• U.S.

Clinton’s Last Campaign

9 minute read
Karen Tumulty and Jay Branegan

In his early days as President, when it seemed as though great things were still possible, Bill Clinton steeped himself in the histories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But as he prepares for his sixth State of the Union speech next week, this President, so publicly fixated on the 21st century, is spending his private hours pondering the quiescent, almost forgotten stretches of the 19th, the times Clinton calls “fallow periods.” The biographies he has devoured lately include those of such unimpressive Chief Executives as Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant. He even had adviser Sidney Blumenthal dig up a copy of what passed for a State of the Union address when the hapless John Quincy Adams sought to steady his presidency.

Clinton seems to be searching for the periods most like our own, forged less in crisis than in change. The President says he is trying to understand the seemingly contradictory forces roiling political debate in America today: prosperity and anxiety. It’s partly a teaching exercise. Clinton hopes his interpretation of this moment will help him guide Americans through it. But it is also an attempt to give meaning to his presidency. Clinton, who lives to campaign, is embarking on his last one: the campaign to put his own headline on the story of his presidency, to get ahead of historians before they get ahead of him. “I think the American people intuitively understand this is a big and different time,” he said last week in an interview with TIME. “I’d like to try to explain it a little more.”

This might have been Clinton’s easiest State of the Union yet. As the Republicans drift, he is riding a wave of popularity that is beginning to look permanent. Last week’s TIME/CNN poll showed his approval rating at 59%, and it has not dipped below 50% in the past two years. He has quieted talk about his being disengaged (and having a golf fixation) by rolling out a string of popular new proposals, even as he promises to produce a balanced budget three years ahead of schedule. The speech is his chance to transcend Paula Jones, independent counsels and campaign fund raising.

Yet Clinton’s very struggle to define his presidency may be the best evidence that it eludes the coherence he so desperately wants to give it. Would Ronald Reagan ever have needed to explain his significance to historians? In the TIME/CNN poll, 52% of the respondents ranked Reagan among the good or great Presidents, but only 34% felt that way about Clinton. The largest share, 48%, rated him average. They say this even while a 64% majority acknowledge that Clinton has accomplished at least as much for the country as Reagan did, or more. Critics of Clinton will undoubtedly say that a President with flexible beliefs, who once polled voters to decide where he should go on vacation, deserves history’s inattention. Which is why with the end of his presidency in sight and the realization that a lame duck’s influence drops precipitously after his sixth year, Clinton and his advisers are feeling the shadow of Reagan and urgently pondering the question, What is Clintonism? “We’ve been out there moving the ship in a very good direction, but we haven’t had any navigational charts,” concedes White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

In trying to give shape to what he stands for, Clinton still has trouble getting beyond a mere accounting of his accomplishments. Asked last week how he would define Clintonism, the President showed how far he has gone and how far he still has to go for an answer. He rambled through school uniforms, empowerment zones, Americorps and even the fact that he established a National Economic Council in the White House. Finally, coming around to his inability to win over his own party to the promise of free trade, he conceded, “I do think that I’ve got to try to tie all these things we have done, plus the things we propose to do, in one place.”

And so, as in other moments of perplexity, Clinton recently summoned a group of academics, historians, writers and philosophers to the White House for what has come to be known as a “thinkers dinner.” Even for Clinton, the Renaissance Weekend veteran, this was an eclectic gathering. It included 87-year-old political scientist Samuel Beer, who on his first visit to the White House shook hands with a newly inaugurated Warren Harding and years later wrote speeches for F.D.R.; lapsed conservative Michael Lind, whose literary credits include an epic poem on the siege at the Alamo; Dan Yergin, an energy expert who has lately been extolling the virtues of the global economy; and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, one of the first social scientists to identify the serious, long-term costs of divorce.

