1. Archive

What's next for Clinton?

Published Sep. 28, 2005

As he has aged along with his generation, Bill Clinton, who likes to call himself the oldest baby boomer, went from thinking about tomorrow in his first national campaign to lamenting in his second that he had more yesterdays behind him than tomorrows ahead. Groaning at his sentimentality, his detractors _ his haters, really _ relished seeing him as the embodiment of what they considered his generation's immorality, self-absorption and instability.

That may have turned Clinton into a caricature of a caricature, but if so, it was partly his fault. Along with his self-image, his politics were consciously generational, from the moment he opposed President George Bush as a Cold Warrior ill-equipped to midwife a globalizing economy. Clinton's two terms tracked the arc of his ever-changing generation _ from scattershot, even reckless idealism to cautiously self-interested maneuvering, with a long, wasteful timeout for bad behavior and an increasing focus on finances.

"Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American," Clinton declared in his first Inaugural Address, as he seized the torch for his fellow boomers. Later, the country would learn that for this president "definitions" and "meanings" were starting, not ending points.

Under Clinton, definitions changed. What it meant to be a Democrat, what it meant to be a Republican, what it meant to be the president, what it meant to be first lady, what it meant to be impeached, what it meant to say something "is" _ all these became more fluid.

Along with the political nomenclature, the world was also changing, and fast. Clinton is fond of noting that when he became president there were 50 sites on the World Wide Web. He still barely uses a computer, but he grasped early on how information technology could change society.

Clinton's own capacity for change was obvious from the moment he began campaigning. It was dismissed as chameleon slipperiness by his detractors and hailed as tactical brilliance by his supporters. It led both to underestimate him. Both saw him as emotionally weak, quick to agree with the last person who counseled him. He turned out to be ruthless and tougher than anyone who opposed him. He was seen as gross in his appetites and tastes _ and he can be _ but he also proved to be extraordinarily subtle, sometimes far more subtle than was good for him.

Clinton began with visions of an epic, big-screen presidency and ended up more like a celebrity promoter of cherished causes. But from the start, his critics and even his supporters underestimated how, while everything changed, he would cling to core goals _ expanding economic opportunity, negotiating trade agreements to promote growth and peace, making higher education a middle-class entitlement _ and would keep working toward them, albeit with ever-changing methods.

When Congress was with Clinton, he passed the North American Free Trade Agreement and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, an underappreciated boost to the working poor. He passed a deficit-cutting plan that, paradoxically, became his most effective social program. But he overreached, and he had to switch strategies.

With Congress against him, he played defense, protecting entitlement programs for the elderly while pushing for incremental changes in health care. He signed a Republican welfare-reform bill _ he had promised an end to welfare "as we know it" _ but came back, again and again, until Congress excised what he considered to be its cruel provisions.

Clinton was largely indifferent to bureaucratic reform, but he wanted to restore confidence in the government. The shutdown of 1995 reminded Americans how much they depended on federal programs. After the 1996 campaign no one seriously talked about disbanding the Education Department. Now, for the first time, the children of baby boomers have seen that the government can operate in surplus.

But Clinton wasted the opportunity he created. During the shutdown, over a pizza, he started his affair with Monica Lewinsky, which ultimately gave cynicism about government a good name. His personal trustworthiness became a national joke. Yet, in powerful tribute to Clinton's gift for conveying that he understood and cared about Americans' problems, a strong majority continued to trust him to do a good job as president. As a result, his sexual experimentation _ like his generation's _ was read as either causing Americans to grapple honestly with the complexities of marriage and relationships or turning them into compartmentalizing moral relativists. In reality, it did both, and deepened the split between the camps holding each view.

"The urgent question of our time is whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy," Clinton said in that same first Inaugural Address. The baby-boom generation has brought on extraordinary change _ in civil rights, women's roles, the nature of the economy, religious practices, attitudes toward authority. It is hard to think of a public or private institution unaffected. All of it _ like the changes brought on in the last eight years by Clinton _ feels unfinished. Their contribution, and his, seem transitional.

Now the country will see if George W. Bush _ another representative of the alternately feckless and ambitious boomers _ can handle change as adeptly as his predecessor. As for soon-to-be-former President Clinton, who has never been satisfied simply being, the always fascinating and sometimes aggravating question remains: What will he become next?

The New York Times

James Bennet writes for the New York Times, where this commentary first appeared.