“NOTHING in his life,” one character in Macbeth says of another, “became him like the leaving it.”
It would have been nice to say of Bill Clinton that nothing in his presidency became him like the leaving it. Those of us who spent the last eight years amazed by the endless variety of ways the 42nd president found to soil his office had hoped that he would at least depart modestly and with good taste. Alas, he gave us not even that.
Refusing to keep a low profile for his successor’s swearing-in, Clinton used his last hours as president to make one more radio broadcast and to pardon an astonishing 140 convicts — including a Weather Underground terrorist, Whitewater criminal Susan McDougal, and a fugitive billionaire racketeer and tax cheat whose family just happened to contribute $1.3 million to the Democratic Party.
That was enough to guarantee himself some of the Inauguration Day spotlight — but it wasn’t enough. Clinton needed more: a 90-minute rally at Andrews Air Force Base, complete with a review of the troops and a speech longer than George W. Bush’s inaugural address.
“I left the White House, but I’m still here!” Clinton assured the crowd. “We’re not going anywhere!”
And then came a rally at Kennedy Airport in New York. And then, the next day, an impromptu press conference in Chappaqua. And then …
… and then I made myself face the truth. He means it. He isn’t going anywhere. Yes, he packed his bags, zipped his pants, and turned the White House keys over to the new tenants — but he’s still here. There are more grotesqueries to come from our ex-president. There will be more truth-twisting, more money-grubbing, more scandal. Even out of office, he will find seamy new ways to degrade the presidency. Just wait.
Meanwhile, what are we to make of the oddly popular notion that the only reason Clinton is leaving the White House at all is because the Constitution limits him to two terms?
“Without the 22nd Amendment,” Steve Chapman, the Chicago Tribune’s brainy columnist, wrote last fall, the Democrats “could have asked the American people to keep … Clinton around for another four years, and the people probably would have agreed.”
“He leaves office with record approval ratings,” the Guardian of London beams, “and would certainly have won a third term had the Constitution allowed.”
“Too bad for Democrats there’s a 22nd Amendment that keeps Clinton from running again,” Time’s Margaret Carlson lamented after one of the Gore-Bush debates. “His job-approval rating surpasses Ronald Reagan’s in his final days.”
“If the Constitution had not barred him from running again,” declared The New York Times in a Page 1 story, “polls suggest he might well be preparing for a third term.”
Actually, polls suggest the opposite.
In a compilation for the American Enterprise Institute, the scholars Seymour Martin Lipset and Karlyn Bowman have corralled a wealth of data on the public’s opinion of Clinton. (It’s available online in the “Political Corner” of the AEI web site, www.aei.org). No question, his job-approval numbers have been consistently high. But that’s not the whole story.
“Thinking about Bill Clinton as a person,” Gallup asked 11 times starting in September 1998, “do you have a positive or negative opinion of him?” Each time, 50 percent or more answered: negative.
In 33 other second-term surveys, voters were asked if they approved of Clinton personally, whether or not they approved of his job performance. Not once did a majority ever approve of him personally.
Another survey, August 2000: “Would you say you respect President Clinton or don’t you feel that way?” Don’t feel that way: 52 percent.
Time and again respondents have told pollsters that history will remember Clinton more for his scandals than his accomplishments. In August 1998, with the Lewinsky scandal at full blast, 71 percent held that opinion. Two years later the percentage was even higher — even though impeachment was off the media’s radar screen and the election campaign was in full swing.
It takes a robust imagination to conclude that a president seen as permanently tainted with scandal, one disapproved of personally by most of his countrymen and considered by them unworthy of respect, would have been a shoo-in for a third term.
As it happens, pollsters have asked the “third term” question many times. The answer has been virtually unvarying: No.
“If it were possible,” Fox/Opinion Dynamics asked four times in 1998 and 2000, “would you want to see President Clinton elected to a third term?” A majority — 73 percent the last time — said no every time.
In four polls of its own, Pew Research asked if respondents agreed or disagreed with the statement “I wish Bill Clinton could run for a third term.” Four times they disagreed — overwhelmingly.
It seemed at times as if it would never end, but the Clinton Era at last is over. The man has his diehard fans, but most Americans shed no tears at his departure. “Are you going to miss him or not?” an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked last month. By 55 to 40: Not.
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