Clinton's So Bad, He's Good for Us

Gregory D. Foster is the George C. Marshall professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington. The views expressed here are his own

How is it that, despite the oppressive air of scandal engulfing the White House, President Clinton continues to enjoy such high public approval ratings? Especially since less than half of the country's registered voters turned out for the last presidential election, and less than half of those voted for Clinton.

The professional pundits who dispense McWisdom to the masses have convinced themselves and us that the explanation lies in the "booming" economy. Well, the economy may be booming for them and their well-heeled confreres, but for most of us, the American Dream remains just that: a dream.

Is there, then, something else at work that more accurately explains the president's poll numbers--something too subtle for the conventional experts to grasp? Maybe what we're seeing is a subconscious recognition by the general public that Bill Clinton's ubiquitous failings have, in a perverse, counterintuitive way, actually been good for America.

Consider first the argument that Clinton has sullied the presidency. When fondling, groping and oral sex become the predominant terms of discourse for discussing presidential matters, when the likes of Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky are more recognizable than Cabinet officials, when the president conveys an image of adolescent immaturity, when he thereby is a topical staple for sleazy tabloids and stand-up comedians, the majesty of the presidency is in jeopardy.

But that's good. That Clinton is so massively flawed, so self-absorbed and self-indulgent, so devoid of principle or character, shows that he is merely a very average human being, not someone special, certainly not a demigod. Witnessing how obsequious people can be in the presence of celebrity (or notoriety) makes one realize how willing many of us are to idolize and deify, to relinquish ourselves and our dignity, to those graced by fame and title. When Clinton entered office, we Americans were unwittingly at our most vulnerable--searching anxiously for a Man on Horseback who could lead us out of the wilderness of uncertainty and disorder accompanying the end of the Cold War. The times called for greatness. Fortunately, Clinton was incapable of greatness. He perfectly exemplifies today's global governing class--a cohort of political careerists whose military and strategic illiteracy is palpable. In allowing the new world order to just evolve on its own, Clinton may have saved us from a tyranny that blind followership too often spawns.

This raises the argument that the president's failings have diminished America's standing in the world. Given to cheap talk free of obligation, we incessantly thump our chests and proclaim ourselves the world's only superpower, as if we actually could bend others to our desires at will. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially among our allies, none of whose deference, much less respect, we can claim to command. Witness the recent groundswell of nonsupport for U.S. military action against Iraq.

But that's good, at least to the extent that others are standing up to our self-righteous condescension and heavy-handedness. If, as a consequence, other states are led to seek and claim--and America is forced to accept--greater coequality, the prospects for lasting global peace and security will have become more proximate than ever before.

On domestic matters, there is the argument that Clinton has gutted the Democratic Party, in ideological, financial and even familial terms. Certainly his lack of philosophical coherence or commitment, though packaged as the stuff of a "New Democrat," has revealed the party's intellectual vacuity. By the same token, the massive return of improper campaign contributions has left the party so mired in debt that Democrats are sure to be consumed by fund-raising at the expense of ideas for at least the next two years. And, because the president has selfishly demanded loyalty from Capitol Hill Democrats that he seems unwilling to repay, he has dealt a death blow to the unity of a party already in disarray.

But that's good, especially when combined with the fact that Clinton has been no less damaging to the Republican Party. Who would have thought that the character of one man could single-handedly galvanize and expose the most vicious and extreme elements of the opposition party? The Republicans have become as divided, confused and incapacitated as the Democrats, with the salutary result that the public has been newly sensitized to the insidious effects party politics has had on the constitutional structure and functioning of our government.

If Clinton has exposed the most extreme right-wing faction of the Republican Party, so too has he been a lightning rod for society's most reactionary elements. We can only speculate, of course, but the hatred that animates the militia movement in this country and produces such senseless tragedies as the Oklahoma City and Atlanta bombings seems to owe much to what the more paranoid among us see in Bill Clinton.

This, too, is good, for it shows us that the worst we can imagine is in ourselves; we have met the enemy of the moment, and it is not Islamic extremists, Asian hordes or Russian revanchists; it is us.

Then there is the argument that the president has surrounded himself with a coterie of establishmentarian technocrats and political hacks capable only of running campaigns, not of actually governing.

But that's good. If newfound awareness of such unscrupulousness prompts the people to reclaim the democracy they mistakenly think they already enjoy, if it disabuses them of the misconception that there is a privileged ruling elite to whom they should unquestioningly relinquish their sovereignty, then and only then will the country have any chance of recovering America's defining ideals.

Finally, there is the argument that Clinton has flouted and undermined one of our most cherished values: the rule of law. However much the Supreme Court ruling on the Paula Jones case may have been a reaffirmation of the principle that no one in this country, not even the president, is above the law, Clinton has demonstrated in almost every way--by his repeated invocations of lawyer-client and executive privilege, his legalistic dissembling and circumlocution, his staff's dilatory responses to subpoenas and requests for information--that he considers the law a nuisance that a man of his august station should not have to endure.

But that's excellent. In fact, the single most valuable thing Bill Clinton has done for this country is to remind us all of the link--and the gap--between law and morality. As much as any person possibly could, Clinton shows how wide the gap between the two can be. By using the law as he has, not to promote justice but to avoid responsibility and accountability, he has aligned himself with the former U.S. attorney general who sought exculpation for his misdeeds by saying, "What I did may have been unethical, but it wasn't illegal." How revealing. And for being similarly revealing, Bill Clinton deserves our undying gratitude. Thanks to him, we understand anew that law unsupported by a firm ethical foundation is not only empty, it is dangerous.

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