Clinton Legacy May Be History, Say Historians


If you ask historians to list a low point of Jimmy Carter's presidency, some would mention the famous "malaise" speech, where he criticized America's lack of moral backbone.

It was a defining moment that helped frame his troubled legacy, yet few remember that on the night Carter gave the televised speech, his poll ratings actually shot up 10%.

"In judging a president, there is a considerable world of difference between the long view of history and the volatility of the political moment," said historian Douglas Brinkley.

And so it is with Bill Clinton.

Beyond the Sturm und Drang of snap polls and daily headlines, some prominent American historians believe this president's legacy has been permanently tarnished by his handling of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. They generally agree that he faces long odds of resurrecting his standing enough to be judged a highly or even moderately successful chief executive.

"He will be seen as a great American tragedy, and his White House speech last night was the point of no return," noted Brinkley, who has written a biography of Carter. "Bill Clinton will be remembered as a baby boomer who was constantly mired in personal scandal, and who never lived up to expectations."

It's not merely the scandal, said Robert Dallek, biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson: "The man shows himself to be of weak character. As we saw last night, he dissembles, he's self-serving; his speech was more combative than contrite."

While future analysts may give Clinton high marks for managing the economy, that is no guarantee of immortality, Brinkley added. Balancing the budget is important, "but this is not the reason why people visit presidential libraries."

Historians are loath to predict the future, yet when it comes to Clinton, a rough consensus is forming: Regardless of how the Lewinsky matter plays out, they say, the president has too many troublesome character issues to surmount, and too few real accomplishments to be remembered as a great leader.

Even a supporter like Arthur J. Schlesinger Jr. says Clinton's legacy is in jeopardy: "It all depends on what he does, not what he says. Instead of going off to Martha's Vineyard, he should be gaining control of his demoralized administration. He should be making decisions about Ireland and the Middle East."

"Obviously, what he said last night is going to tarnish his legacy," Schlesinger continued. "But he can overcome these things if he begins fighting for real social change and reform. That's his very best hope."

Clinton's administration can point to significant initiatives, like welfare reform, opening international trade and a more ideologically moderate Democratic Party. But no one will ever confuse that with the vision of Johnson's Great Society or Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, according to Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley (no relation to Douglas).

"While I don't believe the Lewinsky matter will constitute the final judgment of him, the scandals and a limited agenda will be what people remember," he added.

It's a mortifying prospect for an incumbent said to be keenly focused on his legacy. Yet, in some respects, Clinton may be as much a victim of his era as his own bad judgment.

"When people look back at the Clinton years, I think they'll see him as the epitome of a time when our nation became permanently scandalized," said UCLA history professor Joyce Appleby.

Clinton may have capitalized on the increasingly personal nature of media politics to get elected, she said, but the same voyeuristic culture that elevated him has now tarnished his legacy, perhaps irrevocably, she added.

None of this will stop Clinton from burnishing his reputation after he leaves the White House--much as Carter has done and as Nixon tried to do, historians say. Yet even here Clinton may face big obstacles, said Ohio State University history professor Joan Hoff, author of "Nixon Reconsidered."

Both are seen as men with character flaws, she says, yet Nixon--for all his fabled drawbacks--stood for something: "He took risks, he had some success. But what does Bill Clinton stand for? He has no strong inner compass, he wavers a lot, and that's not much to build a legacy on."

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