excerpted from the book
The Corruption of American Politics
by Elizabeth Drew
The Overlook Press, 1999
Clinton's failure to lead on campaign finance reform was of
a piece with his general failure to lead. And his presidency contributed
to the decline of the Office of President-even before the sex
scandal. His wasn't the first presidency to do so, but Clinton's
own contribution was substantial and of historical importance.
His flawed presidency was another disappointment and added to
the cumulative negative impact, coming as it did after the disillusionment
caused by the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon
over the Vietnam War and Watergate, the disappointment of the
Ford and Carter presidencies, the societal divisions of the Reagan
presidency (though Reagan himself remained popular). The limited
vision of the Bush presidency was another disappointment. That
Clinton remained popular during most of his presidency doesn't
belie this point. Clinton laid waste to two of the office's most
important elements: its mystique and its power to influence the
public and the Congress.
Clinton's presidency has been a squandered opportunity. His
formidable political skills and exceptional brain have gone more
to self-preservation than to leadership-and this, too, was true
well before he became enmeshed in the sex scandal that blew up
in January 1998. If the definition of leadership is acting on
things one feels strongly about and being willing to risk some
political capital in order to achieve them-Clinton has come up
short. In fact, with a few exceptions, it wasn't very clear what
Clinton did feel strongly about.
No presidency has been as poll-driven as Bill Clinton's. When
Richard Wirthlin polled for President Reagan, he did it two to
three times a month-unless there was a crisis, during which he
polled nightly. But there was another big difference. A Democratic
political consultant says, "Reagan used polling to figure
out how to sell his beliefs. Clinton uses polling to figure out
what to believe."
At a time of unparalleled prosperity, and even into his second
term, Clinton had given the country no sense of direction. The
President enjoyed the political fruits of the prosperity, the
longest peacetime economic expansion in history, accompanied by
low inflation and low unemployment. His support of the 1993 economic
plan, cutting spending and raising taxes, had something to do
with that. His acceptance, in 1995, of the concept of the balanced
budget-pushed on him by Gingrich and opposed by several of his
aides, but urged on him by his then-guru, Dick Morris, to help
his election prospects-helped push the budget from red to black
(with the help of a surplus of over $125 billion in the Social
Security trust fund). The surplus that showed up in 1998-and was
announced a week before the election-gave Clinton the opportunity
to provide the country with a grand vision, but he didn't do so.
His State of the Union speech in 1999 continued his by-then habit
of handing out goodies to all the Democratic constituencies, or
hoped-for constituencies. His speech was a myriad of poll-tested
proposals, most of them small in aim. He still had an opportunity
to resolve two long-range and politically difficult problems:
assuring the soundness of the Social Security and Medicare programs,
about to be flooded by the "baby boomers." But in both
cases Clinton chose the easy way out...
Clinton's degradation of the office of the presidency also
degraded our national discourse. Even in a time when people are
said to be "turned off" Washington, what a president
does affects the country's conversation. Certainly, public talk
of the President's genitals, and of oral sex with an intern, and
of whether the President of the United States considered receiving
oral sex as constituting "sexual relations" had a devastating
effect on the dignity of the office. Clinton's popularity and
the blunders of his adversaries did not change that. After the
sex scandal broke, Clinton's personal approval ratings were far
below the oft-cited approval ratings of how he was doing his job.
Previous presidents had lied to the public. Johnson did and
Nixon did and Reagan did (about trading arms for hostages), and
George Bush did (when he said that the fact that Clarence Thomas
was black "has nothing to do with this in the sense that
he is the best qualified [for the Supreme Court] at this time"),
but Clinton's sustained lying almost ruined his presidency.
Actually, few Democrats on Capitol Hill believed Clinton when
on January 26, 1998, five days after the Monica Lewinsky story
broke, he denied having had "sexual relations with that woman."
Among the disbelievers were some who expressed shock when Clinton
later owned up to the affair.
That he told individual senators and congressmen as well as
the public, his staff, and almost anyone who happened by, a bald-faced
lie, assured that even if he survived politically his word meant
even less than ever. This was a dangerous state of affairs for
a presidency, which might at any moment have to call on the public
to do something hard. (One person he lied to was Senate Minority
Leader Tom Daschle, who, shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal
broke, when Clinton's political survival seemed at risk, and several
Democrats were on the verge of abandoning Clinton, called Clinton
to ask if the story was true. Clinton assured Daschle that it
wasn't, whereupon Daschle went on the line for Clinton.)
Clinton had succeeded for so long in talking his way out of
corners, his confidence in his ability to outsmart others, was
so strong, that he seemed to have come to believe that there was
no corner he couldn't get out of. His series of evasive replies
to questions about whether he had smoked marijuana, culminating,
in the course of the 1992 campaign, in "I didn't inhale"
was symbolic of his political career. His saying to the grand
jury, in August 1998, in the course of the sex scandal, "It
depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" entered
the political lexicon right away.
And Clinton pushed his luck. Fending off charges that the
White House had planted a story that some time ago Henry Hyde,
chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had had an extended
extra-marital affair (a report that, while true, infuriated Hyde,
who strongly suspected the White House). Clinton's press secretary,
Michael McCurry, said, "Everyone can blame the White
House because [the perception is that] the White House lies about
everything, that our credibility is zero."
In October 1998, when a Democratic representative briefing
the House Democratic Caucus on dealings with the White House on
the issue of how to conduct the census said that the President
had promised to hold firm, her statement was greeted with laughter.
The egregiousness of Clinton's dishonesty about the sex scandal,
as will be shown, made people suspicious of virtually everything
he said or did-including his management of foreign policy.
Many people believe that the damage that Clinton did to the
presidency can be erased if his successor is a figure who commands
respect, has moral authority. But Clinton's time in office will
leave scars, irrespective of his current popularity.