The Clinton Paradox

San Jose Mercury News, January 14, 2001
By Leon E. Panetta

Webster’s dictionary defines “paradox” as a proposition that “contains a contradiction which, absurd as it seems to be, may still be true and in accordance with the facts and common sense.”

Bill Clinton is a paradox. Just ask the public for their reactions to the man from Hope, and they answer with words that range from “brilliant,” “dedicated” and “capable” to “slick,” shameful” and “dishonest.”

Liberals are divided—many defend him as a strong advocate of civil rights, education, the environment, gun control and women’s rights, while others say he betrayed the poor when he championed welfare reform.

Conservatives are divided—they credit him with balancing the federal budget, fighting for free trade and being tough on crime, but criticize him for his health care plan, higher taxes and foreign troop deployments.

Democrats say he strengthened the party by moving it to the political center. Republicans say he stole their issues and disgraced the presidency.

In the words of the king of Siam in “the King and I,” Bill Clinton “is a puzzlement.”

As he prepares to leave office after eight turbulent years, the 42nd president of the United States remains a fascinating blend of strengths and weaknesses that consistently captured the attention of the public, antagonized the Washington elites, confounded the press, overjoyed the late-night comedians, encouraged his supporters and outraged his enemies.

And yet, perhaps his greatest strength is that throughout it all, the public knew him for who he was—warts and all. He talked their language, and they saw their own lives in his triumphs and troubles. A large majority accepted him like a long-lost relative, who, regardless of his problems, is welcomed. They generally supported his policies because, deep down, they believed he really cared about making their lives better.

History, of course, will be the final judge of his legacy, and history has a funny way of constantly rotating from strengths to weaknesses as each historian draws a particular focus. But, in this case, firm opinions of whether a president has been mostly good or mostly bad might not fit. The truth is that this may be the first time the country has experienced two very different presidencies in one.

When else in the American experience has a president helped produce the greatest economy in our history and yet been impeached by the House of Representatives? When else did America have a president who balanced the federal budget, reduced crime and poverty, protected vast tracts of federal land for posterity and yet lied directly to the American people?

When else did an administration help create more than 22 million new jobs, negotiate 300 trade agreements and promote the largest investment in higher education since the GI Bill and yet become the target of more investigations, subpoenas and special prosecutors than any other?

To understand the nature of this extraordinary paradox called Bill Clinton—to better measure the man and his presidency—it helps to look at him, as well as his accomplishments and failures, from several angles. Bill Clinton the person. Bill Clinton the policy-maker. Bill Clinton the leader.

The person

The nation knows Bill Clinton as the first president of a generation of postwar baby boomers. Intelligent, ambitious and well-educated at Yale and Georgetown, he has spent most of his adult life in political office. The public knows the general outlines of his person—his quick mind, energy, compassion, sincerity; the wily instincts and political savvy; the tendency to blame others for his failings.

But how do his mind and heart really work? To understand what makes Clinton tick, in the words of one of his biographers, David Maraniss, you have to go back to his childhood. Despite his Ivy League education, Bill Clinton is a true son of Arkansas, a state that advanced the racial and economic progress of the South, but still struggles with rural poverty.

Bill Clinton was born in that poor part of Arkansas. His childhood with his mother and stepfather, his grandparents, his friends and neighbors gave him a deep sense of the nature of humanity and the tough challenges families must endure. He saw his mother abused by a stepfather who drank. He watched his grandfather, who rant a country store, help people in need.

His compassion for, and understanding of, his fellow human beings regardless of their status in life goes back to those early years. He truly does “feel their pain.” In reviewing proposals on health care, education, civil rights, the budget, taxes, work safety and jobs, his first questions were always about how those policies affected the most vulnerable in our society.

His childhood also gave him an extraordinary inner antenna for knowing what was bothering others, for sensing their worries, fears, hopes and dreams. It gave him the capacity to walk into any gathering of people and instantly connect with their feelings. That together with a fast memory for names and faces made him a friend of those he met—an invaluable political asset.

As a child, what he lacked in athletic ability, he made up with his mind and energy. As president, his intellect also served him well. He had the capacity to absorb every detail. I witnessed that firsthand, and quickly, as his first director of the Office of Management and Budget. When we worked through a comprehensive plan to try to turn the economy around, I presented detailed and complex numbers on budget issues ranging from defense, agriculture, energy and transportation to taxes, health, Social Security, law enforcement and education. He quickly grasped both the policy and political implications of each area.

Later, when I served as his chief of staff, I remained awed by his energy and ability to read incessantly, to handwrite notes on countless memos, work through full days with little rest and remember every detail from scheduling, to politics, to who picked what playing card in the staff game of hearts we played on every Air Force One trip.

The president also has a rare quality of being open to every viewpoint and loved to hear thoughtful and differing presentations on issues from his staff, Cabinet or outside experts. His goal was to find the perfect balance between viewpoints that would please and astonish all sides. The process gave him a good sense of who would be with him and against him, and more often than not it resulted in good policy. The downside was that he found it difficult to bring closure to a decision and was always open to an opposing view.

