First the US, now the world
People are missing Bill Clinton already. Especially his closest allies and his sworn enemies, those who love him and who love to hate him.
As George W Bush prepares to assume office under a pall of illegitimacy, the departing president remains the dominant political figure not only in the United States but across the world.
The latest news that Clinton is to set up court not in New York but in Washington can only mean one thing: that the end of his final term of office will create a presidency-in-exile, and that this is farewell but not goodbye to the man they once called the Comeback Kid.
President Zeitgeist, whose time is not yet past.
There is a story about Clinton’s idol, president Franklin Roosevelt: he used to travel with aides who could remember almost everyone he met on his rounds and who, upon a re-encounter, would whisper in the boss’s ear: “Name’s Jack; wife Sally. You played chess with him once.” “Hey Jack!” Roosevelt would say, to the amazed delight of those within earshot. “How’s Sally? We must play chess again sometime.”
The difference between Roosevelt and Clinton is this: Clinton doesn’t need the shadow. He can remember Jack and Sally by himself. Everyone who meets him thinks Clinton is their special friend.
“And,” says one-time aide Paul Begala, “the funny thing is that it’s sincere. For that moment he looks into your eyes, Clinton really loves you, just for that nanosecond.” In a patrician way, of course, but that is the stuff of great leaders. Bush says he “trusts the people”; Clinton just adores them.
Clinton was and remains the master of the tactile, ancient art of politics. Much is being written about Clinton’s achievements, and rightly so. The US is not the same country as he inherited.
In 1992 the country was in limbo, an interim period in Ronald Reagan’s shadow presided over by the ancien régime of George Bush Snr, economically and politically unsure of itself. Clinton now bequeaths to Bush Jnr a buoyant nation basking in the most economically prosperous epoch in its history.
Internationally, Clinton has become synonymous with the new global commercial order; he is, perhaps above all, the advocate of economic diplomacy, the president of trade. He presided over the years of liberal democracy’s unsteady conquest of the communist East. With others, he devised and became the figurehead for the Third Way, a political hegemony to which not only British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Lionel Jospin and Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder subscribe, but also the leaderships in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic—and even Israel and Russia.
Clinton’s record is one of intervention in the world and its crises. In Bosnia—true—he was protean and infuriating. But Clinton did halt the genocide in Kosovo. More than anyone, he did try to forge peace in Ireland and to make the end of war a realisable dream in the Middle East. He ended Uncle Sam’s image as oppressor and adviser to fascists and torturers in the Latin hemisphere; he courted communist China and built bridges to Hanoi and Pyongyang.
Set against all this, there is the one thing everyone will remember about the Clinton years: that this is the president who was grilled about which part of his penis Monica Lewinsky did or did not touch. This is the president who engineered the handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzak Shamir, but about whom a prosecutors’ tome was compiled detailing “oral-anal contact” in the Oval Office.
What is really interesting about Clinton is not what he did but how he did it. Harold Ickes, a loyal but rebuffed confidant, once told me: “Bill Clinton does so much more for his enemies than he does for his friends.” It’s a good point and one which defines at least one face of Clinton’s presidency. Clinton-hatred is special, qualitatively different from most political antagonism. For many on the US’s conservative right, Clinton’s presidency was in some way illegitimate. He was an upstart, a draft-dodger, a man who brought “un-American” values to the White House.
Working among these people, who detonated the impeachment crisis, in Arkansas, Washington and across the US, it became clear that there was indeed, as Hillary Clinton said, a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” to depose the president. After failing to achieve this through the paltry Whitewater scandal, it just happened to mobilise around the president’s one Achilles heel, a lusty droit de seigneur that has been customary among political leaders for centuries.
Most interesting were the reasons for this hatred. In down-home, hoe-down Arkansas, Clinton was a cocky rebel; clever, ambitious, at ease with blacks. He played the saxophone and no one believed that he hadn’t inhaled. He and Hillary brought people into the White House who were just as amazed to find themselves at work at the heart of power as the ancien régime was appalled.
Clinton populated the State Department and embassies across the world, hitherto associated with the Cold War and Reagan diplomacy, with young and dynamic diplomats under the directorship of Madeline Albright and young James Rubin. Clinton and his era wove a presidency with a texture that the incoming old guard will now unravel as it returns to the jaded colours of 1992.
But at the same time, Clinton dazzled the global power brokers with his grasp of political and economic realities. Clinton is an insatiable listener, obsessed with the fine-tuning of policy. The professionals of politics, diplomacy and economy were almost exhausted by his need to explore every nook and cranny, to hear every view before forming his own.
This weekend Clinton becomes the youngest ever former president, but this is a man too restless to retire. There have been many speculations about what he will do next. The easy version predicts a good life of sex, prestige lectures and videotape. But there is a more serious plan afoot, a scheme that could have a major and original impact on world politics, which emanates from among the inner circle at the White House that has no intention of putting eight years’ work into mothballs.
The fundamental notion is this: that whatever the constitutional strictures that prevented him from running again, and whatever the election “result” that puts Bush in the White House, Clinton is a man of his time. That time is the end of the Cold War; the decade in which his presidency took over the US from the ancien régime was that which also saw the shedding of other skins: Margaret Thatcher giving way to Blair, Jacques Chirac to Jospin, Helmut Kohl to Schröder, Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, Binyamin Netanyahu to Ehud Barak—in short, the Third Way. It is the same current running midstream along the same river—it is the zeitgeist, both generational and ideological.
Everyone knows that Al Gore fitted into this nexus like a round peg into a round hole. He must have envisaged himself at those G8 summit meetings, and the vision deprived must torture him. Everyone also knows that Bush is a square peg in that round hole.
Bush himself says he wants to take the US back to the year that his father lost office. The programme of Clinton and his close entourage rests on the natural political affinity between Europe and the Clinton court in Georgetown on the Western edges of Washington DC, rather than Bush’s White House.
The presidency-in-exile is making contacts with allies at home and in Europe and Russia.
In the US, the foundations are being laid for a Democrat siege of Capitol Hill in the 2002 elections, and a presidential candidacy in 2004 by Hillary Clinton, Gore or both. Overseas, there is intensive chatter between the outgoing White House and people for whom a Bush administration is both temporary and politically anomalous—with friends in Blair’s New Labour, Jospin’s Socialists and Schröder’s Social Democrats.
For all their formal diplomatic obligations, it will be hard for any of these parties to flourish in a “special relationship” with Bush while Clinton and his busy entourage are wheeling, dealing and frequent-flying across the Atlantic. There is no doubt that a hesitant, isolationist Bush could fall under the shadow of a busy, globetrotting Clinton.
This year’s Third Way conference in Stockholm is intended to be a coming-out party for the shadow Atlantic Alliance. Clinton, of course, will have no official title, except that which those who are weaving this plot give him: “World president of the Third Way.” Or perhaps more appropriately, as one close aide prefers: “President of the world.” Even if that title fails to convince the entire planet, one thing is for certain: this is no time to bid a final goodbye to the Comeback Kid.