Prosperity Does Not a Legacy Make

Richard N. Goodwin was an assistant special counsel to President Kennedy and a special assistant to President Johnson. He now writes in Concord, Mass

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of the Clinton administration has been the belief that to talk about a problem is to deal with it or at least to persuade others that you are dealing with it. Thus we have been treated to passionate discussions on race or education unaccompanied by any substantial measures. The president’s latest proposal to expand Medicare, although welcome, is a poignant reminder of how much time and opportunity has been wasted. At the start of this administration, he presented a far more sweeping health care proposal. The mistaken lesson he took from the failure of this initiative was the belief that, in this era, the American people would not respond to large ideas. Rather than admitting his approach was flawed, he blamed the country and even his own Democratic Congress.

The continued mention of legacy, originating from the White House, spread now to all our most suggestible media, is a facet of the same belief that words are actions, that discussing a legacy provides one. This absurd conviction, however, does compel the rest of us to take a historically premature look at the incomplete record, and apply the tested standards of the historian.

Many of us can remember the dazzling sense of expectation that greeted the election of this new young tribune of the people. A dozen years of Republican hegemony were to be followed by an era of progressive Democratic politics. How naive we were. And how little we knew our man: a politician whose overriding concern was to be his own survival; a politician perfectly willing to sacrifice the party that had nurtured him in his own ambition.

What will history say of this administration? It may bestow some credit for prosperity. Yet although Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding presided over an economic boom, they are regarded as failures. The 1960s brought another period of economic growth, yet John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson before Vietnam are honored not for prosperity itself but for the uses they made of a growing economy--expanding civil rights, Medicare, space exploration, the attack on poverty, Head Start, public broadcasting and the other achievements of those incredibly productive years. Prosperity is viewed historically not as an end in itself, but as an opportunity for accomplishment. And by that measure the Clinton administration is a failure.


History almost certainly will point out that the man who promised health care for all Americans bequeathed the nation a system as bad or worse than the one he inherited.

After seven years, the American educational system is as bad, perhaps worse.

After seven years, the number of Americans in poverty is as great as it was when he was elected.

After seven years, the level of quality child care, so essential to working families, is no higher.

After seven years, the hard problems of race, and especially the squalor of the inner city, remain untouched.

Admittedly, there are reasons for some of this beyond Clinton’s failure of leadership, but history only judges accomplishments, not excuses.

The foreign policy record of this, the first post-Cold War administration, is equally dismal, redeemed only by the successful intervention in Kosovo, although that story is not yet over. Was this success the harbinger of a new humane policy, grounded in morality, a “Clinton doctrine” or was it an isolated action taken before we relapse into our traditional indifference to brutalities which do not affect us directly?

It is interesting to speculate how different the administration’s record might have been if Clinton had achieved his success in Kosovo early in his term and experienced the possibilities and fulfillment that come from pursuing a course steadfastly and without constantly consulting public opinion.


Foreign policy does not consist of sporadic reaction to crises. It requires the steady, patient, day-by-day pursuit of a long-range strategy. It works at building relationships and trying to avert prospective dangers. By this measure, we have hardly had a foreign policy at all except where large economic interests were involved. Our most important relationships, with Russia and with China, have been allowed to deteriorate. The emergence of India and Pakistan as nuclear powers has evoked little more than futile expressions of concern. We have failed to use this period of American hegemony to reduce the bristling nuclear arsenals that menace many nations, including our own. We bombed Iraq, but Saddam Hussein remains in power. We have sent missiles after Osama bin Laden but he remains at large.

Among the sorriest legacies of the past seven years has been the crippling of the Democratic Party, which has been stripped of its historic purpose and which has become little more than a vehicle for electing men to office. Indeed our two-party system has been drastically altered. One party now consists of the right--militant, religious and troglodyte; the other is the “compassionate conservatives” a.k.a. “practical idealists,” once known as the Republicans and Democrats. Thus far, the compassion has been mostly rhetoric, but the conservatism is very real, dedicated to the interests of the affluent, unconcerned about the grotesque injustice of a system that has left a majority of our population no better off than they were before the current boom, and which reserves significant increases in wealth or income to the top 5%. We can be sure that the issue of economic justice will not be discussed during the approaching campaign, since the American majority no longer has a party.

The failure to use our enormous economic growth to enhance the well-being of all our citizens is a lost opportunity that may not come again, although the problems we failed to address will continue to fester. That lost opportunity is at the heart of the Clinton legacy.