How will history treat Bill Clinton? Will he be remembered for his brilliant political skills, or will the shadow of impeachment tarnish his legacy?
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss joined ABCNEWS.com for a live chat as Clinton prepares to give his farewell address to his party's convention. Beschloss is the author of several books about the presidency, including Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963, and Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance.
Beschloss discussed where Clinton ranks among the nation's greatest presidents and whether the president's youth provides him the opportunity to rehabilitate his legacy. Look below to read a transcript of the chat.
Moderator at 3:32pm ET
Welcome Michael Beschloss. Thanks for joining us.
Michael, will Bill Clinton's impeachment overshadow all of his accomplishments when the history of his presidency is written?
Michael Beschloss at 3:34pm ET
It certainly will be mentioned in any historical account of the Clinton presidency — and it will be mentioned at the top. But what future Americans think about the impeachment will depend on the answer to two questions: Number one, how much credit does Bill Clinton deserve for what we can all agree has been the most prosperous years in American history? And, number two, was the impeachment merely an exaggerated partisan vendetta by Republicans, or did it expose an element of Clinton's leadership that tended to play fast and loose with the law?
Often times, we find out a lot about presidents after they leave office that we never could have known at the time they served. If, 10 years from now, we find that whatever malfeasance Bill Clinton committed in the Lewinsky scandal was simply one lapse, then impeachment will probably not loom very large.
Moderator at 3:35pm ET
What great accomplishments will mark Clinton's political legacy?
Michael Beschloss at 3:37pm ET
The most obvious, as I've mentioned, is the economy. Beyond that, this has been a leader who managed to storm-proof the Democratic Party, so that it could elect a president twice in the 1990s, a time that was in many ways a conservative period. In a way, this is the mirror image of Dwight Eisenhower, who moved the Republicans to the center in the 1950s, and managed to give them the White House twice during what was otherwise a pretty liberal period.
Beyond that, oddly enough, I think historians and future Americans will give Bill Clinton points for some of the acts of political courage he showed during his first two years in office, such as fighting for gays in the military, pressing for the 1993 budget bill, and at least trying to confront the need for universal health care. Voters love winners; historians are more likely to give credit to presidents who try to do important things, even if they don't succeed.
Quin at 3:39pm ET
History typically remembers great leaders with quotes that inspired, moved and motivated a nation. For example, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Kennedy's "Ask not what your country has done for you..." or Reagan's "Tear down this wall."
Has Clinton said any such thing to stir the nation? Will any of his quotes ring more loudly than his defiant (and dishonest) denial at a White House press conference?
Michael Beschloss at 3:41pm ET
I assume you mean Clinton's assertion in January, 1998, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
The fascinating thing about Bill Clinton is that, although he is amazingly well-read in presidential history, and although he's one of the best extemporaneous speakers we've ever seen, he really does not say things that last in people's memories and hearts.
For instance, probably the second most famous statement he has uttered as president was in his 1996 State of the Union: "The era of big government is over." But even that was largely the creation of his political consultant, Dick Morris.
John from 245.76.216.losangeles1.level3.net at 3:42pm ET
In the thirty-plus years that followed the Israeli-Palestine conflict, will Clinton be seen as someone who has bridged the gap or one who has maintained the "status quo" of the region?
Michael Beschloss at 3:44pm ET
I think you would have to say that here is a case in which he got himself personally engaged, as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David in 1978, even being willing to withstand the risk of a failure, as has unfortunately happened.
At the same time, one of the things that historians will probably be very critical about is the fact that Clinton never got deeply immersed in foreign policy during most of his presidency. It's never been a deep interest of his in the way, for example, that health care is. And as a result, we have lacked, during these last eight years, the sound of a president's voice week after week telling us what we should think and do about our new and very different position in the world.
Dennis St.Germaine from telcom.arizona.edu at 3:45pm ET
It looks to me that President Clinton has done a great job maneuvering the United States through the unknown post-Cold-War years, but that reality is often obfuscated by journalists who would rather concentrate on sex scandals than the hard work of being the leader of the free world. What is your take on this?
Michael Beschloss at 3:46pm ET
I think you're absolutely right in terms of avoiding a hot war or an open rivalry, for example, with Russia or China. But at the same time, this is a very isolationist nation in many ways. We are resistant to the idea of making big sacrifices in money and people in order to remain a global superpower.
In history, the single most important influence on the way Americans think about our world obligations has been the president. And so the reason you need a president constantly talking about and explaining foreign policy is so that if there is a sudden crisis, there will be a great reservoir of public support on which to draw.
I think historians will be tough on Clinton for relying so much on public opinion polls that simply told him that Americans were not very interested in foreign affairs.
Bill F. at 3:49pm ET
Wasn't the groundwork for the economic recovery laid with the Bush presidency? Doesn't the Fed deserve the credit for the continued bullish economy?
Michael Beschloss at 3:50pm ET
We are just now seeing the beginning of an argument that is going to rage for the next 50 years. Who was responsible for this great economy? Was it Presidents Reagan and Bush? Was it President Clinton? Was it rise in productivity? Technological change? Creative leaders in the private sector? Alan Greenspan? Robert Rubin? Or perhaps, all of us Americans?
It's not just a historical argument. Even this year, as we're seeing, what an American believes about who gets the credit will have a lot to do with who is elected president in November.
P. Quest at 3:51pm ET
Will Hillary's success or failure in her Senate run affect Clinton's legacy? If elected, will her own political record detract or add to President Clinton's legacy?
Michael Beschloss at 3:53pm ET
Here we're going into uncharted territory. We've never had a first lady run for office before. But I can say this: If, for example, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were both defeated this fall, it would be inevitably viewed as a repudiation of President Clinton, and whatever lies in public affection that he might expect for himself after he is president would be depressed and at least delayed.
If you're president, one of the best things you can do to ensure your legacy is to make sure you get a successor elected who admires you. That's exactly why Bill Clinton is campaigning so hard for Al Gore.
Moderator at 3:54pm ET
Gore's rhetoric draws heavily from traditionally liberal themes as he tries to frame the election as a choice between "the people" and "the powerful." What does that say about Clinton's efforts to reposition the Democratic Party as a centrist political party?
Michael Beschloss at 3:55pm ET
It says that by ruling as a new Democrat, Clinton has left the most liberal part of his party feeling disenfranchised. That is why Al Gore is still worried this very week about capturing a larger percentage of the Democratic base than he now has.
Moderator at 3:55pm ET
Does Clinton's relative youth provide him the opportunity to rehabilitate and invigorate his legacy after leaving office?
Michael Beschloss at 3:56pm ET
Sure. We could conceivably be watching him address Democratic conventions until the year 2040 or later. And you can be sure that he will not be passive about trying to make sure that future Americans remember him fondly.
Moderator at 3:58pm ET
Michael, thank you for joining us! Click here to check out our full coverage of the Democratic National Convention.