A Reference Resource
William Jefferson Clinton, the young President from Hope, Arkansas, succeeded where no other Democrat had since Franklin Roosevelt: he was reelected to a second term. Clinton also defied his critics by surviving an array of personal scandals, turning the greatest fiscal deficit in American history into a surplus, effectively using American force to stop the murderous "ethnic cleansing" wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and presiding over the greatest level of economic prosperity since the early 1960s. He also endured unrelenting personal attacks from the right-wing of the Republican Party, the loss of Congress to the Republicans for the first time in forty years, and a humiliating but unsuccessful impeachment trial by the U.S. Senate. He fashioned himself as a "New Democrat" and has frequently been referred to as the "Comeback Kid." Few Presidents have both raised more questions about the standing of the presidency and simultaneously presided over a longer period of sustained prosperity.
Road to the White House
Bill Clinton, whose father died a few months before he was born, wanted to be President from a very early age. Born in 1946, he attended public schools in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after moving there from Hope. As a boy he was obsessed with politics, winning student elections at high school and later at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Work on a committee staff of Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas and attendance at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar strengthened his resolve for a political career. After graduating from Yale Law School, Clinton briefly taught law at the University of Arkansas. He ran for the United States House of Representatives and lost, in 1974, and then was elected state attorney general. In 1978, at the age of thirty-two, he became the youngest governor in the nation and in Arkansas history. After losing his bid for reelection, Clinton came back to win four terms, positioning himself for a shot at the Democratic nomination for President in 1992.
Clinton defeated President George H. W. Bush and upstart independent Ross Perot in 1992 after besting a large field of fellow Democrats for the nomination. As President-elect, Clinton vowed to focus on economic issues like a "laser beam," working especially to overcome the sluggish growth of the American economy. He also sought to remake the Democratic Party by focusing on issues supported by the middle class, such as government spending to stimulate the economy, tough crime laws, jobs for welfare recipients, and tax reform that shifted the burden to the rich. At the same time, Clinton stood firm on certain traditional liberal goals such as converting military expenditures to domestic purposes, gun control, legalized abortion, environmental protection, equal employment and educational opportunity, national health insurance, and gay rights.
Controversy, Scandal, and Success
Clinton stumbled badly in his first term when Congress vigorously rejected his complex health care reform initiative, spearheaded by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. By 1994, Republicans had launched an aggressive attack on Clinton that delivered Republican majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1955. Clinton fought back by capitalizing on Republican blunders and the nearly fanatical attacks unleashed on him by his conservative opponents. When Clinton refused to sign a highly controversial budget passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, he looked strong and resolute. Congress then generated a shut down of the federal government to pressure Clinton to back down, but Clinton remained firm, and the opposition caved in. Most Americans blamed Congress for the gridlock rather than the President, and Clinton was decisively reelected in 1996.
Clinton suffered two major setbacks during his administration. The first was his failure to obtain health care reform. The second, and much more damaging to his place in history, was his impeachment by the House of Representatives on charges of having lied under oath and having obstructed justice in the attempted cover-up of his affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The impeachment issue grew out of an independent counsel's "Whitewater" investigation of Clinton's financial dealings in Arkansas, peaking just prior to the midterm elections in 1998. The American people evidently cared less about the President's marital affairs or his long-ago financial dealings than about his success in reducing deficits and obtaining economic prosperity, and they found the reactions of the Republican Congress to be excessive. The Republicans lost seats in the House, and the Senate thereafter failed to convict Clinton on the impeachment charges. Nor was the independent counsel able to link either the President or the First Lady to criminal activities in the Whitewater investigation.
In foreign affairs, Clinton succeeded in brokering peace negotiations in Northern Ireland between warring Catholics and Protestants, and—after a failed first attempt at ousting a military dictatorship in Haiti—in ending the murderous rule of Haitian leadership. His call for NATO bombings in Bosnia and Kosovo—following his earlier reticence at intervening in the Balkans—forced the government of Serbia to end its murderous attacks on Muslims in Bosnia, as well as on ethnic Albanians within the borders of its Kosovo region. Nevertheless, Clinton failed to mobilize support to end the genocide in Rwanda, and the peace talks he facilitated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization soon devolved into a renewed and more lethal round of strife.
Clinton's partner in his political career and marriage, Hillary Rodham Clinton, emerged as a key player in his administration. With a long record of professional achievement in Arkansas and beyond, Hillary's popularity had plummeted after she failed to achieve health care reform in Clinton's first term. However, she emerged from the Monica Lewinsky affair with very high popularity ratings in his second term.
Future history books may well begin by noting that Bill Clinton was the second President to have been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. However, they will also likely note his ability to survive and his impact on the politics, policies, and programs of the United States during the 1990s, including his presiding over a period of rapid economic growth. Clinton also had a significant influence on the direction of the Democratic Party, although it is yet unclear how lasting that legacy will be.
