Clinton's Afterglow

As president, he was a contradiction. And now?

Bill Clinton made himself so visible during his presidency - and he'll likely do so again in civvies - that it's easy to recall the high (and low) points of his eight years: NAFTA, budget balancing, Bosnia, welfare reform, NATO expansion, Monicagate, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, forest saving.

Yet, just as the world took stock at millennium's end, so too is the end of a presidency worth a final ponder, just to put some historical perspective on the future.

A future without Bill Clinton as president means there's no single, powerful Democrat pushing the party to the middle against a conservative tide, as he did so well.

There's no articulate reformer driving a Big Agenda on race, poverty, healthcare, you-name-it.

There's no globe-hugging statesman jumping on nearly every international moral crusade or free-trade bandwagon or military conflict with the chance of few American casualties.

And there's no president dragging himself (or being dragged) through the swamp of scandals, squandering his potential for effective leadership.

Tweedle-deeds and Tweedle-dumb

The actions of the man from Hope made him a president who was a walking contradiction - of both hope and despair.

He rented out the Lincoln Bedroom for political cash and yet he began to pay down the national debt. He could lie about sex in the White House but use the bully pulpit to make Americans face the truth about the effects of racism. He could declare an end to big government but spit out new federal programs like Roosevelt dimes. He could incite voters' fears about GOP ideas on Social Security and Medicare but did little to reform those creaking programs in time for an aging society.

He could confront China with aircraft carriers and then escort it into the World Trade Organization. He could clean up the Soviet nuclear mess after the cold war but leave an angry Russia out in the cold with its rogue capitalism. He could negotiate with Milosevic at Dayton and then bomb him in Belgrade. He could bomb terrorists (Osama bin Laden) and embrace old ones (Kim Jong Il and Yasser Arafat).

He could save Mexico, Asia, and Russia from financial ruin but leave himself with huge legal debts. He could seek passage of NAFTA and WTO but sympathize with antitrade protesters in Seattle.

He could be impeached, tried, and held in contempt by a court but still enjoy public ratings above 60 percent.

He could feel your pain while feeling the polls, be selfless by raising people's hopes but selfish in his dark schemings, and be clever at packaging policy solutions but much too clever in his legal-defense tactics.

Legacies, by the by

Many of Clinton's legacies are his own, others are not, while many he wisely just let happen.

The most historic legislative package of his two terms (welfare reform) was thrust upon him by conservatives and has yet to weather a recession. In 1993, he inherited a growing economy that he allowed to grow faster by ending market-altering federal deficits. But the economy was much more guided and pushed by new technologies, Reagan-era tax cuts, baby-boomer investment zeal and, of course, the Federal Reserve.

Clinton's audacious attempt to bring the healthcare industry under government control failed, as it should have, but left a worn trail of lessons for the nation and markets to find smaller, palatable solutions.

A man who was twice elected but with less than 50 percent of the vote was one of the 20th century's most adroit politicians but also one of its most compromised leaders - compromised by his misdeeds, a Republican Congress, and a historic period when Americans looked more to Wall Street than Washington for answers.

Comeback Adult?

Clinton tried often to be an FDR-like architect of New Anything. In the end, he could only claim he rode atop the wave of a New Economy (he wasn't "stupid"). But even that Clinton-era prosperity appeared to be spinning toward mild recession in his final days.

A man of great gifts might find his best contributions will come as an activist former president, much like Jimmy Carter, when he's cut free of any personal political ambition.

The last president of the 20th century (and the first of the 21st) left a notable, if not noble record.

Now as Citizen Bill he can still use his talents to raise hopes, lay out solutions, and always draw the spotlight.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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