The Presidency

excerpted from the book

The Corruption of American Politics

by Elizabeth Drew

The Overlook Press, 1999


Clinton's failure to lead on campaign finance reform was of a piece with his general failure to lead. And his presidency contributed to the decline of the Office of President-even before the sex scandal. His wasn't the first presidency to do so, but Clinton's own contribution was substantial and of historical importance. His flawed presidency was another disappointment and added to the cumulative negative impact, coming as it did after the disillusionment caused by the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon over the Vietnam War and Watergate, the disappointment of the Ford and Carter presidencies, the societal divisions of the Reagan presidency (though Reagan himself remained popular). The limited vision of the Bush presidency was another disappointment. That Clinton remained popular during most of his presidency doesn't belie this point. Clinton laid waste to two of the office's most important elements: its mystique and its power to influence the public and the Congress.

Clinton's presidency has been a squandered opportunity. His formidable political skills and exceptional brain have gone more to self-preservation than to leadership-and this, too, was true well before he became enmeshed in the sex scandal that blew up in January 1998. If the definition of leadership is acting on things one feels strongly about and being willing to risk some political capital in order to achieve them-Clinton has come up short. In fact, with a few exceptions, it wasn't very clear what Clinton did feel strongly about.

No presidency has been as poll-driven as Bill Clinton's. When Richard Wirthlin polled for President Reagan, he did it two to three times a month-unless there was a crisis, during which he polled nightly. But there was another big difference. A Democratic political consultant says, "Reagan used polling to figure out how to sell his beliefs. Clinton uses polling to figure out what to believe."

At a time of unparalleled prosperity, and even into his second term, Clinton had given the country no sense of direction. The President enjoyed the political fruits of the prosperity, the longest peacetime economic expansion in history, accompanied by low inflation and low unemployment. His support of the 1993 economic plan, cutting spending and raising taxes, had something to do with that. His acceptance, in 1995, of the concept of the balanced budget-pushed on him by Gingrich and opposed by several of his aides, but urged on him by his then-guru, Dick Morris, to help his election prospects-helped push the budget from red to black (with the help of a surplus of over $125 billion in the Social Security trust fund). The surplus that showed up in 1998-and was announced a week before the election-gave Clinton the opportunity to provide the country with a grand vision, but he didn't do so. His State of the Union speech in 1999 continued his by-then habit of handing out goodies to all the Democratic constituencies, or hoped-for constituencies. His speech was a myriad of poll-tested proposals, most of them small in aim. He still had an opportunity to resolve two long-range and politically difficult problems: assuring the soundness of the Social Security and Medicare programs, about to be flooded by the "baby boomers." But in both cases Clinton chose the easy way out...

Clinton's degradation of the office of the presidency also degraded our national discourse. Even in a time when people are said to be "turned off" Washington, what a president does affects the country's conversation. Certainly, public talk of the President's genitals, and of oral sex with an intern, and of whether the President of the United States considered receiving oral sex as constituting "sexual relations" had a devastating effect on the dignity of the office. Clinton's popularity and the blunders of his adversaries did not change that. After the sex scandal broke, Clinton's personal approval ratings were far below the oft-cited approval ratings of how he was doing his job.

Previous presidents had lied to the public. Johnson did and Nixon did and Reagan did (about trading arms for hostages), and George Bush did (when he said that the fact that Clarence Thomas was black "has nothing to do with this in the sense that he is the best qualified [for the Supreme Court] at this time"), but Clinton's sustained lying almost ruined his presidency.

Actually, few Democrats on Capitol Hill believed Clinton when on January 26, 1998, five days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, he denied having had "sexual relations with that woman." Among the disbelievers were some who expressed shock when Clinton later owned up to the affair.

That he told individual senators and congressmen as well as the public, his staff, and almost anyone who happened by, a bald-faced lie, assured that even if he survived politically his word meant even less than ever. This was a dangerous state of affairs for a presidency, which might at any moment have to call on the public to do something hard. (One person he lied to was Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who, shortly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, when Clinton's political survival seemed at risk, and several Democrats were on the verge of abandoning Clinton, called Clinton to ask if the story was true. Clinton assured Daschle that it wasn't, whereupon Daschle went on the line for Clinton.)

Clinton had succeeded for so long in talking his way out of corners, his confidence in his ability to outsmart others, was so strong, that he seemed to have come to believe that there was no corner he couldn't get out of. His series of evasive replies to questions about whether he had smoked marijuana, culminating, in the course of the 1992 campaign, in "I didn't inhale" was symbolic of his political career. His saying to the grand jury, in August 1998, in the course of the sex scandal, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" entered the political lexicon right away.

And Clinton pushed his luck. Fending off charges that the White House had planted a story that some time ago Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had had an extended extra-marital affair (a report that, while true, infuriated Hyde, who strongly suspected the White House). Clinton's press secretary,

Michael McCurry, said, "Everyone can blame the White House because [the perception is that] the White House lies about everything, that our credibility is zero."

In October 1998, when a Democratic representative briefing the House Democratic Caucus on dealings with the White House on the issue of how to conduct the census said that the President had promised to hold firm, her statement was greeted with laughter.

The egregiousness of Clinton's dishonesty about the sex scandal, as will be shown, made people suspicious of virtually everything he said or did-including his management of foreign policy.

Many people believe that the damage that Clinton did to the presidency can be erased if his successor is a figure who commands respect, has moral authority. But Clinton's time in office will leave scars, irrespective of his current popularity.

Political Corruption

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