Clinton's complicated legacy

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

How will history judge the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton? We can, of course, only guess. Any speculation we might offer now is bound to tell us more about our present-day concerns than it will about how his legacy will look through future eyes. The sort of consensus that shapes history will only emerge after many years and unforeseeable events have marched past.

Nevertheless, one can identify a few key aspects of Clinton's presidency that are likely to draw the attention of future historians -- who will no doubt assign them relative importance according to tomorrow's pressing concerns. With President Clinton on his way out, it seems only polite to begin with the areas in which he seems likely to be judged favorably:

Globalization -- Clinton's presidency coincided with the accelerating integration of the world's economies, a movement in which he has played a decisive and formative role. And while globalization has been the subject of controversy at home and abroad, it is clearly inevitable. Through agreements such as NAFTA and through his strong advocacy of United States membership in the World Trade Organization, Clinton helped move the debate from the increasingly moot question of whether or not globalization should go forward and toward the more productive one of what form it should assume.

The American Economy -- At the same time, Clinton helped set the stage for an unprecedented run of economic good fortune that is only now slowing. Though some deny him full credit because his decision to cut the deficit was urged on him by Alan Greenspan, it should be pointed out that his presidential predecessors received much the same advice. It was Clinton, often justly derided for his lack of political backbone, who found the will to do so and, in so doing, made possible the interest-rate cuts that proved to be such an effective spur to growth.

Kosovo -- Taken as a whole, the Allied track record in the Balkans is not an especially proud one. Too much time passed and too many lives were lost before conscience forced action. But Clinton deserves credit for the lead role he took in finally bringing NATO's power to bear against Slobodan Milosevic, an action taken over substantial congressional opposition. On the downside, history might well note that Clinton left to his successors the hard work of articulating a coherent doctrine for this kind of use of force.

The future will decide if these noteworthy achievements come to outweigh the succession of scandals and subsequent impeachment that seems destined to provide the first paragraph of his political biography (regardless of whether history ultimately assigns more blame to him or to his political persecutors). The Monica Lewinsky episode inflicted real harm on not only Clinton -- robbing his administration of political capital that could have been put to far more productive use -- but on the country as a whole. The toll is difficult to measure, as it can only be counted in opportunities lost.

What's more, his actions further diminished the office of the presidency. In a nation where the head of state and the head of government reside in the same person, it bears mentioning that Clinton's self-serving defense hastened the demise of presidential moral authority first set in motion by Vietnam and Watergate.

Bill Clinton's presidency was as complicated as the man himself, and any future historical judgment will likely reflect this. Looking back on the past eight years, though -- the good and the bad -- Winston Churchill might have supplied the most apt characterization: "This pudding has no theme."

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

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