History Lesson

Rough Draft

Scholars grapple with Bill Clinton’s legacy.

What’s the upshot?

Since 1982, when Hofstra University hosted a conference on the achievements of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the school has regularly corralled scores of scholars, journalists, activists, and ex-government officials to evaluate the reigns of successive presidents. Last week it was Bill Clinton’s turn. Three hundred participants and hundreds more spectators trekked out to Hempstead, Long Island, for a three-day confab titled “William Jefferson Clinton: The ‘New Democrat’ From Hope.” The event served as both scholarly inquest and class reunion—with both the insiders (administration “alumni”) and the outsiders (the rest of us) taking a first crack at assessing the 42nd president’s legacy.

With 30-odd Clinton administration officials in attendance, plus keynote speeches from a half-dozen former Cabinet secretaries and an hour-long stemwinder in the basketball arena by Clinton himself, fears of a nostalgiclove-in ran high. But although the dual purpose of the conference at times worked against serious inquiry—the most popular question from the audience of regular citizens was, “Which Democrat should (or will) run in 2008?”—the tension between insiders and outsiders also led to some stimulating intellectual firefights.

Clinton has been gone five years, and we’re just now reaching the point where the authority of the insiders, having had their say through memoirs and media-spinning, is giving way to that of the outsiders. For this conference, at least, administration alumni still dominated the discussion of Clinton’s legacy. They received self-abasing deference from some moderators and drew the lion’s share of the audiences’ questions. But outsiders were nonetheless well enough represented that a clear distinction could emerge—between those who thought they could explain the Clinton presidency because they were there and those who thought they could do so because they weren’t.

Having witnessed policy-making up close, the alumni tend to distrust the analyses of scholars and journalists, who might gather documents, memoirs, and interviews but who, at the end of the day, simply weren’t in the room when history was being made. Scholars and journalists rebut that any individual participant—however much he thinks he has a unique purchase on the president’s motives, goals, or ideas—sees but one facet. Moreover, the participant will unwittingly overrate any meetings he attended and downplay those he missed or never knew about. For Clinton, this poses a special problem, since he notoriously let every Oval Office visitor leave feeling that his position had been endorsed. Only the disinterested observer, scholars and journalists claim, can gather and make sense of these competing viewpoints.

Many times, an alumni perspective did enrich the debate, as when Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg suggested—against a clever (perhaps too clever) paper arguing that Clinton’s success stemmed from his skill at reinvention—that in fact it was his authenticity, his undeniable connection to ordinary people, that accounted for his recurring successes over nine years, even through tough times like the impeachment ordeal.

On the other hand, one erstwhile Clinton underling who egregiously exhibited the solipsism of the blind man feeling the elephant was Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council. He was on my panel, “Redefining Liberalism,” which sought to locate Clintonism philosophically. After the sociologist Amitai Etzioni (via a research assistant sent to deliver his paper) argued for the importance of communitarianism to Clinton’s worldview, I argued that Clinton melded several diverse strands of thought, including but hardly limited to the DLC’s social conservatism. In response, From claimed that he alone knew “the facts” because he had been present at the creation. From, who by the end of his remarks was referring to the former president of the United States as “we,” certainly knew better than most of us the details of Clinton’s dealings with the DLC. But he seemed oddly unaware of—and thus unwilling to credit—the equally great influence upon Clinton of such competing ideas as Robert Reich’s neoliberalism and, indeed, old-fashioned FDR-style economic populism.

Earlier, I heard some whispering around the Mack Student Center that many Hofstra faculty members, rebelling against the profusion of Clintonites on the program, had demanded additional papers critical of the president. My panel was joined at the last minute by professor David M. Green, a Hofstra political scientist, for what he said was “ideological balance.” Green proceeded to deliver an eloquent and stinging—though to my mind completely misguided—broadside against Clinton for having sold out liberalism in favor of his own self-aggrandizement.

Even without these homegrown latecomers, though, most of the panels I heard contained plenty of Clinton-bashing. Papers challenged the alleged “myth” of Rubinomics, tallied the costs of NAFTA’s passage, cast a cold eye on welfare reform, faulted Clinton’s Iraq policy, and lamented his reflexive deference to the military. The academic left’s view of Clintonism as “Republicanism lite” was amply ventilated. What was surprising was that most of the criticism came from the left, not the right. It was as if the central fights of the 1990s had occurred not between liberals and conservatives but between Clintonites and Naderites.

But if the ideological battles sometimes seemed a bit intramural, the conference still worked. Not that it rendered any definitive verdict on Clinton’s “legacy.” As the historian John Robert Greene of Cazenovia College told one audience, we all would get asked umpteen times in the days ahead to judge Clinton’s presidency historically, and the only accurate answer was that it’s too early to tell.

Wise words. And yet the conference succeeded, paradoxically, because of the evident effort of most participants—insiders and outsiders—to try: to submit their theories about Clinton to their peers and thereby to strive haltingly toward a better grasp of his achievement. To hear Paul Begala or David Gergen struggle to explain why more Democrats aren’t emulating Clinton, or his speechwriters discuss why our most eloquent of presidents left surprisingly few Bartlett’s-worthy quotes, or a panel of defense experts wonder what Clinton would have done about Iraq in 2002, is to see personal experience pass into something resembling objective analysis. That’s what it looks like to see history being made.