DON’T STOP THINKING ABOUT TOMORROW: The Clinton Legacy

Monday, August 21, 2000

What will be the legacy of William Jefferson Clinton? Will the Lewinski scandal and the impeachment define his presidency, or will people set those events aside and concentrate on his political achievements or lack thereof? How serious was Clinton’s misconduct in office? Was his domestic economic and political agenda a success or a failure? And how should we rate the foreign policy record of the Clinton administration?

Recorded on Monday, August 21, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, The Legacy of our 42nd President, William Jefferson Clinton. It's often said that journalism represents the first draft of history. If that's the case, then there's often quite a lot of rewriting between the first draft, and the history books themselves.

Consider a few of the first drafts. Lyndon Johnson, thought by many, perhaps even himself, to be a failure for his handling of the Vietnam War. Johnson was forced to withdraw from the 1968 Presidential race. Today, however, historians give Johnson a great deal of credit, particularly for his handling of civil rights and the war on poverty.

Richard Nixon, forced to resign from the White House in disgrace as a result of the Watergate scandal. Here again, historians today tend to give Richard Nixon credit, particularly for his foreign policy initiatives.

Which brings us to Bill Clinton. Will the Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton's impeachment dominate his legacy? Or will historians tend to set these events aside.

Joining us today, two of the journalists that helped to produce the first draft of the Clinton history. Henrick Hertzberg is the senior editor at the New Yorker Magazine. Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair Magazine and the author of the book about Bill Clinton, No One Left To Lie To.

Title: Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Peter Robinson: President Clinton has been impeached by the House of Representatives, has paid a fine of 90 thousand for lying under oath in a Federal Court, has made a payment of 850 thousand to settle an allegation of sexual harassment, has been sited by a D.C. judge for a criminal violation of the Privacy Act and is the subject of an Arkansas disbarment proceeding. Is it possible to put his obvious misconduct in a box and set it aside and evaluate the rest of his Presidency? Or, is his misconduct so central to his character and conduct as President that it has to color our view of his entire administration? Rick.

Hendrik Hertzberg: Well, I-I-I think the later. But, history is always more complicated in it's first draft. And, by the time history is written perhaps we'll understand how the two sides of Clinton's character were, in fact, one, and that somehow that risk taking, that recklessness of his was part of the whole picture. And his many accomplishments as President then may be seen in a different light.

Christopher Hitchens: I certainly agree that Clintonism, politically and Clintonism, personally are very intimately related. And-and I'm willing to agree also that history will be more nuanced. But history will have to go on than we do. And there's much still to be discovered about the sortedness and crookery of this President. And I think that more will be discovered. And it will shock people in a way that it didn't at the time when it was first proposed.

Peter Robinson: There's worse to come.

Christopher Hitchens: Certainly.

Peter Robinson: Alright. I'd like to get to the question of the domestic and foreign policy achievements in a moment. But first we simply have to deal with impeachment. Two views that have-at this stage of the game taken on the gloss of received truth. Number one, Clinton tampering with mis-with the witnesses, perjured himself, abused his office, and that the Senate failed to convicted him is in-the miscarriage of justice. View number two, Clinton was the victim of a vast right wing conspiracy, to use his wife's phrase. So what is it, on impeachment? Was Clinton more sinned against than sinning?

Hendrik Hertzberg: More sinned against than sinning. Yeah, I certainly think so. He-the sins he-the sins he committed were essentially private. The sins committed against him were-were public. And-and one result of it, I suppose, is that Presidents are-are pretty well inoculated against impeachment, atleast for another generation.

Peter Robinson: Christopher. More sinned against than sinning?

Christopher Hitchens: If-if the Oval Office is private, then it belongs to the President. And if that's true, then we live in a Banana Republic, which is how we would have lived if that had been allowed to pass. And how, I actually agree with Mr. Hertzberg about this, the raising of that bar, the number of the alibis that will be-and excused that will be available to future bad or corrupt or vital(?) presidents is va-vastly increased. And these are ba-these are excuses that have been made in a tight corner, for opportunists took(?) reasons(?) by president's defenders. And all of them are bogus.

