"I am Clin-ton. As overlord, all will kneel trembling before me and obey my brutal commands."
- Clinton-Kodos, "The Simpsons"
Last December, the New York Times reported former President William ("Bill" on his trading card) Clinton gathered a number of his former White House cohorts at his Harlem office to map an effective strategy to combat the latest crisis.
It wasn't recovery from the terrorist attacks or the on-going war effort against al Qaeda. Rather, that crisis, the perpetual Clinton crisis, regarded perceptions - specifically, how history will judge the 42nd occupant of the presidency.
Due to the particularly messy manner in which he left the White House last January, coupled the recession that started months prior to the 2000 presidential election and his administration's inability to eliminate Osama bin Laden as a player on the world stage, the perceptions of him were unfavorable, at best.
As a result, this select cabal of Clinton right-hand men and women agreed to standardize their talking points about the administration and its accomplishments, and tout their (essentially his) collective record. This caused the Times' reporter, Richard Berke, to remark, "No modern president has ever mounted such an aggressive and organized drive to affect the agenda after leaving the White House."
It's no big secret what students' reactions will be during his visit today in Alumni Arena. Recent local history offers vivid illustration.
When Clinton visited then-Marine Midland Arena the day after his 1999 State of the Union address and during his Senate impeachment trial, a record crowd of the mindless faithful showed up to hear him speak. Why mindless? Speaking about what to do with then-robust federal budget surpluses, the then-president said we (the federal government) could give you (the people) the money (your money) back -
To which the trained seals applauded and cheered.
- and Clinton quite hastily added, but you (the people) wouldn't know what to do with it (your money).
So I expect the assembled throngs in Alumni Arena to applaud if he says, "I have grasshoppers taped to my back and Larry King and I will prove the spherical nature of the Earth by sailing 'round it."
But the legacy question is more intriguing.
Every president is concerned about his legacy. That's why every living ex-president has published at least one autobiography (Clinton's is forthcoming). Some enjoy their days in the shade, like George the 41st and Ronald Reagan before disease set in. Many assert Jimmy Carter, through Habitat for Humanity and his various pro-democracy efforts around the world, is more effective outside the Oval Office than inside.
And some, like Nixon, labor to reform their tarnished image. Clinton will spend much of his time walking Nixon-tread ground over the coming years and decades.
Nixon was somewhat successful repairing his image because he had substantive accomplishments, notably in foreign policy areas, to "run" on. Does Clinton? Oh, of course he thinks he does. O.J. Simpson thinks he's innocent. Reality and perception are not always complimentary.
When asked about Clinton's greatest accomplishment, people invariably answer the ubiquitous, "The economy," as though he invented it, a modern day Adam Smith or Karl Marx.
True, Clinton lounged in the Oval Office during an unparalleled period of peace, prosperity, and, if not pride, then certainly smug self-satisfaction.
But the sky-high economic times, which basically saved his good ol' boy bacon, began in March 1991, when the president had "H" and "W" betwixt the "George" and "Bush."
The former president touts his 1993 deficit reduction package, which passed only with Al Gore's Senate tie-breaking vote, as key to the economic recovery that began almost two years before taking office. The plan raised taxes, forgetting the basic economic wisdom of cutting taxes during recession to spur spending.
Clinton also touts he reformed welfare. Never mind he took no action on the issue until the Republicans took over Congress in 1995 and vetoed the bill three times before signing it in 1996, his re-election year.
He claims credit for balancing the budget. Again, something that he didn't seriously consider until the GOP dominated Capitol Hill. Of course, we cannot forget that a balanced budget would be an unreachable concept except in a philosopher's mind if his health care overhaul passed Congress. A plan, that never even reached a vote in a Congress his own party controlled, that would have placed one-seventh of the national economy under the federal government, putting us into the red for as long as the Grand Canyon is deep.
His one, indisputable triumph is the political tin ear that gave the GOP complete control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Even Wayne Gretzky accidentally scored one for the other team once and awhile.
A great president? He certainly wants to be remembered as one, but it will not happen. Great presidents achieve great feats that echo beyond their days in office, resounding through history. Clinton's echo on Jan. 20, 2001, however weak, dissipated on Sept. 11.
His legacy will be one of a historical oddity, like that of former Buffalo mayor Grover Cleveland, the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms as president.
Clinton's legacy will be the man who kept the seat warm, the interregnum between the Bush bookends. He will be the harmless, inconsequential president between the Bush who oversaw the peaceful end of the old order (No. 41) and the Bush thrust into the fire of a brave, new world (No. 43). His eight years were full of words without meaning, action without impact, style without substance.
William Jefferson Blythe Clinton escaped a justly deserved Senate conviction for his crimes, but he will be unable to escape the resounding verdict of history: an unambiguous, uninterested yawn.