Clintons' legacy gets new twist

Campaign stumbles make evaluating them more complex

June 09, 2008|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON - Bill and Hillary Clinton have stirred strong passions in their nearly two decades in the national spotlight. They have been known as many things, good and bad: brilliant policy analysts, manipulators of facts and friends, tireless campaigners, skillful political tacticians, self-absorbed baby boomers. But most of all they were known as winners.

Until now.

The Clintons will almost certainly play a continuing role in national politics, and Hillary Clinton could yet emerge as this year's Democratic vice presidential nominee, but a major chapter in their vertiginous public biography was closed when Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic presidential nomination to Sen. Barack Obama on Saturday. The Clintons' complicated legacy is all the more complicated now.

Hillary Clinton, who survived public humiliation as first lady and then easily won two Senate races in New York, entered the 2008 presidential primary season as the odds-on favorite because of money, connections and celebrity. But through a series of blunders and the appearance of a once-in-a-lifetime opponent, she saw the prize slip through her grasp despite a valiant personal effort that lasted through the final contests in South Dakota and Montana.

The Clintons often seemed out of touch with the political times, cautious when they should have been bold, negative when they should have been inspirational. Exquisitely attuned to the political winds in 1992, they watched Obama almost effortlessly master the changed environment of 2008.

Bill Clinton, a riddle as a man and a public figure, was seen by many at the beginning of his wife's campaign as a political genius, a statesman and a racial healer who had done much through his charitable work to erase the stigma of his impeachment for lying about an affair with a young White House aide and other personal sins. But his conduct during his wife's campaign, right up to a blistering tirade against a magazine writer last week, raised new questions about his judgment and blotted his legacy.

Allies of the Clintons and neutral observers said Hillary Clinton had much to be proud of in this campaign. She outlasted all but one of a distinguished field of primary opponents, won about 17 million votes and a dozen critical states and earned grudging admiration for her fortitude even from those who despised her. She shattered the gender barrier at the presidential level and emerged as the chosen tribune for a major part of the Democratic electorate.

But she also made comments that divided voters along racial lines, stretched the facts and last month raised the specter of assassination as a justification for remaining in the race to the bitter end despite a mathematical near-certainty that she had lost weeks earlier.

"The Clintons are and probably always will be a paradox," said Leon Panetta, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House and supported Hillary Clinton's candidacy. "They were very good at being able to gain power and then try to use that power to try to help ordinary Americans. The paradox is that in order to gain power, they sometimes did whatever it takes to win."

There were moments in this campaign, Panetta said, that made some people "question where their heart really was." Panetta said that was especially sad given Bill Clinton's strong presidential record on affirmative action and other racial issues.

"Look, both of them are viewed as tough fighters; both are viewed as people who will continue to confront the most difficult odds and sometimes still win," Panetta said. "People will always admire that in them." But he added that this campaign, because it seemed to take a divisive turn, "has in many ways hurt their legacy."

The race question will be one of the most difficult for the Clintons to deal with. Black politicians and voters were among Bill Clinton's hardiest defenders during impeachment and supported Hillary Clinton in large numbers at the beginning of this contest. But comments by Bill Clinton and several prominent black supporters of Hillary Clinton this year helped turn the black electorate decisively against her. Her remark last month that "hard-working Americans, white Americans" were supporting her did not help.

"It has definitely damaged not just hers but also Bill's legacy on race," said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Sean Wilentz, professor of American history at Princeton University, said the Clintons have been unfairly accused of exploiting racial divisions but that the perception has taken hold and will take time to erase. He also said the harm to Bill Clinton's image and stature in the party will turn around more quickly than the public view of Hillary Clinton.

Wilentz said Hillary Clinton's loss will sting for a bit but that her commitment to public life and public service will continue, whether in the Senate or perhaps in another run for the presidency.

"She's the titular leader of the center of the Democratic Party," he said. "She has a duty to party and country to assume that role with grace and dexterity."

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