Thursday, December 12, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Forty-Two, I Survived The Clinton Years (UPDATE)

(UPDATE below)

SO SUCK IT, LIMBAUGH.  You fear-mongering Cubicle Commando.

Ahem.

I really wanted to refer to this article I read ten or twelve years ago about Baby Boomers (those born between 1945 to 1965) that a fellow boomer used to describe his own generation as selfish, destructive, and reactionary.  Except where he made note of THE Boomer President, Bill Clinton, as a notable exception to that destructive impulse because Clinton genuinely believed in "the future imperative".

Clinton was referring to something a college professor had taught him, that the Future Imperative - not the language construct, but a political viewpoint - was an American-based ideology where the players and motivators on the political stage in the Present focused on how their current actions would boost or help Future generations.  The article writer's implication was that, where the Boomers would focus on their own needs at the expense of past generations - their parents - and future generations - their children and grandchildren - the likes of Clinton would focus on taking care of needs so that future generations would have something to work with.

And damn me for a fool, even for five straight days of using my librarian skills to the fullest, I can't find the thing.  I've forgotten if I'd read it in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, or someplace online like Salon.com.

'Cause that bit about "the future imperative" is what's stuck in my head when it comes to defining Clinton's Presidential Character.  Without Professor James David Barber as a lighthouse guiding me on the matter (I also tried looking for journal or magazine articles by Barber about Clinton, but it seems 1992 was his retirement), this is one of those cases I've got to make using my own evidence.

UPDATE (7/17/14): The article has been found!  The search term should have been "Future Preference", not Imperative.  My bad...

The actual quote about (and from) Bill Clinton provided by Paul Begala in his Esquire article "The Worst Generation":

...I can still see Clinton doing his Quigley impression, eyes full of mischief, his voice an Arkansas version of a bad Boston accent, as we bounced around in a bus or flew through a thunderstorm on Air Elvis, our campaign plane back in 1992. "Mistah Begahhla," he'd intone as he looked at me through the bifocals perched on the end of his nose. "Why is America the greatest sociiiiiiety in human hist'ree? The Few-chah Pref'rence. At every critical junk-chaah, we have prefuhhed the few-chah to the present. That is why immigrants left the old waaahld for the new. That is why paahrents such as yours sacrifice to send their children to univehhsities like this wan. The American ideal is that the few-chah can be bettah than the paahst, and that each of us has a personal, moral obligation to make it so."
So there it is.  Now, back to the original essay...

Doing research online, I've come across others referring to Barber's Character charts and applying the Passive-Positive label on Clinton, mostly due to his open desire to be liked and popular - the Congeniality trait - and because Clinton seemed to bend too much in dealing with a Republican Congress, being viewed as a weakness.

But that habit of dealing or working with Congress is a common Adaptive trait, if one noticed how Clinton, despite the expectations of his being a Liberal or Far Left leader, was able to deflect a rebellious GOP Congress from shredding more of the New Deal than they sought to destroy.

One of the big gripes I'd seen against Clinton was how he allowed the existing Welfare program to change from basic financial aid to families into an employment-related "workfare" program that satisfied most voters' concerns about a social aid program that appeared to allow the poor to endlessly live off the government (the reality may have been different, but the conservatives had succeeded in convincing the public that's what Welfare had become by the 1980s).  The thing is, the reform benefited by timely improvements to the economy itself - aided by job-boosting trade deals started under Bush the Elder and carried over by Clinton, and by a technology boom with computers and the Internet that few if any ever predicted - and from changes to the tax code and other social safety nets (food stamps) to cover any consequences of the workfare changes.

Rather than fear the dangers of changing welfare - as the Far Left worried that it would force more families into poverty, not less - Clinton and his administration was able to accept the bigger picture that the reform could work as long as other economic forces aided it.  In this regard, along with other points, I'd put Clinton in the Active-Positive category of Presidential behavior.

If Clinton did fail on some of the big Liberal ideas he was expected to pass/defend - failing to pass a healthcare reform that, let's admit it, was too complicated for its own good - it was because the nation itself was still not ready for most of those ideas (we as a nation are still not prepared for universal healthcare similar to every other major economic power on the globe, so how the f-ck can it be a commie socialist plot to destroy America if it works in England and Japan?).  For example, it had to take another decade of increasing health care costs for the nation to even tolerate a conservative, pro-business plan that became Obamacare.

Other signs of Clinton's A-P traits cover his self-deprecation, an honest desire to genuinely mingle and emotively relate to American voters (his "I feel your pain" was easily mocked, but it was sincere).  He was also able to re-position himself without ever crossing the line into flip-flopping, earning him a moniker "Slick Willie" (among other reasons, such as lying and using lawyer-speak to wriggle out of jams) but also making him adaptable to any political circumstance, including his fights with his opposite number Newt Gingrich, fellow Boomer and then-Speaker for most of Clinton's tenure.

