As the Age of Clinton comes to a merciful end, speculation about the disgraced president's legacy is a favorite pastime of tavern pundits, armchair historians, and political scientists. But for Clinton himself it is apparently an obsession.
Just ten days before the November election, Esquire magazine published an "exclusive" interview with the President. The press seized on his petulant remark that the Republicans "never apologized to the country for impeachment," and Clinton had said more or less the same thing to Joe Klein in his "exclusive" for The New Yorker, to a reporter from Israeli television in July, and to a few hundred newspaper editors at a convention last April.
But the most extravagant and revealing of the President's remarks drew little comment. "You have to understand," Clinton told the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "I consider [impeachment] one of the major chapters in my defeat of the revolution Mr. Gingrich led, that would have taken this country in a very different direction that it's going today, and also would have change the Constitution forever, in a way that would have been very destructive of the American people."
Just how much the Constitution and the American people would have fared over the past eight years is the theme of James Bovard's Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years, and David P. Schippers' Sell Out: The Inside Story of President Clinton's Impeachment.
Bovard is a libertarian journalist of the H.L. Mencken school whose previous books include Lost Rights and Freedom in Chains. Schippers is a lawyer and a lifelong Chicago Democrat who served as Chief Investigative Counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment crisis.
Bovard has penned an impressive 350-page (plus notes) precis of the corruption of the Clinton-Gore era. Yet he is uninterested in most of the Clintons' headline-grabbing scandals. Although Filegate and Waco get good treatment, Whitewater is mentioned only in passing and impeachment comes up maybe two or three times. To be sure, Bovard knows that Clinton often confused his personal and political well-being with the fate of the nation. For Clinton, lying under oath about his relationship with a White House intern, for example, was in the service of a greater good—defeating the Republican "Revolution" and securing his place in the pantheon of progressive politics.
But Bovard is more interested in Clinton's larger legacy, what he calls "the principle of government supremacy." Government, in Clinton's words, could be "a progressive instrument of the common good" and could "give all our people the tools to make the most of their own lives." But his policy prescriptions, far from "putting people first," tended to regard citizens as subjects. "More commands, more penalties, and more handouts were the recipe for progress," Bovard writes. "The Clinton administration consistently acted as if nothing is as dangerous as insufficient government power."
Under Clinton's watch, the federal register of regulations quintupled in size, filling more that 80,000 pages. Over 700 new crimes were added to the federal statute books. The federal government consumed more than 21% of the gross domestic product in taxes and Americans carried the largest tax burden since World War II, yet America's defenses slipped steadily. In his eight years, Clinton issued more executive orders that Presidents Reagan and Bush combined, covering a range of policies from Medicare to gun control to implementing the Kyoto global warming treaty—a treaty the Senate never ratified. In fact, Clinton routinely thumbed his nose at the Senate by appointing unconfirmable cronies (remember Bill Lann Lee?) without its advice and consent. He used the Justice Department and the White House Counsel as his personal law firm. He steadfastly refused to comply with court rulings when it suited him or his favored constituents.
Bovard makes a mockery of the Clinton-Gore effort to "reinvent government." One-hundred thousand cops on the street? Not even close. Americorps' paid "volunteers"? A $500 billion boondoggle staffed by people "barely competent for any task more complex that picking up beer along a highway."
What about the much-vaunted IRS reform of a few years back? Since Clinton took office, the IRS seized more that 12 million bank accounts and paychecks; put liens on over three million homes; confiscated homes, cars and property from more than 100,000 people; used audits to punish individuals and groups critical of the administration; and squeezed citizens out of tens of billions of dollars in taxes they otherwise didn't owe. "We don't give points around here for being good scouts," an IRS instructor tells his students. "Enforcement. Seizure and sales. That's our mindset…"
On the other hand, Bovard deadpans, "taxpayers now have the option of making their tax payment checks out to the Treasury Department instead of the IRS."
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David Schippers treats the administration's "reinvention" efforts with a bit more gravity. In one of the most revelatory chapters of his book, he shows how the "reinventors" of the Immigration and Naturalization Service sped up the citizenship process of more than a million aliens—including at least 75,000 with criminal records—in time for the 1996 presidential election. The House Judiciary Committee put its investigation of these abuses on hold for the impeachment inquiry. But, as Schippers notes, "Had we been given sufficient time to develop evidence and witnesses, the [Citizenship USA program] matter might have been included in the abuse of power impeachment article." In the end, however, there would be no abuse of power impeachment article.
Impeachment gave the Republican Congress and opportunity to govern, to exercise its role as a coequal branch of government, and to right a serious wrong. As with so many of its opportunities, this one was squandered in the service of "bipartisanship." Today, the Constitution and Congress are weaker for it. Schippers tries to explain why.
Schippers performs a number of services in Sell Out. He refutes, once and for all, the imbecilic claim that Clinton's impeachment was "only about sex." More important, he tells the story of how the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate—Majority Leader Trent Lott especially—sold out the House Managers and derailed the investigation. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska could have been speaking for the entire Senate when he told Rep. Henry Hyde, "I don't care if you prove [Clinton] raped a woman and then stood up and shot her dead—you are not going to get sixty-seven votes." The trial was over before it reached the Senate floor.
But there is plenty of guilt to spread around, and Schippers spares no one from his wrath. "Democrats in both Houses sold out basic principles of law and decency for the sake of protecting one of their own," Schippers writes. "But most distressingly, the President of the United States of America and his White House water boys sold out the American people."
Schippers hints at even more damning evidence against Clinton "under seal for 50 years." He states flatly that had he and his team of investigators been given the time and the authority, they were prepared "to document other potentially impeachable offenses completely unrelated to Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky."
But it didn't happen. And even though polls now show that a majority of Americans supported the House vote to impeach the President, neither Clinton nor the Republicans have drawn the right lessons. The President, for all of his "apologies," is unrepentant. And the Republicans? They'd rather not talk about it.
In the Esquire interview, the President claimed that after eight years and $100 million spent on special counsels, grand juries, and sundry congressional probes, "the have yet to come up with one example of official misconduct in office—not one."
But Clinton is half right: the Republicans should apologize to the country—not for impeaching the President, but for making such a botch of the job.
Now Bill Clinton threatens us with the prospect of burdening future generation with his interpretation of events. But Clinton cannot be blamed for everything. He had help. A Republican Congress wrote many of the laws he signed, after all.
A dozen or so centuries from now, historians will assemble in great conclaves to dissect what became of the American Republic at the close of the 20th century. How will they judge American politics? Will they see a change in the habits of the people, in their relationship with their elected officials, in their esteem for their government? Will they note how the politics of "compassion" quietly usurped constitutional government?
Will they agree with James Bovard that "Many Americans concluded that untrustworthy individuals can be trusted with greater power—as long as they promise to do good?" That rigid old Constitution is awkward and inconvenient and unpleasant. It gets in the way of all kinds of great ideas, like fixing up schools, "common sense" gun control, and searching people's houses without the benefit of search warrants. Bill Clinton's singular accomplishment was to persuade a large portion of the American people that feeling their pain was more important than the rule of law. That's an unsettling legacy by any measure.