Clinton peddles a book, polishes an image
NEW YORK — The red carpet is ready, the paparazzi corralled behind police barriers, and curious bystanders collecting on the corner.
"I'm excited," says Mary DiLucia, who happened by the Hollywood-esque scene on her way home from the library.
The big star they're all awaiting outside this Greenwich Village theater has actually never starred in a movie, though he was played in one by John Travolta.
Charismatic and controversial as ever, Bill Clinton is reemerging into national spotlight - peddling not just a book but his own take on a presidency that ended just four years ago.
A nonstop publicity blitz next week is at the very least stirring deeper debate about eight years that included more than just a thriving economy and a tawdry sex scandal. It also could help shape this year's presidential election, since the effusive former president has said he will plug the candidacy of John Kerry along with his memoir.
But the reassessment comes against a backdrop not entirely of Mr. Clinton's choosing. His book, arriving in stores Tuesday, lands as the nation has also been revisiting the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and as a high-profile panel assesses whether the nation - including the Clinton administration itself - failed to do enough to prevent terrorist movement that shook America on Sept. 11, 2001.
A week of nonstop appearances will begin Sunday on CBS's "60 minutes," with Clinton calling his battle against impeachment a "badge of honor. I don't see it as a stain." He'll also be on "Larry King Live," "Oprah," and the morning news shows.
Then there's opening of "The Hunting of the President," a documentary critical of the Whitewater investigation, screened here Wednesday with a special appearance by the former president to an audience of celebrities and party faithful.
Many Democrats welcome Clinton's re-emergence as a much needed reminder of what their party can do right, at least as far as the economy and world affairs are concerned. And some Republicans are also glad to have him back, noting that he still inspires just as much disdain as when he left office. Indeed, a Gallup Poll released last week shows that the "man from Hope" as he was called at his nominating convention back in 1992, is as divisive as ever.
"The way Clinton is judged is still influenced by who does the judging," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "I don't think we've had enough time to individually change our views about him, but clearly we can look back on happier times when he was president: Whether it's fair or not, we tend to give presidents credit for what happens on their watch."
While it takes decades for history to render its final judgment on a president's legacy, Americans are already assessing, and in some cases reassessing, Clinton's eight years in office - a process which is sure to be accelerated by his media tour.
For many, like New York messenger Bruce Craig, there's a longing for those times of relative peace and booming prosperity when the Dow surged, middle-class taxes were cut, and almost no one outside of law enforcement had ever heard of Osama bin Laden.
"Clinton did a good job when he was president," says Mr. Craig, standing on a plaza on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 42nd Street. "He ran the country smoother than [the way] it is now."
But just a block away, in front of the Chrysler Building, stockbroker Pete Miluk is almost vehement at even the mention of the former president's name. "It was a disgrace what he did with Monica Lewinsky and I didn't like his wife," says Mr. Maluk. "Now that the economy is turning around, I think Bush is doing a great job."
There's no question that Clinton's times were tumultuous, at least on the scandal front. But supporters see that receding in importance as they champion his pragmatic liberalism. To them, Clinton was a leader who streamlined government bureaucracies and required fiscal discipline, even as he instituted new programs for average Americans from the earned-income tax credit to putting 100,000 new cops on the street. They contend he was a people's president who made a difference, despite facing Republicans in both houses of Congress and relentless investigation of his personal and financial affairs.
"He did so many things that look good by comparison with the current administration, that in the short run, I think people will look fondly on his administration," says presidential historian James Thurber of American University in Washington. "But in the long run we don't know how he'll be judged."
But many critics have already made up their minds. To them Clinton's accomplishments were minor - the "motor voter" and family-leave bills - which were dwarfed by his personal failings not only of ethics, but also of political conviction. To them he was a rudderless political opportunist who thrived on celebrity and superficial popularity.
"As a presidency there wasn't much there," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, who believes history will ultimately judge Clinton harshly. "Just as Calvin Coolidge's inaction helped encourage and bring on the stock market, so too did Bill Clinton's inaction help to bring about Sept. 11, and that's something that two or three decades from now people will start seeing."
At the screening on Wednesday night, supporters blamed the Republicans and the Whitewater Investigation for distracting Clinton's attention. The film notes that on the day he was giving a speech to the United Nations on his top international priority - terrorism - the House released tapes of his deposition in the Lewinsky affair that dominated the news.
But Susan Bauer, who also standing outside hoping for a glimpse of the former president, thinks the blame for Clinton's failings are his own. "If Clinton had done his job as president in being aware of terrorism, maybe we wouldn't have had 9/11, there were just too many warnings before them," she says. "I don't think he paid enough attention to them."