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Why I'll Miss Bill Clinton

By Ross G. Douthat

With every day that drags by in the chad-infested swampland of South Florida, home to pundits, protestors and ballot-counting functionaries, one thing has become increasingly clear.

I'm going to miss Bill Clinton.

In fact, I'll miss him a lot. And this troubles me.

I shouldn't miss him, certainly. The silver-haired, silver-tongued son of the South, with his appetite for political power, greasy food and big-haired women, has presided over an administration whose sleaze and mediocrity have been well-suited to our meretricious, self-satisfied epoch. Clinton has thrived in a time when Americans are more interested in the color of money than the content of their leaders' character, and so we have allowed Slick Willie's solid economic stewardship to trump his betrayals of trust, the corruption of his cronies and his outrageously sordid personal life.

I know I won't miss the sleaze: the selling of the Lincoln bedroom, the shakedowns of Chinese arms dealers and the after-hours frolics in the Oval Office. Nor will I miss the policies, from the self-righteous "gays in the military" gambit, to Hillary's baggy monster of a health care plan, to Clinton's recklessly risk-averse foreign policy, which conducted cowardly "virtual wars" from the skies above Belgrade and Baghdad, while coddling a tinpot dictator in Pyongyang and a collection of tyrants in Beijing. Nor, finally, will I miss the hangers-on and toadies who filled the Clinton White House, and who increasingly came to resemble a dysfunctional mob family--the Corleones or the Sopranos, by way of Little Rock and the Democratic Leadership Council. There were the thugs and the buttonmen--the ruthless James Carville, the self-righteous Paul Begala and the detestable ex-journalist Sid Blumenthal--all of whom treated politics as war and were ready to "go to the mattresses" at the drop of a subpoena. Adieu, gentlemen! And adieu, as well, to Vernon Jordan, the dapper consigliere; Albright and Reno, female bodyguards for the Little Rock Don; and George Stephanopoulos, lackey-turned-traitor-turned-pundit, who played Fredo to Clinton's Michael Corleone, and broke his brother's heart.

No, I will miss none of them, any more than I will miss Jesse Jackson praying with the First Family, or those interminable State of the Unions, or Hillary!, as her campaign posters called her... although Hillary!, it seems, will be with us a trifle longer yet.

But I will miss the man himself. Frankly, I think everyone will, even the conspiracy theorists, the impeachment managers and the betrayed leftists who rallied around Ralph Nader's granola-munching march to irrelevance. We will miss him because in an age of small men, when lackluster eldest sons duel for the presidency and petty time-servers scrabble for scraps in Congress, Bill Clinton was huge, a towering figure across our political landscape. Like Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, he "doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus," and his defeated enemies could only join voice with Cassius in saying that "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."

There were many of them, these enemies--half the country, at various times. But they--we--lost and Clinton won, so completely and unexpectedly that even now it boggles the mind. Like captive barbarians paraded in a Roman triumph, the vanquished Republican champions pass before us: the hapless Bush the Elder, checking his watch during a debate and fading into the Kennebunkport twilight; the brilliant Gingrich, undone by Clinton's charm and his own erratic temperament; the caustic, unhappy Dole, grimacing as Clinton sailed past his floundering campaign and into a second term. Finally, there was Ken Starr, the rosy-cheeked champion of law and order--beaten, in the end, as the perjured, priapic president cast himself (ah, irony!) as the defender of the Constitution and the rule of law against a Republican coup-d'etat.

One need not admire his victories, but one must respect them.

He was not a great president, that much is certain, nor even, perhaps, a good one. He lacked the sweeping vision of a Reagan or a Roosevelt, let alone the decency and humility of a Truman; his only vision involved his own power, and the other virtues were banished from his White House early on. But he was an interesting President, perfectly suited for a time when politics resembles a spectator sport, broadcast into millions of homes through the good offices of CNN. He inspired more novels and biographies, more praise and more hatred, than any leader since Nixon--perhaps since FDR, even. And while he himself may fade away, into Hollywood or Westchester, the memory of the Age of Clinton will linger in our collective psyche long after his successors have dragged their second-rate variety acts offstage.

In his own way, Clinton was a dangerous man, if only because his personality and proclivities made him better suited to be a sultan or maharajah then an American president. This may explain why he always looked happiest on his grand tours--in Africa, for instance, or lately in Vietnam--where the adulation of the masses washed over him, unmediated by the stumbling blocks of the two-party system and the constitutional order.

But America was strong enough to contain his ambitions and to survive them--and so we will be strong enough to miss him, as well. He was, if such a thing is possible, a great bad man, and for eight long years, he was the bright sun around which our political life whirled. We will not see his like again for some time.

And there is a small voice within me that says we have not seen the last of him yet.

Ross G. Douthat '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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