Thank you, Mr. President

January 19, 2001|By Tom Teepen

ATLANTA -- President Clinton is being hymned to history by a chorus of commentators singing the cliche conclusion that it's a damn shame about Bill Clinton: He could have been a great president if only he hadn't been so, umm, morally unkempt.

This is nonsense. And, into the bargain, its lamentation usually is uttered by folks who never much wished Mr. Clinton well. Their tears are crocodile.

Mr. Clinton was never going to be a great president and, flaws and all, he did a pretty good job anyway in extraordinarily -- maybe even uniquely -- trying circumstances.

No president is absent great challenges. Washington would be indifferently remembered as our second president. Lincoln wouldn't have amounted to much without the Civil War. FDR needed the Depression and World War II to be something more than just the best freestyle politician of his time.

Mr. Clinton came to the presidency at the end of a relatively mild recession and with the Cold War over and done and no great crisis looming. Ho-hum.

What Mr. Clinton had to struggle against was only, but crucially, a nasty partisan animus unlike any in his century. It was a relentless personal animosity and political trashing bankrolled by rich right-wingers and arch-conservative foundations, a media machine that created endless claims of scandal and sicced attendant special prosecutors on them and a talk-radio network that spewed anti-Clinton venom for hours daily in virtually every city.

All the supposed scandals evaporated under investigation, save the politically engineered exposure of Mr. Clinton as an errant husband who tried to lie his way out of it. For that bone-headed personal lapse, he had to face down a partisan impeachment got up by precisely the political and social forces that had twice lost elections to him.

Even so, Mr. Clinton skillfully managed the national transition to a post-Cold War world and a global economy.

Routinely ridiculed for simply following the polls, Mr. Clinton in fact confronted the powerful gun-mongering National Rifle Association as no other president had, gritted out crucial expansions of international free trade against the opposition of his own party's union constituency and overcame unified GOP opposition to initiate federal budgets that stabilized the economy in ways that allowed unprecedented growth.

Improvising in the muzzy uncertainties after the Cold War, his foreign policy was a mixed bag. The Somalian intervention was a tragic flop but, although the administration hesitated too long, the NATO exercise in the Balkans finally stopped Serbian predations and ended a horrid dictatorship. Mr. Clinton expanded NATO without antagonizing Russia.

Even Herculean efforts couldn't magic up Middle East peace -- mainly because Yasser Arafat can't seem to pronounce the word "yes" -- but Mr. Clinton did coax Israel and the Palestinians several steps closer together, potentially a basis for eventual settlement. (Though probably only after Lord knows what more troubles.)

Mr. Clinton has a weak civil liberties record, made a strong environmental showing and probably did more for the working poor than any president through expansion of the earned income tax credit. He put his party back into credible play by his moderation, as reflected, for instance, in uncommonly sound judicial appointments. (That is, when Republicans weren't blocking them just because they could.)

The Clinton presidency followed the weirdly sunny fatalism of Ronald Reagan -- picked up by the first George Bush but without the good vibes -- which in effect held that no social problem was so bad that it couldn't be made still worse by any effort to solve it.

Especially after his stab at universal health care failed, contrary Congresses foreclosed President Clinton from much more than a tinkering domestic program; but even so Mr. Clinton restored the idea that politics and policy are legitimate if imperfect means to work the common good.

Thanks, we needed that.

Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is teepencolumn@coxnews.com.

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