President William Jefferson Clinton

The only farewell essay you need to read.

Part 1 of a one-part series.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Elvis is leaving the building. After an eight-year virtuoso performance, a concert of aching lows and remarkable (alternative: “striking”) highs, he is singing his final encore, taking his last bows. For 96 months (alt: “nearly 3,000 days”), he has been the indispensable man (alt: “alpha and the omega”/”sun and moon”/”rock and roll”/”wise King Henry and roguish Falstaff”) of American politics.

William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States of America, has been a leader of astonishing contradictions. (Choose any two of following three contradictions: 1) resurrected his Democratic Party, yet helped it lose the House, Senate, and now White House; 2) dragged American politics to the center, yet provoked unparalleled partisan divisions; 3) appalled the nation with sordid sex scandal and impeachment, yet leaves office with highest approval ratings of any president—if Talk magazine, be sure to mention likelihood he would have won third term.) He has demonstrated public brilliance and private squalor (alt: amazed us with his bountiful political gifts, exasperated us with his venal selfishness). He leaves America stronger and richer than he found it, yet historians will argue till long after his death about how much credit he deserves for that—and how much blame for the scandals that dogged his presidency.

Soulful quote from Leon Panetta marveling at Clinton’s political accomplishment, regretting his personal failing, followed by quizzical comment by a pop historian—preferably Douglas Brinkley—about the impossibility of deciding whether Clinton should be ranked among the great presidents.

In a series of (choose two adjectives: exhaustive, soul-searching, probing, exclusive) interviews this October, Mr. Clinton reflected on his two terms and his legacy. (If magazine article, reporter marvels at the Oval Office and/or Air Force One, mentions bit of Elvis memorabilia visible on president’s desk and unlit cigar president is chewing, and comments on extraordinary size of Clinton’s hands.) Looking at once confident and humble, the president exuded the dignity and reserve he has grown into in office.

Opening quote (required): “I leave office more idealistic about the American system and American people than when I arrived eight years ago.”

Asked about his legacy, the president replies: “That will be for the historians to figure out. But I will say this. I have helped America face many of the same opportunities and changes that (pick two of four: Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman) grappled with when they were president.”

Opening section trumpets to close with conclusions that Clinton is president who (in any order): 1) brought America from the Industrial Age to the Information Age; 2) tarnished the presidency by making it more familiar and less dignified; 3) restored faith in federal government by making it smaller yet more effective.

New section, preferably titled “Great Expectations”:

Bill Clinton descended on Washington in 1993 like an Arkansas twister (alt: “Ozark lightning”). He was our first baby boomer president, and he arrived overflowing with youthful energy and wielding awesome political skills. He had run a campaign that had throbbed with ideas and activity. Clinton’s ‘92 campaigning style described. Possible adjectives: tactile, empathic, carnal. Foreshadowing comment about need to be loved.

Grudging quote from Newt Gingrich acknowledging tactical brilliance.

But Washington quickly tested the new president’s skills. Dreary history of 1993 deficit crisis, first budget package, GOP opposition. Build to big finish applauding president for laying groundwork for seven years of explosive economic growth. A slightly opaque quote from Robert Rubin about Clinton’s bravery.

But at what cost? That budget fight damaged the president’s Democratic allies and previewed a quality of the president’s that his admirers and detractors would grow all too familiar with: his willingness to compromise principles, sometimes for the greater good, sometimes for pure political gain. Passing reference to Lani Guinier. Slightly embittered, but still funny, quote from Robert Reich.

The president would not compromise enough in his next battle: the fight over first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care plan. Boilerplate paragraphs about the complexity of the Clinton marriage, his blind spot about her. The account of the health plan’s defeat. Key words: secretive, overambitious, failure to compromise.

The health plan’s defeat ushered in the Republican Revolution of 1994 and threatened to usher out the Clinton presidency. But in the lowest days of 1995, the president marshaled his strength and, proving himself a black belt in political jujitsu, turned the Republican Revolution against itself. Gloating Clinton quote: “We knew Gingrich would overreach.” President Clinton co-opted—or his former supporters argue “caved to”—Republican ideas, never more boldy than when he signed the Republican welfare-to-work bill. This enraged liberals—rancorous Peter Edelman quote here—but the president came to see welfare reform as a centerpiece of his effort to change American understanding of poverty and race. Admiring discussion of Earned Income Tax Credit, the decline in welfare rolls, slight doubt about what will happen to welfare recipients in recession. Quick cameos by Dick Morris and triangulation.

Segue into discussion of unprecedented closeness of Clinton and African-Americans. Sister Souljah kicks off the passage but is quickly trumped by Toni Morrison calling Clinton the “first black president.”

Section, recommended title “The Business of Foreign Policy”:

Long anecdote about Somalia disaster in 1993, followed by dismal mention of Bosnia and Haiti. But that vacillation has given way to resolution, most notably in the successful 1999 intervention in Kosovo.

The most remarkable foreign policy of the Clinton years, however, has been economic policy. Long explanation of NAFTA, MFN for China, Asian economic crisis. Rubin is quoted describing the president’s bold Mexican bailout.

Section “The MTV Presidency”:

Bill Clinton has reinvented the presidency by understanding—often too well—the rhythms of American media culture. Reference to MTV boxers-briefs interview. Quote from Michael Waldman’s book about the administration policy of constant communication. Possible phrase: “presidency of chatter.” President no longer distant commander but loving older brother.

Or perhaps lascivious uncle. Lewinsky scandal is discussed very briefly and vaguely, reflecting fatigue of author with it. Political implications of scandal introduced with an acrid anonymous quote from a former White House official—Leon Panetta?—wondering why Clinton would spoil such a great presidency. Partisan divide in Congress is mentioned, as is permanent conservative opposition. Impeachment itself rates only one sentence. Three key presidential quotes: 1) He calls impeachment pure “power politics” by the Republicans; 2) he says the experience of being “attacked” has made him a better person; 3) he likens himself to Wen Ho Lee, Nelson Mandela, or black victims of discrimination.

If Americans have learned anything about their president, it is that Bill Clinton is a survivor. The Comeback Kid always has one more comeback in him. Long anecdote about 1998 State of the Union, how Clinton stole momentum from Republicans during early days of Lewinsky by vowing to use the surplus to “save Social Security first.” A paragraph admires how he took the initiative post-impeachment to pass MFN for China and control the Republican Congress.

Penultimate paragraph dwelling on failure. Too timid to grapple with Social Security and Medicare before they explode. Preferred talk to action. No coattails for Al Gore. Left a “partisan bitterness” that still “poisons the capital.”

Rise to rousing, if ambivalent finish. Smallness of other politicians (notably Gore and the Georges Bush) compared to him. His misfortune: a great man in a dull time. Suggested metaphor: “giant on a Shetland pony.” Wistful close (choose one of three): 1) promise fulfilled, but small promises for a small age; 2) arrived full of promise, leaves full of promise; 3) fulfilled promise in public life, broke it in private.