William Jefferson Clinton spent the first six years of his life in Hope, Arkansas, where he was born on August 19, 1946. His father, William Jefferson Blythe, had died in an auto accident several months before his mother, Virginia Cassidy Blythe, gave birth to the future President. Raised in the home of his grandmother, Edith Cassidy, Bill's early years were dominated by two strong women, who often competed for his attention. His mother, a vivacious and fun-loving free spirit, was often away from home taking nursing classes in New Orleans. It was during those periods that his grandmother, a temperamental and strong-willed disciplinarian, tried to shape her grandson's character—and taught him to be a very early reader. Bill later remembered loving both women during that time of his life but feeling torn between them as a young mediator of their arguments.
In 1950, Bill's mother married Roger Clinton, a car dealer and abusive alcoholic. The family moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, a bustling resort town an hour away. (She later divorced Roger Clinton when Bill was fifteen, only to remarry him quickly thereafter.) Again, Clinton had to intervene between two adults engaged in violent arguments. As a teenager, Bill excelled in school and showed a passion for politics. He played saxophone in a high school band and especially loved the gospel music of his Baptist faith. The fun of gambling dens and mineral spas competed for Bill's attention with Baptist churches and politics. But while his mother went to the racetracks on Sunday, Bill attended church, principally to hear the music he loved. In this small community, Bill was widely recognized as a young man of rare talent and ambition.
An Education for Leadership
Hot Springs High School, although a segregated all-white school, stood heads above most public schools in Arkansas. School Principal Johnnie Mae Mackey—another strong woman in Clinton's life—recruited staff committed to producing leaders who thought of personal success in terms of public service. Clinton became her brightest protégé. It was under her mentoring that Clinton was sent to Washington, D.C., as one of two Arkansas delegates to Boy's Nation, an imitation political convention sponsored by the American Legion. While there, the seventeen-year-old Clinton was captured in a historic photograph shaking hands with his political idol, President John F. Kennedy, in the White House Rose Garden. That July 1963 handshake later symbolized the continuity between the Kennedy 1960s and the Clinton 1990s. Ever since he was child, Clinton's mother had told him that he would some day be President of the United States. The Kennedy handshake left Clinton determined to fulfill her prediction. (Virginia Clinton lived to see her son become President, dying in 1994 of cancer.)
Upon graduation from high school in 1964, Clinton left Little Rock to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. An international affairs major, he managed to cover his expenses through scholarships and by working part-time jobs. At this Catholic-sponsored, well-heeled institution, the student body clearly looked upon Clinton as an outsider from backwoods Arkansas. Although a clique of students running the newspaper discouraged Clinton's efforts to contribute to the school, his energy, dashing good looks, and personal charm pushed him to the top in student government. He won the presidency of his freshman and sophomore classes. In his junior year, Clinton ran for president of the student council, but lost in a stunning defeat. In attempting to please everybody, Clinton had miscalculated. He looked too political to his peers, and they elected his lesser-known opponent.
Rhodes Scholar and Vietnam Draftee
Beginning in his junior year, Clinton worked as a clerk for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At that time, the powerful committee was headed by Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, a leading critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The experience greatly shaped Clinton's perspective as he came to believe, as did Fulbright, that the United States had no moral or strategic reason for being in Vietnam. Just prior to his graduation from Georgetown, he won a prized Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University in England for two years. However, he faced being drafted for the Vietnam War due to a change in federal policy that eliminated almost all college deferments. His local draft board in Arkansas, however, allowed him to sail for England.
While in England, Clinton received his draft notice. He then returned to Arkansas, and with the help of Fulbright's office and that of Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, managed to persuade the admissions staff of the Reserve Officers' Training Corp (ROTC) program at the University of Arkansas Law School to accept him the next fall. Instead he returned to Oxford, although the evidence is unclear as to whether this was done with the approval of his ROTC contacts. Back in England, Clinton evidently remained conflicted about his decision to avoid the draft, torn between his moral convictions that the war was wrong and his sense of kinship with former classmates who were serving and dying in Vietnam. In the fall of 1969, he chose to re-subject himself to the draft—doing so, however, at a time when Nixon administration policy seemed to suggest that future call-ups of combat troops would significantly decline. In any event, Clinton's luck held when his birth date in the lottery drew the high number of 311, distant enough to ensure that he would never be called. Clinton then wrote a letter to the director of the Arkansas ROTC program thanking him for "saving" him from the draft, explaining that he still loved his country while nevertheless despising the war. In England, Clinton participated in numerous antiwar demonstrations, and both his antiwar activities and his ROTC letter resurfaced years later during his bid for the presidency in 1992. Although Clinton remained in the Rhodes Scholar program, making many contacts with students who would later become part of his administration, his Oxford coursework never added up to a degree.
Law, Politics, and Marriage
In 1970, Clinton entered Yale Law School, earning his degree in 1973 and meeting his future wife, Hillary Rodham, whom he married in 1975. During this period he also worked on the 1970 U.S. Senate campaign of Joe Duffy in Connecticut, and toward the end of his studies he managed the Texas campaign of the Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern (who lost Texas in the Nixon landslide). After graduation, Clinton moved back to Arkansas with a job teaching law at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Almost as soon as he arrived home, Clinton threw himself into politics, running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against incumbent Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt. Although Clinton lost this 1974 race, it was the closest election for Hammerschmidt in his twenty-six years in Congress, marking Clinton as a rising political star.