A difficult Arkansas childhood surely gave him many of those strengths, but the battle to survive in that environment gave him personal failings as well. He learned how to manipulate and please others, to say whatever someone wanted to hear whether it was the truth or not, to be all things to all people, and to dull the link between right and wrong. All of these qualities would help him succeed, but would also place a shadow over whatever he achieved.

The policy-maker

Survival is what life is about, and it is also what politics is about. Bill Clinton used his unique abilities to become Arkansas’ attorney general and governor and then president of the United States. As president, he recognized that he could succeed only if he was viewed as moving the nation from the industrial to the information era, from a stagnant to a productive economy, from deficits to surplus, from Cold War confrontation to global leadership, from government as the enemy to government as a friend and partner. His vision from the beginning was of a nation moving into the 21st century.

Without question, his greatest achievement as president was helping to produce the strongest economy in our history. While presidents don’t run the economy, they do set fiscal policy, send signals to business and the securities markets, determine trade policies, help educate the workforce, and invest in research and development. Clinton said he would concentrate “like a laser beam” on the economy, and he did.

The first time I sat with the new president-elect in Little Rock as a possible Cabinet appointee, we talked for two hours about the process of putting a budget together and getting it passed.

We discussed the difficult politics of deficit reduction—Democrats wanted to cut defense and raise taxes; Republicans wanted to cut domestic spending and entitlements such as Medicare. Members of congress who wanted to avoid offending anyone supported a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

The president-elect asked what I thought was needed to get the budget under control. I said that it would take strong leadership from a new president. He asked what was at stake. I told him the legacy of his presidency, because without deficit reduction, the economy would falter and he would have no resources to invest in the priorities such as education that he cared about. He worried about the political price that would have to be paid, but I came away convinced that he was deadly serious about reducing deficits.

When the new economic team was appointed, the president met with us for weeks of intensive work on developing an economic plan with $500 billion in deficit-reduction measures. He decided difficult spending cuts were necessary, and he backed reductions in Medicare, Medicaid, agricultural support programs, veterans’ programs, defense and transportation. It was clear that if we were asking for sacrifices from parents, veterans, the poor and the elderly, that the wealthy would have to carry their share as well. The result was a plan that included $250 billion in spending cuts and $250 billion in tax increases, largely for those with higher incomes.

When not one Republican supported the plan, he knew he would have to pass it with Democratic votes only. That mean convincing every member of his party that it was the right thing to do for the nation. Some, as always, were more interested in bargaining with the president, asking for a highway here, a water project there, a grant, a fund-raiser with the president. A team from the White House worked every vote and even then, no one was quite sure we had enough. The plan passed by one vote in the House and Senate.

The president recently commented that this was the most important vote of his administration. He was right. It set the economy on the right track and laid the groundwork for a prosperous recovery.

Clinton’s economic record reads like “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”—the first balanced federal budget in 30 years, the largest surplus every, the most new jobs created under a single administration, the lowest unemployment in 30 years, the lowest inflation since the 1960s, the highest homeownership rate on record, the largest debt pay-down ever, the largest U.S. exports every, the largest drop in poverty in nearly 30 years.

Add to this record the passage of welfare reform, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the establishment of AmeriCorps, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady bill, the crime bill that added 100,000 cops to the beat, the doubling of student financial aid and education funding, the expansion of the earned-income tax credit, the creation of empowerment zones and the protection of the most open space and federal land since Teddy Roosevelt. It would be difficult not to acknowledge that the administration has a significant record of accomplishment on the economic and domestic fronts.

To some extent, the economic boom may also have been his most important success in foreign affairs as well. The restoration of America’s economic strength combined with our existing military power is what gave weight to our global leadership. The president believes that America’s strength abroad depends on our strength at home. While he never offered a sweeping vision about America’s role in the post-Cold War era, he did have a pragmatic set of notions about what was right. He was consistent in his efforts to enlarge markets abroad; improve relations with China, Russia, Vietnam and Korea; push for peace in Ireland and the Middle East; and respond to crises in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq when other allies hesitated.

On policy, Bill Clinton grabbed for every issue he could get his arms around, and while he often succeeded in pushing his agenda, particularly on the economy, he also paid the price for believing the American people could keep up with his frenetic pace. Health care reform was a huge failure because he had an exaggerated sense of what could be achieved at one time. He found himself trying to please everyone and wound up pleasing no one. The number of Americans without health insurance has climbed from 37 million to 42 million.

In addition, despite a remarkable economic record, the president never was able to reform two important areas that threaten the future health of the economy—Social Security and Medicare—or to pass the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Those failures may have partly been the price of impeachment and the resulting bitter partisanship. They also are a part of the legacy of an administration in which not all the hope and promise for a nation was fulfilled.

