Clinton, scandal forever linked
100 years from now, it will still be legacy

Los Angeles Times

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WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton has long mused in private about the legacy his presidency would leave: Would he be remembered like Theodore Roosevelt, who led America confidently into a new century, or John F. Kennedy, who instilled an ethos of public service in a generation?

On Saturday, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives ensured that Mr. Clinton will be compared instead to a less inspiring predecessor: Andrew Johnson, the only other president to be impeached.

“A hundred years from now, this will undoubtedly be the first sentence in the paragraph that is given over to him,” said historian Stephen E. Ambrose.

Mr. Clinton can still claim other achievements — moving the Democratic Party toward the center, joining with Republicans to balance the budget and enact welfare reform — but none is as clearly defined as the dark stain of impeachment.

It may seem unfair that history could define an eight-year presidency, even in part, by a political crisis stemming from a sexual affair. But the Clinton scandals — and the impeachment they have produced — actually reflect three factors larger than the articles of impeachment approved by the House.

One is Mr. Clinton's paradoxical character, combining undoubted brilliance and unaccountable recklessness. Even Mr. Clinton's defenders in the House denounced him for irresponsible and immoral behavior in his liaison with a young White House aide and his attempts to cover up the affair.

Another is a decline in the prestige of the presidency — an office that once kept secrets, but now is harried by seemingly nonstop independent counsels. “This is the culmination of the end of the imperial presidency,” said historian Robert A. Dallek of Boston University. “It has been going on for 30 years ... but it has really accelerated since the end of the Cold War.”

And a third factor, vividly alive in the House Republican conference, is a resurgence of what has been called America's “culture war” — an increasingly bitter struggle between social conservatives and social liberals.

That culture war was defined crisply on Saturday by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the victorious leader of the drive to impeach: “This debate was all about ... (moral) relativism and absolute truth,” he said. “What (Mr. Clinton's) defenders want to do is lower the standards by which we hold this president — and lower the standards for our society by doing so.”

“The Republicans don't hate Clinton for his policies — he's not a rabid Democrat, he's a centrist,” Mr. Dallek said. “They hate him for what they believe to be the cultural outlook of the Democratic Party: affirmative action, political correctness, big government and moral relativism.”

Even if Mr. Clinton should somehow manage the feat of both keeping his job and forging a bipartisan Social Security reform plan, many presidential historians say that his legacy still seems likely to fall short of greatness.

“This will be seen as an average presidency,” predicted Mr. Dallek. “There's no central achievement, no core concept. Balanced budgets aren't very sexy. The headline will be the impeachment.”

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