Sunday, January 21, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 21, 2001

Clinton leaves flawed yet impressive record

In his farewell address to the nation Thursday, Bill Clinton pointed with pride to an achievement no president before him can match:

"Through our last four budgets, we have been able to pay down $600 billion of our national debt - on track to be debt-free by the end of the decade for the first time since 1835."

That means that Clinton has in large measure assured our children’s and grandchildren’s fiscal future, where previous presidents had mortgaged it.

Yet it was impossible to view Clinton’s speech without a strong sense that something was missing. He spoke not a single word of apology or regret, yet his lapses of discipline and judgment, for many Americans, made his departure from the White House something that couldn’t come too soon. After all, not every president leaves office marked by impeachment, even if it was partisan political overkill.

Clinton thus leaves an ambivalent record of achievement and scandal, of glorious moments and utter whiffs, that will leave historians struggling to assess his legacy for some time to come. Articles in today’s Focus Section credit him with important successes:

He moved his party toward the center, not only to increase its share of electoral votes, but substantively to alter, generally for the better, policies on welfare, crime, education and urban policy.

By balancing the budget, he deprived Republicans of their excuse for dismantling government activism.

In perhaps his most lasting achievement, he led the nation and his party away from economic nationalism to global economic engagement, the wave of the future.

And he surely can claim a share of the credit for nearly a decade of American prosperity.

Yet he also leaves behind the unmistakable odor of fund raising and other scandals, childish sexual high jinks in the Oval Office, and an extraordinary agreement reached on his last full day in office in which, to avoid indictment for false statements in the Monica Lewinsky affair, he agreed to surrender his law license for five years and pay a $25,000 fine.

In foreign affairs, he came close in Northern Ireland, missed in Israel, Somalia and Haiti and left Yugoslavia with a belatedly tenuous and costly peace. He brought China into the WTO, but neglected Asia and never established a comprehensive Asia policy.

More broadly, he failed to develop - even to address the need for, some argue - a national post-Cold War agenda. He also leaves a frustrating array of opportunities missed, of promising initiatives killed by lack of follow-through, of ad hoc decision-making and too much melodrama.

"Clinton’s flaws confounded his talents," writes Ronald Brownstein in these pages. "Ambivalence may be the only justified verdict on Clinton’s presidency."

That said, however, in eight years there was never a dull moment.

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