A Tale Of Two Presidents, Part One
Presidents are larger than life. Each leaves a legacy like no other person on the planet, because through a peaceful process and transfer of power, the President of the United States leads the most powerful nation on earth. Each comes to office a product of their past, their beliefs and ideals.
All in all, it is clear that no president has been malevolent toward his fellow Americans, notwithstanding those on the political fringes of either that claim otherwise. Nevertheless, it is very clear that Presidents can be very different- and it is those differences we wish to explore.
Bill Clinton and George Bush personify two very different presidents. Each have their strengths and weaknesses. What is of interest is in how they are perceived. In this post, we will discuss Mr Clinton. We will follow up with a critical look at Mr Bush.
Bill Clinton is a mix of giftedness and shortcomings. He can at once be brilliant- and within moments, transform himself into someone incredibly myopic and lacking in judgment. A man of tremendous discipline, he proved time and time again how weak he could be. That he loves his wife and daughter is unquestionable. That he hurt them over and over, is unquestionable as well.
Generations of historians will be fascinated by him and decades of Monday morning quarterbacking will bring us no closer to really understanding him. He remains, a metaphor for the human condition, embodying the promise and failures in each of us.
Mr Clinton overcame tremendous obstacles in his life, to his credit. His road to the White House was not easy. It could not have been, given his personal history. That he even dreamed the presidency as attainable, is a testament to his tenacity- and to the mother who raised him.
To those who know him best, Mr Clinton was and is, a very insecure man. He has a need to be loved and a thirst for attention. It is quite clear his insecurities and his need for recognition fueled his political ambitions. Ultimately, the need for recognition and even greater ambition drove him to the White House.
It was those same needs that were his weaknesses. Monica Lewinsky, who should have remained below the 'below the radar,' took center stage because she wanted his attentions, not to serve the office, but rather, to serve the man. She was to prove irresistible to the president. In fact, it was Lewinsky who stalked Mr Clinton. In the end, her pursuit points out just how weak even the President of the United States can be.
Most pundits agree that even his cabinet members were selected in small part because they would not detract from his spotlight. Even after two terms in office, he seems lost without the spotlight. Whether it is in public appearances, or fostering talk of him as the next UN Secretary General, Mr Clinton has not faded into the background in the way other former presidents have.
Of course, Monica Lewinsky did not undermine Mr Clinton's presidency. To think otherwise is absurd. Presidential weaknesses for women are legendary, and included John Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower. Both are regarded as great presidents. Mr Clinton is not in that category because his insecurities undermined him. He was so desperate to be liked and so anxious to be loved that it prevented him from taking bold, decisive, and ultimately, controversial action. The great presidents- all of them- took actions that, right or wrong, took actions that were controversial and unpopular.
After terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, American embassies in Africa, the USS Cole, and other targets, Mr Clinton lobbed a few missiles and stopped there. As Saddam Hussein slaughtered his people and fired regularly on American war planes, Mr Clinton responded by firing a few more cruise missiles at Iraq. In fact, had he responded with any more authority, would have made him as reviled as George W. Bush- clearly something he could not live with.
No single president can stop the world's injustices. Clearly, Mr Clinton responded at times, when called upon- when the response could be choreographed and managed, or was taken in concert with others. It is also true that Mr Clinton stood idly by as the genocides in Srebrenica and Rwanda occurred. We did intervene in Kosovo, but only after untold thousands died.
In discussing terrorism and Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 commission report that tells us that the Clinton administration canceled three planned hits against Bin Laden for fear of injury to innocent civilians. Clearly, foreign policy under his administration was lacking. That said, it is also clear that he was in no way responsible for 9/11- Able Danger notwithstanding. The problem then and now lies in the culture of of the intelligence community.
Mr Clinton has repeated on numerous occasions that he helped bring down 'the greatest dictator' in the latter half of the 20th century, Slobodan Milosovic. He ignores the fact that Saddam Hussein killed many tens of times more than Milosovic did. In fact, it was Mr Clinton's successor that rid the world of the evil that was Saddam Hussein. To be fair, Mr Clinton is not the only president to inflate/ignore reality, but is telling, given his predilection for opining on matters of the day.
That he claims the support and undying admiration of Whoopi Goldberg, Dom Deloise and Arsenio Hall as validation for his legacy is telling. He doesn't seem to understand that as President of the United States, his life is far more consequential than theirs. That he claims their adulation does not elevate his status- it only detracts from it.
It is true the UN loved Bill Clinton, and it is also clear that Mr Clinton has a great fondness for that organization, despite the fact that Americans hold the UN in low regard. Why is that? Simple. Mr Clinton did nothing to upset the status quo at the UN and basked in the fawning attention. Not even when when Libya became the chair of the UN Human Rights Commission, and Kofi Annan refused to take any decisive action in Rwanda when he served as head of the UN’s peacekeeping forces in 1994, did Mr Clinton offer any censure.
As we have noted, great men become hated when they take bold action. Lincoln was hated when he decided to fight to save the Union. Churchill was thought quite mad when he realized that Europe had to be made aware of the threat Hitler posed- even as the world turned a blind eye.
Mr Clinton's most commendable achievement was providing the American people with a highly prosperous economy- no small matter. In the end, the Clinton years will be remembered for the total absence of bold and decisive American leadership on the world stage.
What destroys almost great men comes from within, not from without. They cannot abide criticism, because they lack the strength to absorb and learn from it. These men go down with the ship, knowing their shortcomings and yet refusing to deal with them. They lash out at their adversaries and assume the role martyr and victim.
We want to make clear that we do not hate Bill Clinton. There is much about the man to be admired- most notably his absolute sincere love for his fellow man. We find that quality admirable and worthy of note.
In the end, however, it is not enough to 'feel your pain.' We are obligated to do more than feel- we must act to alleviate that pain, even if acting is unpopular, will cost us dearly, or will soil our clothes. Mr Clinton did not take the bold steps that would have truly elevated him to greatness.
Had Mr Clinton dealt with his demons, those insecurities that drove him to the world stage and then drove him away from the accompanying responsibilities, he would have been a magnificent president. Rather than seek salvation from the potential greatness within, he sought comfort from damaged court jesters that make up the Hollywood elite.
The story is one of legend. A boy from Hope, Arkansas, grows up, never knowing his father. He witnesses his beloved mother beat by her new husband. He makes and keeps a vow to look out for her. Despite the adversities, he becomes a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and then becomes the youngest Governor in United States history.
Bill Clinton may never be regarded as a great president. There is no doubt he is a American success story.