The leader

The personal qualities of a president and his capacity as policy-maker are important to any president. But the key to any lasting legacy lies in whether those qualities came together in leadership. Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Truman, among others, sealed their greatness because they knew how to lead a nation when the country needed it most. What of the leadership abilities of Bill Clinton? Again, the paradox.

As a political leader of the nation, he is without peer. No one in recent history, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, had the capacity to communicate as effectively and directly to the American people. Whether in a State of the Union speech, an address from the Oval Office, a press conference or a casual response to a reporter’s question, President Clinton always was adept at saying the right thing at the right time.

His words had the appearance of spontaneity, thoughtfulness, balance and sincerity. What the public did not see what that much of what he said was the result of careful preparation. Before an important appearance, he would practice his speeches and his answers to questions at press conferences. If the subject was scandal, he was careful not to make the issue a bigger story. It was foreign affairs, he was careful not to offend allies or antagonize enemies.

He would use phrases that had been polled as effective with the public by political consultants. He understood the power of the bully pulpit—in consoling the victims of disaster, in rebuking his opponents, in arguing the logic of his position to the American people.

His instinct for survival, learned early in his life, added to his leadership ability. He instinctively understood how to position the Democratic Party to the center and yet maintain the traditional base of minorities, women and labor. And he understood the basic politics and emotions of every issue. No opponent could easily corner him. When the Republicans shut the government down to force the president to accept their budget, he flipped it against the, portraying them as extremists.

This may have been the most defining moment in his presidency. The Republicans, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, had captured control of the Congress. They were now pushing to enact a budget that advanced their “Contract With America.” That budget sought to reverse everything that Bill Clinton had tried to do for the nation. It would have cut spending for education, the environment and health care as well as eliminate or reduce programs serving the poor. He thought he would be able to find a compromise, but the Republicans shut the government down.

In the last of the negotiating sessions with the congressional leadership in the Oval Office, the president finally looked at Speaker Gingrich and said: “Newt, I can’t do what you want. I don’t believe it is right for the country. It may cost me the election, but it will not happen as long as I’m president.”

That moment not only made clear to the American people what Bill Clinton stood for, it also gave him the momentum to outmaneuver the Republicans on every budget that followed.

In general, he fought fire with fire. When the Republicans raised records amounts of campaign money to defeat health care and the Democratic Congress in 1994, he vowed it would never happen again. He became the party’s premier fundraiser using, and some would say misusing, the office of the presidency. For Bill Clinton, this was the raw politics of survival—if he didn’t do it to them first, he believed they would certainly do it to him.

Using those considerable political skills and instincts, he was willing to take some tough leadership positions that, while not always popular, were important to the nation. He passed his economic plan, expanded trade, deployed forces to Haiti and Bosnia, bailed out Mexico, enacted welfare reform, supported affirmative action and gun control, and opposed large tax cuts. That record alone speaks volumes about his leadership abilities.

But that record does not stand alone. And thus the paradox. Leadership is also about honesty and morality. And here, Bill Clinton failed himself and the nation. No one, including the president, can explain why he took the foolish risk he did with a White House intern. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that he looked the American people in the eye and lied about his affair. Part of the reason he lied was to protect his wife and daughter from the shame of his behavior; part of the reason was to hid his failing in the hope it would never become public.

Whatever the reason, the consequences of his misleading the public will haunt his legacy forever. The inability to acknowledge his mistake and the resulting impeachment process cost the nation dearly in respect for the institutions of our democracy. He kept his job by once again bringing his political skills to bear. His enemies became his best defense as he argued that their attacks were nothing more than partisan politics. But in the fight for survival, he lost sight of the fundamental attribute of leadership that should not be jeopardized in any presidency: the trust of the American people.

For those of us who believed in and served this president, the greatest disappointment was not so much the careless mistake he made, but the fact that it would somehow diminish all of the things the president had fought to achieve. Why someone who loved being president and loved doing good would risk all of that defies any logical explanation—except as part of the bundle of contradictions that is Bill Clinton.

The legacy

In the end, there is no simple definition of a complex person like Bill Clinton. Every president brings his strengths and weaknesses to the job. Our prayer as a nation is that a president’s strengths will prevail in leading America. But it is difficult to separate the devil and angel in all of us. Only in crisis is a president fully tested as to what part of his character will prevail. This president passed and failed depending on the test.

In confronting the problems of a nation, he often displayed wisdom, compassion and the leadership that helped guide America into an unprecedented period of prosperity and peace. That is a presidency that Americans will not soon forget.

But in confronting the awesome personal problem of having to admit to the American people a terrible mistake, he failed, and the nation suffered the ugly consequences. The impeachment that resulted was a national embarrassment that also will not be soon forgotten.

Each of us in our own heart, and the historians that reflect on this paradox of a president, will have to judge which Bill Clinton was more important to the nation. I would like to believe that the more lasting legacy is what this president did to improve the lives of his fellow human beings. But regardless, one thing I do know. His presidency will long be remembered. That in itself says a lot about his legacy.

© 2001 San Jose Mercury News