GOP dragged us into a decade of political decline

April 25, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Walking along President Clinton Avenue toward the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, which looms over the Clinton School of Public Service here in Little Rock - which, at this point, may as well be renamed The Town That Clinton Built - makes one pause to reflect upon the fact that American politics has changed so drastically in just 10 years.

Hop into a time machine with me and set the dial for spring 1997. Mr. Clinton had just been sworn in a few months earlier for a second term, following his comfortable, 31-state Electoral College victory over former Republican Sen. Bob Dole. The national conversation had not yet devolved into divisive talk of "blue states" and "red states." The culture wars were under way but had yet to go nuclear.

The big issues on the national agenda 10 years ago this week included expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Bloc states of Eastern Europe, a new chemical weapons ban, and the growing (but then quite manageable) trade deficit. With the tech market bubble expanding almost daily, talk in Washington turned to the possibility of the first national budget surplus since the Vietnam War.

So still ran the national political waters in April 1997, in fact, that the biggest controversy that month was Mr. Clinton's appointment of former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld as U.S. ambassador to Mexico. A Democrat appointing a Republican to a key ambassadorship - oh, the scandal of it!

The nation would soon be jolted out of its slumber.

Theodore Olson, a Republican lawyer with a partisan ax to grind, was involved with a group informally known as the "Arkansas Project," which was animated by a single, defining objective: to dredge up almost anything, personal or public, to malign Mr. Clinton.

Such pig-slopping in the Razorback State surely muddied Mr. Olson's reputation beyond cleaning, right? Not quite: President Bush appointed him U.S. solicitor general - the highest-ranking lawyer in the federal government. In the dark world of Republican skullduggery, no bad deed goes unrewarded.

On May 8, 1991, in a room in the hotel from where I now write - then called the Excelsior but since converted into a ducks-marching-through-the-lobby member of the Peabody chain - Mr. Clinton is alleged to have sexually harassed Paula Jones. His initial refusal to settle the case Ms. Jones brought against him led to depositions, and those depositions eventually led to a young intern in a beret.

And you know the rest: a blue dress, the ham-handed attempt to impeach, hanging chads in Florida, four hijacked airplanes, Afghanistan, "W" landing in his green flight suit, Abu Ghraib, and our continuing, intractable mess in Mesopotamia.

It's a long way from a sleepy capital city on the banks of the Arkansas River to chaotic sectarian slaughter along the banks of the Euphrates River a mere 10 years later, and a trip that cannot be made with fishing trawler. But apparently, a well-financed political fishing expedition will get you there.

On Nov. 18, 2004, only days after his re-election, President Bush spoke at the dedication ceremonies of the Clinton Presidential Center. "President Bill Clinton led our country with optimism and a great affection for the American people, and that affection has been returned," he said. "He gave all to his job, and the nation gave him two terms."

The nation gave Mr. Bush two terms, too, but he's running low on affection: His public approval rating hovers just above 30 percent, whereas Mr. Clinton's soars close to 70 percent.

The second floor of the Clinton Presidential Center includes a scale replica of the Oval Office, complete with a variety of the 42nd president's personal memorabilia. On a credenza behind the presidential desk is a fist-sized rock engraved with the words, "Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone."

If only that were the one biblical injunction guiding those pious congressional Republicans a decade ago, when America was a quieter, happier place.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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