THERE’S NO LIMIT to what a man can do,” President Reagan used to say, " if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”
Former President Clinton’s motto seems to be a little different: “There’s no limit to how much credit a man can get, if he doesn’t care what he’s actually done.”
Reagan came to office after the Jimmy Carter catastrophe. He pulled the American economy out of a graveyard spin, restored the country’s military and its confidence and helped bring one of the most oppressive empires on Earth to the brink of collapse. But in those days, my children, there was no Internet, no Fox News, no Rush Limbaugh — the media was almost all Colmes and precious little Hannity — and if you got your news from the New York Times, say, or CBS, you would’ve thought the country was being run by a miserly, warmongering idiot instead of the greatest president of the century’s second half.
And yet even after his two terms were over, when left-wing news sources sourly continued to portray his administration solely in terms of its faults, as nothing but a big deficit and the Iran-Contra scandal, I cannot remember Reagan ever “defending his legacy” with anything more than a quip and a smile.
Compare and contrast Clinton. Questioned mildly on his anti-terrorism record by Fox’s Chris Wallace on Sunday, President Me went absolutely medieval on the newsman, leaning forward threateningly, rapping his fingers against Wallace’s notes and proceeding to, well, lie — and in a very angry voice too!
“And you got that little smirk on your face and you think you’re so clever,” Clinton told Wallace, sounding for all the world like a 6-year-old girl scolding her playground rival. He then proceeded to try to rewrite his coulda-woulda-shoulda presidency by claiming to have had a much more focused and hard-lined approach to terrorism than any reading of his administration can support. Even Clinton counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke’s book — which Clinton cited repeatedly during his tantrum — shows the president as too weak to order Osama bin Laden’s death. Other accounts are much less favorable.
But let the political observers fight that one out. My beat is human psychology and the nature of reality and fiction. It’s in those realms that at least one key difference between Reagan and Clinton can be found — a difference that sits at the heart of our current divisions.
Reagan was a man who believed in truth. Not your truth or my truth but “the truth,” the one that is out there whether you happen to believe in it or not.
“I never thought of myself as a great man,” he said, “just a man committed to great ideas.” Those ideas — our founders’ ideas — were great because they recognized a central truth: the good of individual liberty. And they guaranteed human beings those rights endowed in them by the “big truth” — their creator.
Clinton, on the other hand, is a narcissist who finds it difficult to grasp in any real sense that there is a place where his “inner man” ends and the rest of the world begins. Clinton’s stock phrase, “I feel your pain,” is really the insistence of a man who does not truly feel anyone else’s pain, does not truly understand that there are other inner realities as urgent as his own.
Take Clinton’s misuse of women. One way to understand it is as a symptom of his inability to come to terms with anything that would not conform to his own desire, imagination and grandiose sense of himself.
To put it in his own terms, Clinton has never understood what the meaning of “is” is, the fact that some things happened and others didn’t, that some things are true and others simply are not. He believes that his legacy will be created in the spin cycle of history rather than in the fitful but persistent human search for history’s truth.
Of course he panics and rages like a child when the spin goes the wrong way, when he is given his portion of the blame for encouraging Bin Laden through his military retreat from Somalia or for allowing the terrorist to escape by refusing to put a kill order on him.
He thinks reality itself is being wrestled away from him, that he can wrestle it back and mold it into the shape he wants it to have.
But he’s wrong. That’s just “is” being is. That’s just “truth” bearing away the victory.