of presidents. I'll be surprised if he rises above that - although who knows what revisionists of tomorrow will do?

Clintonites point proudly to the welfare reform that Clinton put through. Yes, that's a big one. But that program was borrowed from the Republicans.

Then there's race relations. Clinton certainly created a strong bond with the African-American community. He must be given a high "A" for this.

In foreign affairs, Clinton tried - oh, how he tried! - to broker a peace settlement in the Mideast. It would be most ungenerous of me not to credit him for a valiant effort.

But it fell short. And in its wake the two sides still glare at each other.

There was one most-harmful failure in Clinton's foreign policy: His dealings with Iraq, where he let our alliances in the Mideast fall apart.

Clinton did preside over what history may decide was America's "golden years," our moment of unprecedented good times. He may get high marks for that. His ebullient, hardworking presence may be seen as having helped to shape this prosperous period. That might be the "impact on the country" that historians look for in giving a president a high grade.

Clinton certainly hopes so. That's what he was fighting for as he worked night and day to save his legacy after the Lewinsky disaster and the impeachment.

Yet I am convinced that the first paragraph of any history of President Clinton will start out with words like these: "In an administration that was marred by major scandal and his impeachment, William Jefferson Clinton...."

I think Clinton could have been quite a president. But personal misconduct and risk-taking kept him from becoming one of our best chief executives. I wish I could write a more approving appraisal of a man I had come to like.

Oh, yes, I think historians will further mark Clinton down for his shabby departure from office.

That grand old man of American politics - Robert Strauss - said at a Monitor breakfast a few days ago that Clinton's pardon of accused tax evader Marc Rich "sickened" him. This former Democratic national chairman further said that this pardon has badly hurt Clinton in his efforts to make a comeback from scandal.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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