Peter Robinson: Let's take a look at the argument that President Clinton was forced into perjury. The item that got the permitted Clinton to get had by Starr was that Clinton lied about the Monica Lewinsky matter when he was being deposed in the Paula Jones matter. Is that lie justifiable in some sense? Should that have been permitted to remain private? Or-or is the argument that he should never have been deposed in the Paula Jones?

Hendrik Hertzberg: Well, I-I think-I think both actually. He was-the-the lie was produced by a kind of enormous industry devoted to entrapping him. And it bare-it just, it succeeded, if only barely, in causing a crime, or a-a-a-an alleged crime to be committed. A crime which would never have been-which would never have happened without the machinery of exposure that it was devoted to.

Peter Robinson: The machinery was that-just what is the machinery that you saw in place at that point?

Hendrik Hertzberg: The-the Independent Councils Office, which had spent years in a fruitless search for incriminating evidence in the White Water case.

Peter Robinson: You wouldn't say that the special council was part of a vast right wing conspiracy. Was it duly appointed under-by the three-panel judge, under laws of the United States that the President himself had signed? That wasn't part of the conspiracy. It was just a mistake to have a-an independent council to spent that much time?

Hendrik Hertzberg: Well he was an independent council and then he was replaced by one who was a far more partisan figure.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So Starr, in your view, is partisan. That becomes a partisan operation when Starr gets appointed.

Hendrik Hertzberg: I think so. Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Right. Christopher.

Christopher Hitchens: From what I have learned about the President's depredations with-with woman, not flandering(?), crimes against woman, f-f-flirtation with major sexual crimes throughout his career, I find it astonishing that is was only on the relatively trivial matter of perjuring(?) that he finally got caught. I think he finds it astonishing too. In fact, I think he thinks, "After all I've got away with, it's almost injust-unjust to attack me for this minor one."

But, taking that minor one alone, the fact of the matters this-is as follows. The Supreme Court voted, nine to nil, that the President must answer questions about Ms. Jones' complaint. And Ms. Jones' complaint was brought-it was bringable under a clause in a Bill on Sexual Harassment, which the President had himself inserted into that Bill before signing it into law. So, for him to attempt to deceive a judge and a jury and-and his Cabinet and the entire population on that basis is to flirt with impeachment, and I think to be deservedly removed from office.

Peter Robinson: So if you had been in the House, you would have voted to impeach him?

Christopher Hitchens: Certainly. I would have voted-I would have wanted the Articles of Impeachment to include the abuse of power that was involved in the cover up.

Peter Robinson: Which the House, in fact, did not vote over to the Senate.

Christopher Hitchens: The House couldn't face the-the House couldn't face the evidence then. They weren't strong-one-the one line disproof of the right wing conspiracy; there were several one-line disproofs. But the strongest one is the-faced with the strongest evidence in the cover up, which was the use of cruise missiles in Sudan, promiscuous, private use by the President, ordering the-of a military strike overruling his commanders, he wanted to-he wanted to…

Peter Robinson: You better to-you better flesh that one out. Because this-this is actually an extremely serious allegation.

Christopher Hitchens: It is.

Peter Robinson: Flesh this one out.

Christopher Hitchens: I-I-it's a whole chapter in my book. But it goes like this. Some-somebody had to be bombed that week. And the fact that the United…

Peter Robinson: To distract attention from the impeachment proceedings.

