The Magazine

BILL CLINTON, HISTORIAN

Jul 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 42 • By PETER WEHNER
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IN THE MIDST OF ALL HIS OTHER ACTIVITIES, one thing continues to preoccupy Bill Clinton: his frantic attempt to remake himself and rewrite history. Consider some of his more recent statements.


On June 25, President Clinton held a news conference during which a reporter asked if he took any personal responsibility for polarizing the country and generating antagonism. The president accepted none. Instead, he said, "I think generally in our country's history, that people who are progressive, people who try to change things, people who keep pushing the envelope, have generally elicited very strong, sometimes personally hostile, negative reaction. You read some of the things people said about President Roosevelt -- in retrospect, because of the magnificent job he did, and because of the historic consequences of the time in which he served and what he did for America, we tend to think that everybody was for him. That's not true."


In a June 11 interview, PBS's Jim Lehrer asked Clinton about Senator Chuck Hagel's assertion that the president has debased the currency of trust and that he'll never get it back. In response, Clinton said that "elements of the other party" have devoted the better part of the last seven years to "attacking me personally because they knew the American people agreed with my ideas." About his critics he said, "they have just been mad ever since I won because a lot of them really never believed there would be another Democrat in their lifetime." They are left with nothing but "personal attacks" when the country does well, "but that's not good for America. I don't attack them personally." The president went on to say that "on one occasion, much to my eternal regret, I gave them a little ammunition. But I have been trustworthy in my public obligations to the American people. And I have been trustworthy in my dealings with them."


In a March 31 interview with CBS's Dan Rather, the president declared that he wasn't troubled at all by the fact that he was impeached. "I do not regard this impeachment vote as some great badge of shame," he said. He then cast himself as a defender of the Constitution against those who would dishonor it. "I am honored that something that was indefensible was pursued and that I had the opportunity to defend the Constitution."


During a March 19 press conference, Clinton, when asked about his legacy of lying, said young people will learn from his experience that "even presidents have to" tell the truth. He then added this: "But I also think that there will be a box score, and there will be that one negative, and then there will be the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times when the record will show that I did not abuse my authority as president, that I was truthful with the American people; and scores and scores of allegations were made against me -- most of them have already been actually proved false."


What is the president saying?


He made one minor mistake. The president insists that the Lewinsky scandal was an isolated incident, a personal failure that was inappropriate but ultimately unimportant, and that it should certainly not affect how we view the rest of his presidency. (Clinton's reference to the Lewinsky scandal as "that one negative" calls to mind a comment by former Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who said that if you set aside the district's record high murder rate, it was a pretty safe city.)


The president of the United States had a squalid affair with a young intern. Instead of admitting to it, he lied repeatedly to his wife, daughter, aides, cabinet, party, lawyers, and countrymen. He sent out his defenders to spread his lies and attack those who told the truth. He dragged the country through impeachment hearings, divided the nation, and tarnished the presidency. Far from being an aberration, the Lewinsky scandal in many ways embodies Clinton's private and public character.


He has expressed his remorse. Last fall the president gave a speech in which he said he had sinned. In his mind that admission was sufficient. Now the matter should be closed; after all, it was time to move on.