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Shattering the Clinton Myth By: Chris Arabia
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, March 04, 2004

Rich Lowry's book Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years is available from the FrontPage Magazine Bookstore for $19.95.

As Bill Clinton’s presidency recedes further into the national rearview mirror, those sympathetic to his world-view continue to worship much of the myth of his administration. Despite the recklessness, policy gyrations, ineffective national security policy, and criminality that permeated the Clinton White House, the liberal-left conventional wisdom regards Clinton as a genius who personally created peace and prosperity, only to see his successor plunge the country back into despair. Hillary Clinton is sure to seek to use her husband’s mythical legacy as way of getting onto the White House stage herself someday.

For those interested in countering this spin, facts and analysis disproving the Clinton myth have been abundant but diffuse; the contemporary political literature has lacked a concise but comprehensive—and accurate—summary of the Clinton administration. Until now. National Review Editor Rich Lowry has endeavored to fill the gap with Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. From its apt title—Clinton always cared much more about his legacy than about the good of the country—to the ignominious events of its finale, Legacy is the product of a skillful writer who knows how to marshal meticulous research and thorough documentation. Even the 100+ pages of notes are highly readable, a veritable anthology of Clinton era vignettes and tidbits.

Opening with a character sketch that provides a framework for the chapters to follow, Lowry notes, “The sympathetic gloss on the Clinton Presidency is that it was a substantive success despite Clinton’s failings. It was really the opposite.” Despite the conventional wisdom, the primary beneficiaries of the Clinton administration were . . . the Clintons. Clinton and his Baby Boomer generation, suffering from delusions of cultural and educational superiority, felt that they “deserved to run the country.”


Part One of Legacy examines the politics and policies of Clintonism. As Lowry details, Clinton’s personal myopia and aversion to risk guaranteed a presidency of remarkable “smallness,” at least, once HillaryCare perished. Clinton’s core governing philosophies desperately followed political trends; true leaders set trends. Legacy documents the four phases of Clinton: the early leftist lean, chasing the country rightward after the Gingrich revolution, defending his campaign finance and litigation criminality, and finally returning to the Left and the launch of his legacy operation.


Rightly condemning Clinton’s annoying rhetoric about how he had “grown” the economy, Lowry examines the economic and Clintonian records and concludes: “Altogether it was a characteristic Clinton performance, featuring dishonesty, double-mindedness, and good fortune. In no sense did he save, transform, or ‘grow’ the economy,” and only “the power of well-coordinated repetition” has bolstered the illusion that he did. While history is likely to treat Clinton’s economic management more kindly, Lowry does present a sound case.


Welfare reform, one of the great accomplishments of the 1990s, “was foisted upon Clinton by the Congressional Republicans”; indeed, Clinton had vetoed reform until Dick Morris warned that Clinton had to choose between avoiding a leftist “third-rail” and a second term. The “first 1960s President” also embraced a “law and order” renaissance, albeit a poll-driven one. Another of Clinton administration’s “most important and beneficial policy legacies,” was “simply that its health care plan was crushed.”


Part Two covers the meat and potatoes of the Clinton years and hence carries the title “Scandal & Law.” Of the hypocrisy of the Left’s defenses of Clinton, Lowry observes, “The scandal wars of the Clinton Administration represented the revenge of 1970s liberalism on 1990s liberalism.” Indeed, the Left championed the independent counsel and unrestrained political investigations of the President, until the President happened to be a Democrat.


Legacy reminds us in vivid detail of Clinton Administration’s pervasive lawlessness, from its disdain for the rights of sexual harassment litigants to its lust for Communist Chinese campaign cash, to its plans to destroy Monica Lewinsky’s reputation, to the powerand aggression of Janet Reno. Even though the material is familiar to most and frustrating for those who decry the soiling of American institutions, Lowry’s summary is enlightening.


Part Three reviews the most damning element of Clinton’s record, his disastrous foreign policy. Because of its obsession with another legacy, that of Vietnam, “A defeatist, apologetic attitude toward American power was instinctual for much of the Clinton team.” Given its cowering foundation, the Clinton administration favored what Lowry termed “in-between” wars that limited risk and reward and eschewed the vigorous assertion of American and Western interests.


Had Clinton ordered more than half-measures against Islamofascism after the bombings of the World Trade Center, the African embassies, or any of the other attacks that occurred on his watch, 9/11 might never have happened. Apologists sometimes argue that such action would have prompted political criticism, offering a revealing glimpse of their priorities. In two countries peripheral to American interests, Bosnia and Kosovo, Clinton achieved mixed victories—decisiveness in both cases would have saved more lives.


Beyond his weakness in the face of Islamofascism, Clinton’s diplomacy repeatedly failed in strategic venues. He appeased North Korea on nuclear weapons in 1994, Yasser Arafat as part of his legacy quest for a Nobel Prize in 2000, and Saddam Hussein—except for a few bombings—in 1998. All of these Clinton miscues contributed to the problems that George W. Bush has confronted with personal and political courage. Guided by leftist philosophy, Clinton embraced the terrorist-as-criminal mantra, declining Sudan’s offer to turn over Osama bin Laden to the U.S. in 1995-96. As Lowry summarizes, “it was Clinton’s cowardice that kept him from vigorously fighting the terror war.” 


Hillary’s win and the ascension of millionaire speculator Terry McAuliffe to head the Democrats salvaged the near-term political legacy that Al Gore’s loss would otherwise have jeopardized. While Clinton left office in a blaze of petty corruption, ranging from the pardoning of Marc Rich to pilfering White House trinkets, the gathering Islamofascist storm and Clinton’s inadequate responses ensured that Bush would have to confront one of the gravest threats the U.S. has ever faced.


Legacy recounts the age of Clinton with a poignancy that compels the astute reader to experience the era anew, but this time without the hope of a happy ending for the country. Lowry also verges on overplaying his hand on the Clinton era economy by suggesting that Clinton’s contribution was immaterial. While the GOP encouraged sound policies and the 1990s boom might indeed have grown out of the Reagan Revolution, Clinton was at the helm and denying him a share of the credit could undermine Legacy’s otherwise irrefutable case. Although the author notes Clinton’s remarkable propensity to zig-and-zag based on polls, conservatives and libertarians must temper such criticisms with the knowledge that many of Clinton’s flip-flops landed him on much firmer policy grounds; welfare reform shines as an enduring example. Unfortunately, the people who could learn the most from Legacy are the most likely to disregard the book.


Quibbles notwithstanding, Legacy will stand as an enduring chronicle of the real Clinton legacy. To his considerable credit, Rich Lowry has provided a book that doubles as a revealing look at the true Clinton legacy and a handy reference for those who want at their fingertips an invaluable tool for reversing the Clintonista spin.

Rich Lowry's book Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years is available from the FrontPage Magazine Bookstore for $19.95.

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