Clinton's endless exit

I wrote my "goodbye" to President Clinton as I left for a Florida vacation a few weeks ago. But now that I've come back, I find he's still here, an ex-president on center stage.

So here we have Bill Clinton, still surrounded by controversy, still holding the cameras and public attention. Indeed, with the scandals over his pardons and the loot he took from the White House when he left, Mr. Clinton has, almost daily, challenged President Bush for the national limelight.

"Mr. Excitement." "Mr. Entertainment." That's Bill Clinton. For weeks before his exit as president, I would hear journalists at Monitor breakfasts commenting about how much we reporters would miss Clinton. "What are we going to write about?" I heard one newsman say. And more than once I heard reporters say something like this: "After Clinton, any president is bound to be boring."

Well, all I can say is that I'm ready to be bored. I'm ready for a president who doesn't hug the spotlight and goes about his job in a businesslike way. I, for one, don't need to have a rock star at the helm of this country. And as Mr. Bush's approval ratings rise - a CNN poll had it up to 67 percent, some others in the high 50 percentiles - I've concluded that most Americans are finding this quieter presidency to their liking.

This growing public acceptance of the Bush presidency was evident in the response to his address to the nation last Tuesday. Critics gave the speech a good grade, partly because it exceeded expectations. And many Democrats, even against their will, found themselves warming up to a man who employs the soft sell - just the opposite of the way his predecessor pushed his programs.

I note that a number of leading Democrats, including Jimmy Carter, have expressed their revulsion over Clinton's shocking pardoning performance. And there seem to be cracks in the solid backing of Clinton among African-Americans. A New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert, himself an African-American, writes, "The man [Clinton] is so thoroughly corrupt it's frightening.... Cut him loose," Herbert advises the Democratic Party.

Here I would like to examine some questions arising out of Clinton's continuing presence on the center stage:

Has it damaged President Bush's effort to launch his agenda?

I read and hear commentaries from expert observers who say that Bush has, indeed, been hurt by Clinton's long, long goodbye to the presidency. But I think otherwise. It seems to me that Clinton's clinging to the spotlight - plus the scandals that have erupted - have been a tremendous gift to this new president. Instead of obscuring Bush and hindering his start-up efforts, Clinton has helped the Bush presidency immeasurably by the contrast between himself and Bush that he has presented to the American people.

The voters in the last election who voted for Clinton now turn away from Clinton with disgust and in effect say to Bush: "OK, let's see what you can do."

Has Clinton terminally damaged his own future?

Oh, he'll make a lot of money. But now he won't attain what clearly was his post-presidency objective: to run the Democratic Party and, more than that, to become titular head of the party.

He'll still keep trying to do this. And he may still be used as a fundraiser. But there are some signs that even in Hollywood the usual big donors have become a bit disenchanted with the man they seemed almost to revere.

To get the most negative assessment of Clinton's impact on his own party, one need only turn to Republican leaders, who see his recent scandals assuring that the GOP will hold on to its majority in both houses of Congress after the 2002 elections. For example, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) said at a Monitor lunch: "Clinton is going to be as damaging to the Democratic Party as Richard Nixon was to the Republican Party."

Has Clinton's shabby exit affected Al Gore's future?

This is a difficult question. Theoretically, Clinton's big-time political demise, which I think is happening, could open the door to Mr. Gore becoming the party's leader. But try as he did to separate himself from Clinton, Gore will always be linked with the Clinton administration in which he played such a big role. So it may be that the scandal-filled Clinton departure will rub off on Gore, reminding voters that they are tired of those Clinton-Gore years and want to move on. Maybe Gore won't be given another chance.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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