Pressures of sealing his legacy

April 18, 2000|By William Safire

CERTAIN WORDS and phrases become taboo in the White House. Out of the loop, amiable dunce, malaise and crook come to mind.

The Clinton White House, we are told by Glenn Burkins of the Wall Street Journal, is eager to make clear that it is "not being driven by a quest to establish" Clinton's legacy.

cf01 The interviewer reports that John Podesta, the chief of staff, "has banned the use of that word in the White House."

That's because the word, in its political sense, is most often being used in derision. "The Clintons' legacy," wrote the St. Petersburg Times as far back as 1996, "will be the attack and invasion of our justice system by social entrepreneurs."

Two years later, the columnist Stephen Chapman pronounced, "Clinton's legacy is likely to be the enduring diminution of the office he holds." In that year, the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd suggested that "Bill Clinton's biggest legacy may not be in politics, but in letters .... He has inspired one entirely new and remarkable genre: feminist erotic journalism."

More charitably, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida recently said that free trade "is a place where Clinton can legitimately say that he has a legacy."

And when asked by a reporter, "How much of the president's legacy is dependent on peace in Ireland and in the Middle East?" the White House spokesman Joe Lockhart replied, "His legacy will be decided, thankfully, not by us and not by any of the people who are scribbling in notebooks."

That official rejection of legacy-itis may have led to the banning of the word itself in White House usage. Mr. Podesta probably winced when President Clinton, at a recent fund-raising gathering of American Indians, deplored U.S. negligence of their rights, adding, "This is the part of the historical legacy we want to be proud of."

The Latin legare means to dispute and to bequeath, which is fitting when you consider how many bequests are disputed. Not in dispute, however, is the 1460 coinage by Robert Henryson, who writes of a widow's "legacy and lamentation."

Despite its ban, watch for what is sure to be the most overused word of the coming interregnum. An unwanted gift from a predecessor, parent or older sibling is derogated as a hand-me-down; a happier, lasting bequest is called a legacy with legs.

William Safire is a syndicated columnist.

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