Clinton history is filled with contradictions

April 14, 1999|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- First he thought he would be remembered in history as the very model of the modern president. Then he worried about being remembered as an impeached president. But slowly, warily, President Clinton is struggling with an extraordinary notion: He might be evaluated as a wartime president.

That was not his plan, of course. He came to the White House with grand ideas of reforming the health-care system and altering the way Washington worked. He had criticized his predecessor, George Bush, for his obsession with foreign policy. The little foreign experience Mr. Clinton had came from his student days, when he wandered through Europe and the Soviet Union, and his gubernatorial trade missions, when he peddled the low-wage virtues of Arkansas to international business executives.

Another domestic-oriented Democratic president once said the great irony of his presidency was that it was shaped by foreign crises. As it was with Woodrow Wilson, so it may be with Mr. Clinton.

A third Democratic president once said he was faced with evolving from Dr. Fix-the-Economy to Dr. Win-the-War. As it was with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so it may be with Mr. Clinton.

Already the short war in Yugoslavia has changed Mr. Clinton's outlook, reshaped his approach to his job, altered his personality. Where only several weeks ago he was floating -- a description offered by a White House aide -- now he is focused. Where once he was consumed with his own tragedy, now he is consumed with a far greater tragedy far from his own home.

Waxing nostalgic

Where once he was determined to prevail over domestic foes, now he is determined to prevail over foreign ones. Where once he was mired in the sentimental, now he is struggling to be presidential. Only a few weeks ago, it was the past that obsessed him, nostalgia that washed over him. He talked of the budget battle of 1993 -- dimly remembered by most Americans -- as if it were one of the signal battles of civilizations, an Antietam of our time.

Once the brash young-man-in-a-hurry of U.S. politics, he had turned into a grandfather figure, telling stories about the old days. His itinerary, moreover, reflected his internal mood. Last month he took a sentimental journey, and a symbolic one, back to his home in Hope, Ark. He still believes in a place called Hope, even if not everyone believes in him, or believes him. He went back to New Hampshire, where he won his reputation as the Comeback Kid, even though it is seldom remembered that he did not win the primary there in 1992 (the late Paul Tsongas won it). Also, it is seldom remembered that he had to make a comeback because he was on the ropes for being unfaithful to his wife (he fuzzed up rather than face the charges even then).

Fighting Milosevic

Now he is on the front lines again, facing the doubters and the skeptics -- and an intractable diplomatic situation that has festered for more than six centuries. His opponents no longer are the big insurance companies or the special interests or independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Now he is facing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, roving bands of tribal warriors and the tide of ethnic cleansing.

His critics say he is too tentative, too unprepared, too uncomfortable, too unsure of himself. All that may be true. But after a year like the one he endured, Mr. Clinton clearly likes standing on the moral high ground.

His answer to awkward questions recently said it all: "I would far rather be standing here answering these questions [and] talking about this endeavor than . . . to be standing here having you ask me why we are permitting a wholesale ethnic slaughter . . . and not lifting a finger to do anything about it."

Even with a moral crusade, Mr. Clinton seems increasingly like the Greek god Janus, not because he is two-faced (though critics surely believe he is) but because he is looking in two directions at once, part to the future, part to the past. For Mr. Clinton always is looking at history.

From the first moment he stepped into the executive mansion as curator of the presidency, he has been curious about the presidency. The other week he watched a C-Span special on George Washington. Not many people but Mr. Clinton are thinking a lot about the first president these days. And, of course, the president is watching the polls. But he is less interested in how he is doing now than when he is gone.

The final verdict won't be written for years, maybe for generations. But one thing is clear: Mr. Clinton will be gone, but not forgotten.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 4/14/99

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