Richard Reeves

Clinton and the 'L' Word

WASHINGTON -- At the White House Correspondents Association dinner last year, President Clinton said that if today's press had covered the Gettysburg Address, the headline would have been: "Lincoln Fails to Articulate Exit Strategy."

Well, Clinton demonstrated his own exit strategy in his last State of the Union message last Thursday night: Just keep talking, and make them like it whether or not they like him. More than a hundred times, he came up with little lines, short lines, that made them stand and applaud -- and half the time, half the clappers hated his guts.

It will be a long time before we see his like again. William Jefferson Clinton was Rooseveltian in his skills if not in his accomplishments. Even so, without war or crisis to bring him the greatness he craved, he is larger than life and beneath contempt at the same time. This is the man who either saved the Democratic Party and American liberalism by moving both to the center, or destroyed party and ideology by dragging both through the muck of his personal betrayals.

For journalism, the Clinton story is now the "L" word -- "Legacy," the soap opera. I was in Cincinnati before coming back for the president's address to his wife, his vice president, and whoever else happened to be in the good seats, and saw that like probably every other newspaper in the country, The Cincinnati Enquirer had a front-page "L" story, this one headlined: "Tristate Split on President's Place in History."

"A good many," reported Paul Barton and Howard Wilkinson in two stories, "stand convinced that because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other episodes in his presidency, he is headed toward an inglorious rendezvous with the history books ..."

The Enquirer has done continuing interviews with Americans living near the corner where Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana meet, and these were some of the latest thoughts of those folks:

-- "Even if he went out tomorrow and saved the world, it would be overshadowed by what he did to disgrace the office," said Beth Schott, a 43-year-old graphic designer.

-- "He has done an excellent job as president. He bounced back and is attempting to finish it out. It is unfortunate what he did, and he got a smack on the hand for it, but the American people seem to have forgotten about it and moved on," said Ann Riehburg, a high-school biology teacher.

-- "I was concerned at the time about his right to privacy, but, after that, it became so apparent that he lied so much and so often, that you really can't excuse or forgive it," said Glenn Woods, a 52-year-old artist.

Then there were more conflicted types. Winnie House, a 45-year-old housewife who came from Arkansas, said: "I have to start making excuses and telling people it's not my fault that he's president. ... I try to think about him as little as possible."

The spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio summed it up by saying: "The administration's sponsorship of legislation that is generally helpful for people in their personal and work lives, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, is notable. But, we reflect with regret on the sexual misconduct of the president, which mitigates against any significant positive role model he may have served as in that office."

Reading those quotes, and hearing and reading others from other parts of the country, I realize something that should have been obvious to me: For at least one generation and probably two or three, it is this simple debate that will be the Clinton legacy.

"Good president," maybe; "not a good man," maybe. That will be the way people remember the 42nd president as long as there are folks around to talk about what it was like when Bill Clinton was talking and talking and talking.

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