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Right. And the fact that somebody had to be bombed that week is not proved by the fact that there might, or might not be a nerve gas factory in Sudan. Because even if there was one, it doesn't have to be bombed right away, not without a daymarch(?) being made to the Sudanese Government, not without an inspection and so forth. Such a facility can't, after all, be folded like a tent and moved away. And for this reason, the State Department, the CIA and the Defense Department, three-three out of five of the Joint Chiefs and anyone else within-within range of the decision being made was opposed to doing it. So the overruling, the promiscuous overruling by the President of all that advice in order that something be done to get to the balance in the opinion poles and a-a Presidential strut, a commander and chief like strut that we well know now in Washington to be true, was not something that the Republicans could possibly mention without, in a sense, overturning the whole apple cart of consensus. So that abuse of power is not charged in a way…

Peter Robinson: I'm sorry. I just don't follow that last bit about overturning the apple cart of consensus.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, it's not in the nature of the Republican Party in general to-to suggest that the military can be used as if we lived in a Banana Republic.

Peter Robinson: Even though, in this instance, it was used precisely that way.

Christopher Hitchens: Even though-even though that-that is and was their private field.

Peter Robinson: We bombed because they were-there was a plant in Sudan, ostensively a pharmaceutical plant that was in fact using chemicals that could be made into chemical weapons. Right? So we felt we had to take it out. And, in fact it's now, I think it's pretty much established on the public record that it was just a pharmaceutical plant. That it was a big mistake. Right?

Christopher Hitchens: That-and that was known at the time.

Peter Robinson: So you-your view is that it was an honest-you-you completely reject this whole notion that Clinton did that to get a balance in the poles.

Hendrik Hertzberg: I do reject that. Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Announcer: What does Rick think should have happened in the Lewinsky matter?

Title: When You Wish Upon A Starr

Peter Robinson: If you had been Ken Starr and had this matter brought to you, that the President lied under oath in a deposition, what would you have done with it? What was the-at that moment, what was the correct conduct?

Hendrik Hertzberg: To examine whether, in fact, that-that lie was a crime, which I don't think it was. It wasn't material to the case at hand.

Peter Robinson: So your view then is that the President's misconduct-you don't deny there was misconduct against his family and so forth. But even after all this discussion from brother Hitchens over here, it was essentially private in nature and should have been left that way.

Hendrik Hertzberg: It certainly had a public facet to it, but-but this is not the s-the kind of a fence that is generally prosecuted. It's extremely unusual, perhaps even unprecedented for-for pre-verification of this kind to be made so much of.

Peter Robinson: And, much was made of it just because the special council had spent years and millions of dollar-they had to get him on something. There was such intense pressure to get him.

Hendrik Hertzberg: So it seems to me.

Christopher Hitchens: Let's remember the way which this special council, this demonic figure got hold of or attached the Lewinsky matter to his ongoing investigation. He had been inquiring into the case of Mr. Webster Hubble, one of Mr. Clinton's choicer friends from Arkansas, vulgar crook who was brought to the Deputy Attorney General at the Justice Department. Mr. Hubble was going strait to jail, was pretty much useless as anybody's attorney. But at that moment started to receive quite a large subventions from private companies in his capacity as their legal advisory, one of which was the Revlon Company. And it seems that Mr. Vettenger(?) went and had got him some Revlon work as the jail doors were about to close on him. And there was the suspicion that this might be what's commonly called "hush money." We now also know that Mr. Clinton, after a long meeting that was not then known to anyone but James Riady, front man for the Indonesian Dictatorship of the Chinese military industrial complex. Gave him a large private check, in the oval office. And that's-two days after Mr. Riady also gives Mr. Hubble a check.

Well, as you know, the private matter of Monica Lewinsky involved finding her a job at the Pentagon, finding her a job at the United States office of the United Nations, finding her another job in the White House and, if that couldn't be done, finding her a job in the private sector, to be precise, with the Revlon Company. So when that sh-evidentiary trail presented itself, the special prosecutor would have been in-absolutely delinquent, should have himself been removed and impeached, if he hadn't pursued it.

And, what is extraordinary is that by pulling on that one tiny thread such enormous edifice of corruption and jobbery and deceit and abuse of power could be revealed. I suggest that it is exactly the triviality of this scandal that shows how gruesome the intestines of the Clinton Presidency were. Because the smallest thing can illuminate so much corrupt practice.