For all of Gingrich's pro-conservative bluster, and for all of Gingrich's ambitions, Clinton could run rings around the guy.  And Bill was never that fast of a runner. /rimshot  Nearly every time Newt tried to confront Bill on a domestic issue - above all the budgets that were held up by Congress-fueled shutdowns - the President would get the nation to see his side of the argument and humble the Speaker and Congress down into accepting deals that may have benefited a conservative agenda but came across as Republican defeats.  Attempts to weaken Clinton during his first term of office with a legislative war didn't work: Clinton cruised to an easy re-election in another threeway race between himself, the Republican Bob Dole, and Ross Perot (whose impact, already meager, was diminished by 1996).

If anything weakened Clinton, it was himself: odd among most Active-Positives in that his personal and business dealings were very self-destructive (another reason some critics viewed him as a Passive-Positive like Harding, who did share those habits).  It could be argued that things like his Whitewater dealings, or his wife Hillary's law firm billing practices, were a mark of the post-Watergate era of unethical behavior by a lot of political figures.  But it left him vulnerable in ways that did limit his decision-making on the Presidential stage and had an adverse effect on his own staff.

Clinton's advantage during all of this was the colossal overreach of his political enemies.  All too eager to think the worst of a "hippie liar", hating on wife Hillary as a prominent feminist figure (the vitriol for her was worse than any bile aimed at him), the Far Right that came to dominate the Republican Party post-Reagan/Bush began an open campaign to discredit, humiliate, and delegitimize the Clinton administration.  Aided by a cable news channel led by a prominent conservative media whiz - Roger Ailes and his Fox News - and by radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh - whose career flourished the more he attacked Hillary - they talked up every potential scandal against Clinton they could find.  Whitewater became the new Watergate.  The firings of the White House travel office staff became headlines.  The suicide of a Clinton personal ally became the focus of three separate Congressional and grand jury investigations.

The overreach achieved peak crazy when it got out that Clinton had a sexual affair with a White House intern.  Immediately convinced she was the keystone to every Clinton scandal ever, the Lewinsky Affair dominated the news.  Long-standing media elites like Sam Donaldson openly predicted Clinton's resignation "within the week."  Clinton was forced under other investigations, including a civil suit by Paula Jones contending he sexually harassed her, to testify about having an affair with Lewinsky (and like any guy who thinks with his d-ck, Clinton did his best to weasel out of it).

But by this point a majority of Americans were jaded and burned out by the constant scandal-mongering by the Far Right.  What had started out as serious-sounding scandals - Corrupt land deals!  Dead lawyers!  A Trail of corruption across Arkansas! - turned up nothing but an intern with a stained dress.  What was promised as "worse than Watergate" ended up as "blowjobs".   Hillary was able to with a straight face go on national television and accuse their accusers of being part of "a vast Right Wing conspiracy".  And a lot of people agreed with her.

By the time the GOP Congress pushed to impeach Clinton for his perjury and obstruction before a grand jury (the BEST they could come up with), the Republicans were embarrassed by a poor 1998 midterms campaign that saw their seat numbers in both houses drop, although they retained majority control in both.  Feeling betrayed that they lost voters against Clinton's moral failings, the House turned against Gingrich as Speaker forcing him to drop the title (he would resign from the House less than a year later), and then coped with the embarrassment of their Speaker-designate Bob Livingston resigning when his sexual scandals came to light.  Meanwhile, with the Senate nowhere near the 2/3rd required to impeach the President, the vote wasn't even near that: the perjury charge went 55 votes against impeaching to 45 for, and the obstruction charge went dead even 50-50.

By 2000, Clinton left office with decent popularity numbers (although rightly hit for his poor honesty) while his opponents were sitting around thinking "what the hell happened?"  Rubbing salt into the wounds was the fact that during the impeachment and after, Clinton (A-P as always) was still able to get bills through Congress, nowhere near lame as most ending two-term Presidents tended to be.

--

It is hard to describe to the children and teens of today what it was like to be a survivor of both The Reagan Years and The Clinton Years.  Both different in terms of tenor and yet both similar in terms of economic booms presided over by highly charismatic and influential figures.

The take-away from the Clinton Era was a feeling of a missed opportunity, that Clinton could have been so much greater if he had reined in his personal appetites and unlocked his personal fears of political overreach.  If he had focused on a more comprehensive agenda that covered more needs rather than the several he prioritized above others.

To be fair, Clinton's Boomer impulses focused inward rather than outward onto his administration or the nation.  His one strength of political character - Adaptability while remaining tasked to a big picture - remains the saving grace of an otherwise bruised administration.

Next Up: If anyone's read this blog since the day I started it, You know how I feel about this one.  I may yet prove charitable regarding his Character...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

For #43, it is never good if your only hope for a positive legacy is that no one remembers what you did.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul Wartenberg said...

To anyone posting as Anonymous, you're not helping your statement by hiding. I'm not a fan of anonymous comments, I prefer you'd put a name - any name, just not mine, 'cause it's taken by me and at least nine other guys - to it.