Discussion over coffee turned to the question of whose vision of America was right for today: Alexander Hamilton’s–he saw a big economy guided by self-interest and a muscular national government–or Thomas Jefferson’s–he championed responsibility to society and mistrusted taking too much power away from individuals and their communities. Hamilton seemed to be carrying the argument, until Harvard professor Michael Sandel happened to notice whose portrait hung on the dimly lit wall of the Blue Room and whose marble memorial cast a moonlike glow across the Ellipse. Yes, Sandel said, Hamilton’s influence endures in the profit-driven society that Hamilton helped shape. But it is Jefferson to whom the country built a monument. Clinton sat at the end of the table, silent but listening hard.

What Jefferson understood, Sandel argued, was the feelings of apprehension and powerlessness that went along with building the greatest economy in the history of the world. It is a tension that Clinton is giving more thought to since last fall, when he suffered the biggest defeat of his second term: Congress’s refusal to give him the “fast track” authority he sought to negotiate more NAFTA-like trade deals. Former White House aide Bill Galston, who attended the dinner, says Clinton is convinced the defeat was not a failure of tactics or the work of interest groups but rather a reflection of the deeper unease Americans are experiencing as they try to root their lives in the churning global economy.

This year promises a string of new battles over globalism, whether in the form of expanding NATO, staying in Bosnia or bailing out Asian markets. Already it appears that Clinton will have to abandon his promise to revisit the trade issue this spring if he is to have any hope of winning on the more pressing question of new funding for the International Monetary Fund to stabilize Asia. In the interview, Clinton said he has not made a “final decision” on whether winning one means losing the other.

The President once exhorted the country to plunge headlong into global commerce and diplomacy, to “embrace this change and make it our friend.” He scoffed that “yesterday is yesterday. If we try to recapture it, we will only lose tomorrow.” He didn’t appreciate then that most people find the future scary. As he said last week, “I’ve learned more, I think, about how to communicate with the American people, how to blend showing the connections of the present moment to the past and the enduring values of the country.”

Talk, however soothing, will go only so far. Thus virtually every day since Christmas, the White House has sprung a new policy proposal. Some are big, like giving 62- to 64-year-olds a chance to buy into Medicare, and spending nearly $22 billion more on child care. Others, like expanding college work-study grants and training more computer programmers, are relatively modest. Clinton is also talking more seriously about confronting Social Security’s solvency crisis. What all these plans have in common is that they seek to give ballast to a nation sailing through choppy waters.

If Clinton is obsessed with the future, it may be because, when he becomes one of the youngest ex-Presidents, he can expect so much more. In off-the-cuff remarks at a late-night Houston fund raiser earlier this month, Clinton suddenly broke into a disquisition on the movie Amistad and the heroic role that John Quincy Adams played as an ex-President. One line about Adams seemed to have struck home with the current Chief Executive: “Is there anything as pathetic as an ex-President?” Clinton told the crowd, “I’ll try to beat the odds.”

With that in mind, the most earnest student of history to inhabit the Oval Office since Woodrow Wilson has surrounded himself with his predecessors. Clinton keeps at his bedside two old volumes comparing presidential campaigns so he can read them slowly and savor them; he has stocked the library next to the Oval Office with enough presidential biographies to make it what he calls “a history of the American presidency.”

How will future editions assess his eight years in office? He is already so sensitive to the question and what it implies, aides say, that the mere sight of the word legacy in print is enough to trigger an eruption of the famous Clinton temper. He knows well that, as historian Michael Beschloss notes, “most Presidents are really not in the heroic mode.” To be one of the greats requires surmounting a crisis on the scale of the Civil War or the Great Depression, or having ideas strong enough to change the way an entire nation thinks.

It is “history’s practical joke,” says Beschloss, that a man who so admires activism became President in the tranquil, prosperous ’90s. Political survival has required him to tack left and right, bending to the times, and diluting the power of any convictions he may claim to have. But Clinton believes he can still be the one who turns the nation’s face to its future. “To me, it could hardly be more exciting for the United States, because things are going well for us. We know there are challenges on the horizon, and yet we have the luxury of meeting them without some ominous threat,” he said. Those words will probably never find their way onto a monument, but then again, not every legacy has to be engraved in stone.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com