Announcer: Let's turn to Bill Clinton's domestic policy.

Title: Domestic Squabbles

Peter Robinson: President Clinton at the Democratic National Convention quote: "Today, after 7 1/2 years of hard ef-effort, we're in the midst of the largest economic expansion in history. More than twenty-two million new jobs. The lowest unemployment in history. Today we have gone from the largest deficits in history to the largest surpluses in history."

Christopher Hitches, doesn't the creation of twenty-two million new jobs in 7 ½ years tend to overweight the Monica Lewinsky matter?

Christopher Hitchens: I'm not a job creator or-myself, or an economist-it's-really at all. But, I mean, here we are sitting in Sircom(?) Valley, which we have been seeing a lot of-of this period. And where there's, indeed, been a tremendous boom. Capitalism appears to have managed to produce not thanks to any prediction of mine, a third industrial revolution. I'm not aware of any credit Mr. Clinton can take for this. And, even if he could, I'd-it will-it will not outweigh the fact, or it won't obscure the fact, or it doesn't compensate for the fact, it wouldn't excuse the fact that he's abused his office, that he's corrupted the American political process, that he's-that he's lied and that he's used his office to impose himself on his female staff.

Peter Robinson: So, Bill Clinton takes credit for economic growth during his administration. And it's one more whopper.

Hendrik Hertzberg: Well, it is customary for a President who's been in power for eight years to be granted some…

Peter Robinson: (?) (?) on things?

Hendrik Hertzberg: …to be granted some small-some small amount of credit for the status quo, whatever it may be. And Clinton has achieved, or atleast the United States has achieved an old liberal dream, which is a full employment economy.

Peter Robinson: This is a weak argument so far, Rick. He could have lollygagging around in the rose garden with who knows-getting up to who knows what trouble, while all this was taking place in the country, unaided by him.

Hendrik Hertzberg: Well…

Peter Robinson: I mean, do you give him credit for more than keeping out of the way of an economic boom?

Hendrik Hertzberg: Well, Tom DeLay and Company, when-when-when Clinton's original economic plan was passed all said, "Well, this is going to lead to disaster. Don't blame us. We-we-we-we don't want any-we don't a-any responsibility for-for the catastrophe that's about to engulf the country as a result of this economic plan," which was passed without a single Republican vote.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Hendrik Hertzberg: And which reversed the indebtedness of the country, transformed the biggest deficits in history to the biggest surpluses. It's-it's-means something.

Peter Robinson: But the first affect of it was Pre-President Clinton said that they passed this plan to lower interest rates. And the first affect was that interest rates went up. And they continued to go up until the Republicans were elected to recap-the Republicans recaptured the House in 1994. Dow moves only anemically during the President's first year and a half or so in office, from a little over 3000 to a little under 4000. Only when the Republicans come in make it clear that he's not going to be able to carry out his health care plans that he's not going to be able to the stimulus package. Only then do the-do the markets take off. It's r-Tom DeLay and the House Republicans, who added the last six thousand points to the Dow. I put it to you, Mr. Hertzberg.

Hendrik Hertzberg: That may be. But that it's Bill Clinton and his-and his circle who created all those jobs and-and created full employment.

Christopher Hitchens: Not to recur to the later unpleasantness, but there is a co-there is a sense at which the reason the President escaped impeachment was the long co-Presidency that he and Mr. Gingrich enjoyed. And if anyone's been micromanaging the economy from day to day and can say that they've been paying constant attention to it, if-a claim the President can't possibly make because he wasted atleast a year of his and everyone else's time on his own private affairs, it would Alan Greenspan, that person. And Mr. Alan Greenspan is a supporter of the-of the whacko(?) cult of Inrand(?). And I don't really think the author of the fountainhead gets the credit for this boom either.

Peter Robinson: On the economic front, did Bill Clinton do anything that approached, in importance, the single act of reappointing Alan Greenspan as Chairman of the Federal Reserve?

