The "Legacy" Legacy
By A. D. Freudenheim

14 January 2001

With less than a week remaining until President-Elect Bush is sworn into office, we the historical tributes to outgoing President Clinton have vigorously begun. Assessments of his eight years in office have appeared in publications too numerous to count, with some of the more notable or lengthy ones appearing in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Newsweek; and The Washington Post.

Not bad for a man who hasn't even left office. It is true that Clinton has been in office for a long time, that he has been a controversial and sometimes divisive leader, and that his impact on national policy will surely to be felt for years. Yet it also seems premature to begin assessing his "legacy," the same way it would be ridiculous to speak of the incoming Bush administration as already having set itself up for four years of failure, given the fifty-fifty split in the Senate, the withdrawal of Linda Chavez's nomination for Labor Secretary, and the growing storm about John Ashcroft, Gale Norton, and other Cabinet appointees. It is simply poor history - and historiography - to attempt to evaluate the Clinton legacy in this fashion.

At the same time, it is a deeply appealing idea, and one understands intuitively why so many of these articles have appeared, and will continue to over the next few months. There is an obvious sense of nostalgia growing for President Clinton (at least among the media). After so many years, Clinton will be forced off the scene by a new administration, and interesting though the Bush transition may be, the machinations of this new administration may not feel as thrilling as the adventures that we have had with the old one. Nostalgia sells: it is an opportunity for rumination on and the resurrection of Clinton's political and personal ghosts for fun and profit; good headlines, never in short supply during the Clinton administration, can still be had.

There's nothing inherently wrong with examining the last eight years, but only if we look further back in history at the same time. Just as we now reflect on the incoming administration's troubles in the context of the problems Clinton faced in 1992 - for example, Zoë Baird's nanny troubles must be resurrected as Linda Chavez meets a similar fate - we should also strive to see further than Clinton's own eight years, and beyond the administration of Bush Senior as well, in order to examine Clinton's foreign and domestic policy legacy and to consider what might be different for the new administration.

Take Iraq as an example, since it has become au courant to wonder if President-elect Bush will attempt to settle the score left over from his father's war there in 1991, and which festered as a sore throughout Clinton's two terms. From a current journalistic perspective, our foreign policy history with Iraq dates to the 1990-1991 invasion of Kuwait and subsequent war, and then flows into some eight years of inconsistent American and United Nations attempts to impose sanctions, conduct weapons inspections, and limit further military actions within Iraqi territorial boundaries. Yet over the last 40 years, Iraq has not only been seen as a United States enemy, because of its pseudo-socialist Ba'ath party and its Soviet alliances, but also as an ally, a necessary secularist bulwark against the fundamentalism of post-Shah Iran, and a faithful supplier of much-needed crude oil. Without a better historical context for Iraqi history, and our foreign policy in the post-World War II period, any attempts to pin a lasting legacy on Clinton will miss the mark.

What we have been left with instead is a "legacy" of an altogether different type; a limited perspective that serves to narrow our historical scope to a game of political tit for tat, we have been reduced to viewing our history - and even more frighteningly, the world's history - in the context of presidential terms of office. When Clinton was running for his first term, and after he was elected, much to-do was made over his intense historical interests as he devoured books on both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, on the Kennedy administration, and on different aspects of United States and world history. He sought out historians and advisors to past presidents, and a picture emerged of a man deeply hungry for a better understanding of his new office, and of the world around him - a hunger clearly greater than the one he showed for Big Macs, though this often received equal billing. President Clinton intuitively seemed to understand that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it. In retrospect it may also seem that he was not as good at taking his own advice as he might have been. We as a nation, with our journalists on the front lines of reporting (and interpreting) the news of the present day, must do a better job at learning from history - surely we owe it to President Clinton, and more importantly to ourselves, not to allow our vain and limited pseudo-historical analyses to get us into trouble in the future.

Copyright 2001, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.