Can Bush put Clinton to use?

January 22, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It was entirely characteristic of Bill Clinton, as he headed out the door after eight years in the White House, to leave Congress the other day with a shopping list of public challenges that he says will need its attention in the Bush administration.

In his waning days as president, Mr. Clinton made clear he would have been happy to renew his lease on the place if only the Constitution would have allowed. His "to do" list focused on old proposals to which he paid much lip service but insufficient action to bring them to fruition on his own watch.

Even with his homestretch rush of executive orders in conservation and the environment, he ran out of time -- a commodity he squandered in large doses in the scandals that marred his presidency. Now that he is a private citizen again with plenty of time on his hands, it will be interesting to see how he uses it.

At only 54, Mr. Clinton has many useful years ahead. Some avenues may not be open to him because of those scandals, possibly including a distinguished university presidency or high-powered law practice.

But his intellectual and political talents are unquestioned, and he is clearly a man of great convictions, if sometimes lacking the courage of them. It will be interesting, as he moves to New York, to see how he puts his very substantial talents and convictions to work, and in what causes.

Another former Democratic governor of the New South who left the presidency, Jimmy Carter, has so distinguished himself as a domestic and international conciliator and performer of good works that it has become a clichM-i that he is a better former president than he was a president.

Mr. Clinton could well follow Mr. Carter's example, but he probably lacks the humility and self-sacrifice required.

More likely, like the tainted Richard Nixon before him, Mr. Clinton may focus on the task that held much of his attention in his final year as president -- seeking to repair his personal reputation and polishing his public record for posterity.

Decades left

It can be hoped, faced with substantial legal bills resulting from the litigation that ensnarled his White House tenure, he will not succumb to the path taken by former presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. They bartered their names and their esteemed positions for juicy lecture fees and/or cushy seats on corporate or other special-interest boards.

It is understandable that older men in the twilight of their lives may opt for such sinecures. But Mr. Clinton should have two decades or more of useful time ahead, with tremendous political, executive and diplomatic experience and a record of accomplishment in each area that cannot be obliterated by his personal failings.

Perhaps more than any other recent former president, Mr. Clinton's brain power and skills in government are a potential national resource that should be put to good use. It may be too much to expect that the new president will tap it to any substantial degree. But in his stated objective of being an inclusive rather than a divisive president, George W. Bush could do worse than finding some substantial role, such as a special diplomatic emissary, for this still vigorous man of immense energy and ability.

The former presidents' club now has five members -- Mr. Ford, Mr. Carter, Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush senior and Mr. Clinton. With the exception of the infirm Mr. Reagan, they are able to perform public services well beyond attendance at the funerals of foreign potentates. But as a group they are cast as honored relics still addressed as "Mr. President" but seldom called on for their experience and wisdom.

Mr. Clinton is much too young and much too energetic and engaged to be put on the shelf, or left to the golf course. Many Clinton haters hope he will, like Douglas MacArthur's "old soldier," just fade away. That's unlikely, considering the man. In the end, however, it will be up to Mr. Clinton to decide whether to cap his career with further public service, or occupy himself trying to shine up the mixed record he left behind in the Oval Office.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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