Hendrik Hertzberg: I think so. Yeah. I think that-that reversing the-reversing the-the deficits was important. I think that the-that reversing-reversing the growth of poverty rates was important, the earned income tax credit.

Peter Robinson: Almost all the-almost all the decrease in federal spending that did so much to produce the surpluses took place in the defense budget. And you get to decrease the defense after you win the cold war, which took place before he even got to office. So, all he's doing is skating along, coasting along on the accomplishments of Ronald Wilson Regan and George Herbert Walker Bush.

Hendrik Hertzberg: Well, then-then-then why don't we go back to my old boss, Jimmy Carter, and give him all the credit because he-he…

Peter Robinson: He does deserve some. He deregulated gas and oil. He be-he started things…

Hendrik Hertzberg: And he appointed Paul Voker(?). And Paul Voker(?) begat Alan Greenspan.

Christopher Hitchens: And he lead Russians into Afghanistan, without which they might'nt have got their paw bitten off. So, there are plenty of ironies…

Announcer: Next topic: Bill Clinton's foreign policy.

Title: It's All Foreign to Me

Peter Robinson: Foreign policy. Now, here we come to your bortfo-portfolio, in a sense Rick. Once again, President Clinton at the Democratic National Convention quote: "The American military is the best trained, best equipped and most effective fighting force in the world. They have shown that time and again in Bosnia, Kosovo, in Haiti and in Iraq." You give him high marks on these peacekeeping missions. Do you not?

Hendrik Hertzberg: On pe-peace keeping missions and-and even more on peace making missions. I mean, I'm-I'm not-I'm not entirely happy with every aspect of the Clinton Ad-Administration. I feel, sitting next to my friend Christopher compelled to-to take the other side. I'd like to have a more balanced view where-where they're a more fully-fledged member of the right wing conspiracy, sitting next to me. But, in general, I think Clinton has left the world a better place than he found it.

Peter Robinson: In foreign policy, particularly.

Hendrik Hertzberg: Foreign policy. I mean, there are opportunities not taken. But, I think that many of-many of those opportunities not taken are the result of an American political system which-which doesn't give us a single government, but several go-several governments that have to pull together to get anything done. And-and as you pointed out, two of those governments have been controlled for-for six years by the-two of those three governments have been controlled by the Republicans for six years.

Peter Robinson: You find the foreign policy record com-compelling?

Christopher Hitchens: I was in the horrible position of touring with my book, which as you know, makes the charge-the grave charge against the President that he did wag the dog in Sudan, at the time when the decision to reverse the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by force was made. And the reason I say it was a horrible position was that I had to defend the President and did at a time when a lot of people were publicly saying they thought it looked like wag the dog, which I thought it definitely was not. Because it was concerted with the European allies and came out of a long process of reasoning about what should be done about the-the mad plan to establish a greater Serbia.

Mr. Clinton was elected having said, in 1992, that he would do something about Haiti. And that he would do something about Bosnia where he made a-an observation of the sort you can't take back, by comparing it to the final solution. And I think you've crossed a line when you say that. That's-that's not campaign rhetoric. That means you've got to do something. He didn't do anything about either thing. For a very, very long time he dithered and hesitated. But, in the end I did think he did do the right thing. But…

Peter Robinson: In both Haiti and Kosovo?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. In-in both-yes, and-and Bosnia.

Peter Robinson: And Bosnia?

Christopher Hitchens: Yeah. I don't think the bombing of-the Christmas bombing of Iraq-the impeachment bombing of Iraq can be defended. And, in fact, nobody does. And that's another disgrace too deep for shame, really.

But, he raises a very interesting question, which was raised, in fact, by another matter at the onset of this administration, which is his role as commander and chief, as civilian commander, he buckled to the joint chiefs of staff and to the Pentagon on a civilian matter. Question of whether or not you can be a homosexual and serve under your country's flag, where he very clearly promised in his campaign that he would say that you could be. He let the military take that away from him. I thought-what everyone thinks about this, you know, homosexuals in the military, the was a defeat for civilian control for (?).

