The Second Term - An ambiguous legacy

In the domestic arena, Clinton's presidency ended, for all practical purposes, in the spring of 1999. He was not merely a lame duck, but a scarred one, with little congressional confidence behind him. His popularity remained high, as evidenced by the 1998 congressional elections. Perhaps voters were charmed by personality above all, or perhaps they no longer had any sense of structural interaction and interdependence —voting for their congressional representatives and the president as individuals, without regard to their possible cooperation or lack of it in creating legislation.

In any case, the two sessions of the 106th Congress were fairly devoid of legislative accomplishment. The good times rolled on to produce a $184 billion surplus, of which the president boasted in his final State of the Union address, in January 2000. He asked for a limited middle-class tax cut, more money for schoolrooms and teacher salaries, for prescription drug assistance to seniors on Medicare, stricter handgun control, and "fast track" trade-negotiating authority. He got none of them. But Congress did pass limited campaign finance reform, authorize normalization of trade with China, and reformed Depression-era banking laws to allow for new developments in the financial services industry.

During most of 2000 Clinton stayed behind the scenes, doing what he could for Al Gore's candidacy. For the most part, this consisted of letting Gore stand on his own feet, clear of the taint of Clinton's "immorality."

Clinton hoped the 2000 election would be something of a vindication. As it turned out, Al Gore won the popular vote, but not the electoral vote, and George W. Bush became the next president. The 107th Congress was not significantly different from the one preceding it; the Republicans barely kept control of the House and the Senate remained split evenly. A personal victory for the Clintons, however, was Hillary Clinton's election to the Senate from New York, where they would make their post-White House home.

President Clinton's final months in office were a mixture of wins and losses. In October 1999 Kenneth Starr stepped down as Whitewater special prosecutor and was succeeded by Robert Ray. Clinton had outlasted his nemesis in office. Ray did not pursue a perjury indictment to follow Clinton's departure from the White House, but Clinton in exchange admitted to having made a false statement in the now-settled Jones suit. He paid a fine of $25,000, and had his license to practice law in Arkansas suspended for five years. The U. S. Supreme Court also disbarred him, meaning that Clinton would not be allowed to practice before it. In all, the Jones suit set him back millions in legal fees.

The taint of improper fund-raising lingered, and in his last two weeks in office, a final eruption further sullied Clinton's reputation. On 11 January 2001, James Riady, an Indonesian businessman, pleaded guilty to funneling money through various devices to U.S. political parties, mainly Democratic. And on the morning of 20 January, Clinton listed the customary pardons issued by an outgoing president. They included commutation of the sentences of four Hasidic Jews convicted of embezzlement in New York State, who happened to have been active in lobbying the members of their community to support Hillary Clinton's Senate bid. And above all, a man little known to the public, named Marc Rich. Rich was a commodities trader who had fled to Switzerland in 1983 to escape prosecution for conspiracy, racketeering, and illegal trading with Iran, plus some $48 million in unpaid taxes. His ex-wife Denise, however, was a signifi-cant contributor to the Democratic party, operatives of which had marshaled an impressive array of friends including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, to call the White House and press for a pardon for Marc Rich. In the subsequent fallout and flurry of investigations, it also turned out that the First Lady's brother, Hugh Rodham, had received some $400,000 for lobbying on behalf of two convicted felons who received last-minute pardons.

Clinton responded to the outcry with various disclaimers and legalisms. His associates were quick to point out that George H. W. Bush's last-minute pardons in 1992 and 1993 included convicted or about-to-be-tried figures of the Iran-contra affair. Yet the Clintons still made their exit on a distinctly sour note. Accusations hounded them: one, that they had removed gifts that properly belonged to the White House; another, that Clinton's choice of an expensive mid-Manhattan penthouse as his taxpayer-paid ex-presidential office was exceptionally greedy. The departing First Couple again claimed that as always they were the victims of petty harassments. But they returned some thousands of dollars worth of gifts, and the solution to the penthouse office was vintage Clinton. He abandoned the suite in Carnegie Towers for a cheaper one in Harlem, New York's historic black heartland.

What evaluation of Clinton will history render? Will his name invoke the memory of scandal amid prosperity, like that of Harding? Or of riding a business boom that he did not create, like Coolidge? Will political history textbooks record him as the president who led the Democratic party to a new foundation on the essentially midroad sentiments of most Americans? Or as the president who cut the party loose from its moorings in the working class and its emphasis on community responsibility for the general welfare and restraint of private greed? Will he, as he of course wishes, be seen as the chief figure in the era of transition, leading the American people to a new world and a new century? The last seems unlikely given the impeachment. But even if the impeachment were forgotten, and a century hence American textbooks talked about a second Era of Good Feelings, who really remembers James Monroe, the president who presided over the first? Was Clinton a leader, a scoundrel, a figurehead, or a victim? The jury is still out.

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