N E W Y O R K, Dec. 14, 2000 -- “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” implores Fleetwood Mac in Bill Clinton’s favorite rally song. The lame-duck president is probably thinking of little else these days.
Now that a president-elect finally waits just offstage to be sworn in as the nation’s 43rd chief executive, Clinton’s time in the Oval Office limelight is down to its final weeks. At 54, Clinton stares into his future as the youngest ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt.
What’s left for a baby boomer to accomplish after serving two terms as leader of the world’s only superpower? There’s the presidential library, of course. And don’t forget the book deal — Clinton is expected to reap upwards of $10 million for his memoirs.
But as Clinton builds a bridge to his own future, historians say he will likely follow the path of many presidents who left office in less than a blaze of glory. The only president to be impeached since 1868 will likely spend the coming years salvaging his place in history.
Despite the nation’s unprecedented span of peace and prosperity, and even though Clinton enjoys approval ratings close to 60 percent, he faces the daunting prospect that his legacy may never emerge from the shadow of scandal.
Scrubbing Off That Scarlet Letter
“All those presidents leaving the White House under a cloud of disappointment spend the rest of their lives trying to redeem themselves,” says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who penned a well-regarded book on Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
“You will see that with Bill Clinton because he is a tenacious political fighter but also because they permanently branded him with an ‘A’ for adultery on his chest. He will try to scrub that letter off,” he said.
As if impeachment didn’t make legacy-building difficult enough for Clinton, it doesn’t help that he presided over a prosperous era when the nation faced no immediate global threat and the domestic preference has turned toward smaller government. Any ambition Clinton had to pursue traditional Democratic goals and programs was tempered by the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.
For some presidents at the helm during turbulent times, momentous accomplishments are easily flagged. Ronald Reagan presided over the end of the Cold War. Harry Truman had the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Lyndon Johnson could point to the Civil Rights Act.
Clinton can certainly tout milestones such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, welfare reform, a minimum-wage increase and the earned-income tax credit, to name just a few. But he also must wrestle with this: Despite the United States’ red-hot economy and unparalleled position of global power, he might always be best known for an illicit affair with a White House intern.
“There’s not an exciting artifact people are going to want to rush in to see in the Clinton library,” Brinkley says. “The most remembered artifact of the Clinton years will always be Monica [Lewinsky’s] blue dress.”
‘A Lot to Be Proud of’
For all the talk of Clinton’s scandal-scarred presidency, longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas, who’s covered every president since John F. Kennedy, says Clinton deserves more credit than he often gets.
“He has brought on the greatest prosperity we have ever known and he doesn’t get the credit for it and that’s too bad,” Thomas says.
She points to peace deals brokered around the world, including the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and the Koreas. The budget has been balanced and the deficit reduced on his watch, she notes. Plus, Thomas says, Clinton was a strong advocate of gun-control legislation such as the Brady Bill and he signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, among other achievements.
Most recently, he became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since Richard Nixon visited American troops there in 1969.
“He has a lot to be proud of,” Thomas says.
For a strong defense of the Clinton years, one need look no further than the president himself. Although Vice President Al Gore’s campaign prevented Clinton from stumping full throttle for fear of alienating scandal-fatigued voters, the president touts his record whenever he can.
“This country is not just better off,” Clinton told a crowd in Arkansas on Nov. 5, “this is a better, stronger, more united country.”
Looking to the Ex-Presidents
Regardless of his accomplishments, though, the Clinton years will always be remembered for the impeachment drama. How does an ex-president take another shot at leaving a proud legacy?
Just check the history books, Brinkley says. John Quincy Adams spent 17 years in Congress and spoke out against slavery. Millard Fillmore created a third-party movement. William Howard Taft became a Supreme Court justice — not an option for Clinton if he gets disbarred for lying under oath in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, however.
An astute student of history himself, Clinton has already combed through the experiences of his predecessors in search of positive ways to live out his ex-presidency. Quincy Adams and Carter — who has worked on human rights, international elections and homelessness — have had the two “really great” ex-presidencies in history, he recently told Rolling Stone magazine.
His own priorities after he leaves the White House, Clinton says, include working toward racial and religious reconciliation, economic empowerment, environmental protection and improved public health at home and around the world.
“The challenge is to trade power and authority, broadly spread, for influence and impact, tightly concentrated,” he told the magazine.
History on His Side?
Historians just may hail Clinton’s presidency a success when documenting his tenure for future generations. But in the end, his legacy may be completely out of his control.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek says only time will tell how much credit Clinton will get for the peace and prosperity of the last eight years.
“So often the way in which a president’s reputation is shaped has to do with what comes after his presidency,” Dallek says. “If, after he leaves, there is a recession, his reputation will go to the moon and he’ll be remembered for being such a wonderful manager of the economy.”
History actually favors Clinton in his pursuit to redeem his presidency, Brinkley says. Truman was dogged by low approval ratings when he left office, Richard Nixon fled Washington in disgrace and Carter ended his term wallowing in a malaise of mediocrity. But each man eventually resuscitated his image in the eyes of the nation.
“There’s been a tendency toward an upward revisionism with ex-presidents,” Brinkley says. Presidents like Truman, Nixon and Carter, he said, “come to be revered by the American public as they assume elder statesmen status.”
But impeachment may always be the albatross around Clinton’s neck, just as Watergate was for Nixon. “It will be more than just a footnote,” Dallek says. “It’s part of his record, he will never escape it.”
Mindful of what others might say or write about him, Clinton expressed no regrets in a recent Esquire interview. “… To the people and the commentators and people that write about me, I might be just as good as dead the day I leave office,” he said. “But that’s not the way I look at my life. I did this. I’m profoundly honored and grateful that I had a chance to do it. I did the best I could and I think the country is better off.”