He let Colin Powell, for a very long time, much too long; determine policy on Bosnia and on Haiti. And then when the military was right, in other words, in the case of Sudan, and he was wrong, he exerted his civilian authority in a corrupt manner. But nothing can be more important than the question of civilian control. It's the reason we remember Harry Truman as a great President. And on that very crucial constitutional and character matter the President's behavior in office was, as in every other respect, disgraceful.

Peter Robinson: Disgraceful?

Christopher Hitchens: Disgraceful.

Peter Robinson: Well, take it all and all. How do you grade his foreign policy, among recent…?

Christopher Hitchens: Moderately Republican.

Peter Robinson: Moderatr-moderately Republican.

Christopher Hitchens: NATO-politan. I personally-I'm not a fan of NATO enlargement. I think it's gro-grossly over rated. And I think it's also very-very deviously politically motivated. And I think that the opportunity is missed in-in what was, after all, the first long, serious post cold war Presidency, a two term Presidency. The opportunities missed in Russia and with China have been gigantic and may not recur. Without…

Announcer: Last topic. Why are the American people still so taken with William Jefferson Clinton?

Title: The People's Court.

Peter Robinson: What ever we say about Bill Clinton, we do have a little problem. What ever you say about Bill Clinton, you do have a little problem of his public approval ratings. He got reelected. His job approval ratings soared during the impeachment.

Christopher Hitchens: No problem to me.

Peter Robinson: It-it-how do you account for what Bill Sapphire has called "The attachment of this great nation to this un-great man"?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, it wouldn't be the first time. I mean, it took-it took a lot to persuade people that Richard Milhouse Nixon was a crook. It took a lot-a great deal to persuade people that Ronald Wilson Regan was mentally and physically, obviously morally unfit for the office. There is a…

Peter Robinson: I remain un-persuaded.

Christopher Hitchens: There is a-there is a-well-I-I-I know at the onset when I see it. And I did see it in Washington, that was it. There is, in this country, and I think it's a dangerous and regrettable tendency, but a very marked and-strongly marked one, a tendency to find the President innocent, or direct to hope that he is. I think it's natural. After all, we live in a rather depoliticized culture. If people become convinced that the President is a crook or a psychopath, it means they'll have to go to meetings and get-they-they've fa-they've failed to delegate politics to the professionals. Therefore, when they can, they'll find the President innocent. And that's a consistent tendency in people wa-people willing to believe Vide President Bush was out of the loop on Iran/Contra. A-a quite an unbelievable proposition, but a very politically convenient one for those who want to lead apolitical lives. It doesn't alter the evidence.

Peter Robinson: You're making statements to which I feel the impulse to answer, but don't have time. So-so Clinton's popularity is a result of kind of vague good will intermixed with laziness on the part of the American people.

Hendrik Hertzberg: I think it's a-I think it's a result of what Christopher, in a previous incarnation might have called objective conditions. Things-things have-things have actually improved for…

Peter Robinson: We are better off than we we're eight years ago.

Hendrik Hertzberg: We are better off. And we're better off morally as well as economically. Because we-because we have moved toward a fairer kind of society. Christopher mentioned the-the issue of gays in the military. Clinton, after eight years of Clinton, the position of gays is fundamentally different from what it was eight years ago. Yeah, he got-he got sandbagged on the gays in the military issue. And if he hadn't made a kind of tactical retreat on that he would have been-he would have-Congress would have enacted a-a ban on gays in the military. But, the big picture is that we-is that, at George Bush's convention, he felt compelled to have a gay speaker. The prayer-the prayers of the Texas delegation not withstanding. And we've-we've come-we've-it's a fundamentally different country when it comes to-to use that word inclusion.

Peter Robinson: Christopher Hitchens, Rick Hertzberg, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: The continuing first draft of history on Bill Clinton. As we taped this show, his approval ratings remained high, indicating the American people are willing to set his misconduct aside. But as our guests indicated, historians may not find it so simple. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.