Clinton in Historical Perspective
Commentators ask how "history" will judge the Clinton Presidency.
They assume the historical record is some kind of blank tablet on which
past events are automatically projected. Historical study is, however, an
active process. Future judgments about Clinton, just like commentary today,
will reflect in part the preconceptions of individual historians. As we
move toward major alteration--and perhaps decimation--of Social Security,
the history of our era will take on very different textures when seen through
the eyes of a future Noam Chomsky or Bill Kristol.
I hope subsequent generations will include historians who value democracy
as a tool for airing basic disagreements and limiting unjust incursions
of public and private power. They will wonder at the very curious kind of
politics that characterized the end of the Clinton Presidency.
Commentators dwell on the "partisan'' rivalry driving the impeachment
process. This judgment is correct in a certain sense, but in another sense
there is little partisanship left in Washington. We have essentially a one-party
system. Our parties agree on foreign policy, trade, military spending, the
evils of "big government,'' the unworthiness of the welfare poor, and
the magic of unregulated markets. Differences over whether to use projected
budget surpluses to pay down the Federal debt or to fund tax cuts are intramural
quarrels within traditional conservatism. Our parties really differ only
over the question of which party should govern.
Partisanship of the wrong kind has continued even into the Senate. As Anthony
Lewis recently remarked in the New York Times: "When Mr. Starr
intervened last Friday, I thought some Republican senators would rise above
party and express outrage at his intrusion into their constitutional function.
That they did not showed how cynically partisan this impeachment is.''
The ways this narrow form of partisanship erases or obscures fundamental
political issues became appallingly clear when the president bombed Iraq.
Some Republican leaders, sounding like the sixties anti-war movement, condemned
the president for using the military to distract attention from his immediate
problems. Many Democrats with long antiwar records tripped over themselves
in his defense.
Americans didn't get the kind of partisanship they most needed: a thoroughgoing
debate about the level of threat Iraq actually posed and the right of a
president to make war without Congressional authorization.
Commentators of all stripes remind us that Clinton's personal conduct has
brought this impeachment crisis on himself. But a historian interested in
our larger politics may well wish to emphasize Clinton's contribution to
the ideological currents seeking to bring him down. Clinton may well be
seen as part of the "vast right wing conspiracy.''
Clinton's defenders blame the prosecutorial zealotry of Ken Starr for his
troubles. I am no fan of Ken Starr, but Starr is simply employing tactics
the Clinton Administration has encouraged with such disastrous implications
in the lives of less prominent citizens. Clinton is a cheerleader in the
drug wars, with the dangerous forms of personal surveillance and police
power these encourage. Like many other Democrats, he endorses the use of
informants in drug cases and the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions
for first-time crack possession. In this regard, he has rejected the advice
of the federal government's own sentencing commission, certainly no group
of bleeding heart liberals.
Mandatory minimums erode the separation of power between the branches of
government. They fill our prisons with citizens the only evidence against
whom is often the word of informants promised lighter sentences by zealous
The President has also supported changes in wiretap procedures that would
make Linda Tripp's activities look like child's play. His administration
advocated so called "roving wiretaps" that--on the basis of a
single warrant--would allow law enforcement agencies to tap all phones in
any home or business used by, or near, a targeted person. (As Nat Hentoff
recently pointed out, Clinton displayed less interest in these civil liberties
than Robert Barr, the one member of the House to oppose these practices.)
In 1992, he raced home from the New Hampshire primary to preside over the
execution of a man so mentally deranged he thought he would dine with his
guards after his execution. The notion that much of government's activity
today involves policing private life, is ineffective or vicious in its implications,
and imposes utterly unjust or disproportionate punishment, never seems to
have crossed his mind.
I oppose removal of President Clinton for the offenses currently being discussed
[before his acquittal by the Senate], but it is very hard for me to have
much sympathy for him. There is a cruel irony in the way a police state
can trap even its most powerful white leaders. More than ever, we need partisan
debate of these broader questions in our polity. If history is in part an
active intervention into our past, I hope historians will dwell on the disappearance
of those healthy forms of partisanship on which vigorous democracy depends.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental
issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality
and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via
e mail at: email@example.com
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