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 prosecutors.

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:

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