Blogs > Cliopatria > Clinton Library

Nov 20, 2004 3:33 pm

Clinton Library

I was busy this week answering reporters' questions about the Clinton library.

The number one question of course involved that woman. How would history judge Clinton given that he had sexual relations with Monica in the Oval Office?

It's been four years since the public gave any thought to this question. Funny, despite 9-11 and Iraq and everything else we've been through, people gave the same answers now that they gave before. When I got into an argument with a judge on Fox about Clinton's legacy I felt like I was trapped in some Groundhog Day Bill Murray nightmare. What, this again?

The anchor wanted to know if the library's take on the scandal--that it was a fight by the rightwing to overturn the election they lost at the ballot box--was what "history" would say. The judge answered that Clinton broke the law when he provided false testimony in the Paula Jones case and admitted he broke the law, which cost him his license to practice law in Arkansas for 5 years. Being careful not to make predictions--historians can't even agree on the past, let alone predict the future--I said I have no idea what "history" will say. But I went so far as to indicate that historians will want to discover whether impeachment so absorbed Clinton's time in 1998 that he was forced to neglect other serious business--like fighting terrorism, say. The judge of course disapproved of my approach. Clinton broke the law after all and he was the nation's top law enforcer ... and here we go again.

What I should have said is that we can probably safely say that the impeachment battle will be largely remembered as partisan. The voting in the House of Representatives was strictly along partisan lines. In the Senate nearly a dozen Republicans voted with the Democrats to oppose impeachment. Not only did the Republicans fail to win the necessary 2/3rds to convict Clinton, they coudn't even garner a simple majority. I wish I had said this and I was ready to say this. But when the anchor came back to me it was to say good-bye not to let me have one more bite. As we went to a commercial break I at last had the satisfaction of making my point to the anchorman. But that wasn't nearly as satisfying as it would have ben to parry the judge's line on live TV.

On another show the anchor asked if we don't already know everything there is to know about Clinton. I said no, we don't, despite the best efforts of Matt Drudge to drudge up the worst.

A common misperception is that because we know more about our presidents today than, say, 100 years ago, that therefore history's judgment is much more likely to reflect the judgment rendered by contemporaries. But this isn't true and betrays a misunderstanding of history. History isn't just about facts, it is about the sorting of facts--and knowing which facts to look for and emphasize.

On January 20, 2001 as Bill Clinton left the presidency no one assessing his legacy thought to comment on his attempts to fight terrorism. But within a week of 9-11 that was all a lot of people commenting on Clinton could think to do. Was Clinton to blame for 9-11 people wanted to know. Subsequent events in other words shaped the way we looked at the events with which we were already familiar--as they always do.

Lucky for Clinton, he wrote his memoirs after 9-11. Imagine if he had written them before. My guess is he hardly would have mentioned terrorism. That in itself would have been regarded as evidence that he had neglected the subject while president. (Note to Clinton historians: see if you can find an outline of his memoirs written before 9-11. It is vital to discover if it included a chapter on fighting terrorism.)

1998, the year of his impeachment, will always loom large, casting a shadow over his presidency. But suppose historians discover that the price of that partisan impeachment was Clinton's not acting to stem terrorism? That would make his partisan impeachment seem a lot worse than just comically inept and misguided, as it appeared to many at the time. It will instead be regarded as a damning diversion of the nation's attention from issues that may well have cost this country thousands of innocent lives.

I can remember in February 1999 when the Senate took up the impeachment case that a lot of people regarded it as opera bouffe since the result of the trial was foreordained. I never thought it was opera bouffe. Anytime you distract the presidency the costs will be high.

Clinton of course maintained at the time and maintains in his memoirs that he did not let impeachment distract him. But how could it not?

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Jonathan Dresner - 11/23/2004

Particularly with the Speaker of the House so close to the head of the succession line: two quick impeachments and POOF, change of government.

HNN - 11/22/2004

Interesting question.

Harding should have been impeached, but he died. The Republican congress no doubt would have given him a free ride.

LBJ lied us into war and lied about shifting from the defense to the offense in Vietnam in 1965. Maybe he should have been impeached. But he too had the benefit of a majority in Congress.

It's probably a good thing that impeachment has been rare. Once unleashed it could become a deadly tool in the hands of opposition congresses. I shudder to think what would happen if it became common.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/22/2004

If Clinton, with a Republican congress, had tried what Bush has tried, impeachment wouldn't have failed. How often in history have presidents gotten away with what should have been impeachable offenses because their allies controlled Congress?