this was a completely illegitimate exercise, because Clinton was
being attacked for his sex life. I think this is wrong, since
reasonable people could either (a) say Clinton deserved impeachment
because he lied under oath in a federal court proceeding or (b)
say that impeachment was inappropriate, because the offense was
not central to his service in office.
most Republicans agreed with (a), and most Democrats with (b):
We all tend to break ties in favor of the home team. The Democratic
bloggers note correctly that impeachment didn't help the Republicans
politically. But they still seem incensed, and I think that's
because they believe that impeachment, in their view unfairly,
tended to delegitimize the Clinton presidency.
It has been
a habit of presidents to try to write their own history, to establish
themselves as a legitimate embodiment of America's past and shaper
of America's future. Franklin Roosevelt did it better than any
other 20th century president, relating his actions to those of
Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln, his cousin
Theodore Roosevelt, and his onetime boss, Woodrow Wilson. FDR
encouraged the idea that history is a story of progress toward
an ever larger and more generous government. That version of American
history was propagated by a brace of gifted historians and in
most mainstream media.
afterward, presidents were judged by the FDR standard. Harry Truman
was crude and ineloquent, but he made tough decisions and got
them mostly right (a view that stands up well). Dwight Eisenhower
smiled and played golf, but was an inarticulate bumbler (a version
that doesn't stand up at all). John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson
were stalwart and compassionate liberals (which ignores the facts
that they embarked on the Vietnam War and wiretapped Martin Luther
King Jr.). Richard Nixon was a villain who left in disgrace (even
though he extricated us from Vietnam and greatly expanded government).
wrote a different version of history. Like FDR, he showed that
a strong and assertive America could advance freedom in the world.
But unlike Roosevelt, he saw government at home as the problem,
not the solution, and he utterly refuted the liberal elites who
said that low-inflation economic growth was no longer possible
and that America was on the defensive in the world. Not so. We've
had low-inflation growth for most of the past 25 years, and the
Soviet Union has disappeared. History doesn't always move left
-- sometimes it moves right.
unsurprisingly don't like this version of history, and in Bill
Clinton they had a president with the articulateness and political
instincts to offer his own. He could claim that his policies,
like Reagan's, produced prodigious economic growth and that his
limited military interventions promoted freedom and democracy.
But impeachment cast a pall on his record, and so did September
11: Clinton (like George W. Bush in his first eight months) failed
to address what turned out to be a deadly threat.
of history is mostly in line with Reagan's. Since Sept. 11, he
has led an aggressive policy against foreign enemies, while lowering
taxes and pursuing, with considerable success despite narrow Republican
majorities, mostly conservative policies at home.
politicians and the mainstream media, who bridle at the Reagan
version and are disappointed that it has not been displaced by
Clinton's, regarded Bush's victory in the Florida controversy
as illegitimate and have been trying furiously to delegitimize
him ever since. So far, this has proved at least as ineffective
politically as impeachment was for the Republicans, but the impulse
to persist seems irresistible.
will this continue? Democrats were used to writing our history
in most of the past century. But without a competing vision of
their own, they seem no more likely to succeed than Roosevelt's
or Reagan's furious opponents.