Two years later, Arkansas voters elected Clinton state attorney general. Then in 1978, at age thirty-two, Clinton ran for governor, winning an easy victory and becoming one of the nation's youngest governors ever. However, his youth and inexperience quickly left Arkansans unimpressed. Governor Clinton had several missteps, including difficulties in handling rioting among Cuban refugees temporarily interned by the federal government at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. He also raised auto license fees to pay for road construction and alienated the state's powerful timber interests by an unsuccessful intervention in the controversy over the practice of clear-cutting. Consequently, the voters turned him out in favor of Frank White, a little known, freshly minted Republican savings and loan executive. Clinton became the youngest former governor in American history.
Shocked by his defeat, Clinton went to work for a Little Rock law firm but spent most of his time campaigning for reelection. In the 1982 race, Clinton admitted his mistakes and used his incredible charm and well-honed TV ads to convince the voters to give him another chance. He won in 1982 and again in 1984. Voters then supported him for two, four-year terms in 1986 and 1990.
As governor, Clinton championed centrist issues. He strongly advocated educational reform, appointing Hillary Clinton to lead a committee to draft higher standards for Arkansas schools. One of the administration's proposals called for competence tests for all teachers, a policy development that stirred up a national debate. Governor Clinton's sweeping education reforms positively impacted Arkansas schools, which experienced a decrease in dropout rates and an increase in college-entrance exam test scores under his watch, although the state's overall rankings moved very little. During Clinton's tenure as governor of Arkansas, he favored capital punishment. He promoted welfare reforms aimed at pushing welfare recipients into the workforce and moved decisively to promote affirmative action—appointing more African Americans to state boards, commissions, and agency posts than all of his predecessors combined. Additionally, he initiated a style of government that resembled a permanent election campaign. Using the talents of the political consultant Dick Morris, Clinton pushed legislative agendas based upon public opinion polls. The governor and his strategist then built support for their policies through well-orchestrated sales campaigns that used television, leaflets, and telephone banks to pressure state lawmakers.
Creating a National Image
Setting his sights higher, Clinton used his five terms as Arkansas governor to cultivate a national profile for himself. He soon emerged as one of the leading reform governors in the Democratic Party. In 1986 and 1987, Clinton served as chairman of the National Governors Association, speaking on behalf of the nation's governors. Shrewdly charting a new course, Clinton helped guide the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate Democrats and business people who worked to affect national policies. In 1990 and 1991, Governor Clinton led the council's drive to lure back the white male vote into party columns without alienating blacks and women. With the goal of strengthening and unifying the party, Clinton used his persuasive oratorical skills to argue that the Republicans were using the issue of race to gain political advantages, and that race should not divide Americans who agreed on economic and other social issues.
He insisted on pragmatism and moderation in government programs, a centrist platform that emphasized opportunity, jobs, law and order, and responsibility. This meant that the government should provide opportunities for all citizens when the free market failed, but individuals had to accept the responsibility to work and to contribute to the common civil order. This linking of the time-honored American enshrinement of work and individualism to a progressive view of the role of government became for Clinton a "New Covenant"—the philosophical perspective behind his reference to himself as a "New Democrat."
In 1988, however, Clinton damaged his chances for higher office. He was picked to give one of the nominating speeches for Michael Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention. He delivered a long, boring speech emphasizing policy and programs that many thought would doom his chances to run for President. A quickly arranged appearance on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson enabled Clinton to poke fun at his blunder and thus deftly rescue his image before a large national television audience.
The Campaign and Election of 1992
Bill Clinton easily defeated the leading Democratic contenders in the 1992 primaries, despite charges about having avoided the Vietnam draft and his rumored affairs with women. He dealt with the infidelity issue on national television in an interview in which he admitted to having caused "pain" in his marriage. Although he said he had smoked pot as a college student, he added that he "didn't inhale," which struck his critics as disingenuous. Most voters seemed unconcerned with his private life or his stand on a war that had ended many years before. His opponent, President George H.W. Bush, ran a lackluster campaign that failed to convert his great successes in foreign affairs into a convincing argument to reelect him. Republican die-hards never forgave Bush for having broken his 1988 promise to not raise taxes. Middle-class Americans, moreover, had grown increasingly upset over Bush's refusal to act on the economic recession that had settled on the nation.
Clinton pounded hard on the advantages given to the rich by the Reagan revolution, the Reagan-Bush $300 billion deficit, and the dire economic prospects that faced America's younger generation. His campaign handlers, led by political strategist James Carville, posted a sign at Clinton headquarters that sprightly summarized the Clinton message: "It's the economy, stupid."
The Bush campaign was not helped by the emergence of billionaire Ross Perot's independent candidacy, which Perot personally financed. His "United We Stand, America" citizens group promised a White House dedicated to patriotism, candor, honesty, and a balanced budget. Dissatisfied voters of all stripes flocked to his call, creating one of the most powerful third-party movements in American history. Although Perot drew support from both Republicans and Democrats, he probably hurt Bush disproportionately more than Clinton, owing to his harsh attacks against the incumbent and the timing of both his departure and re-entry into the 1992 campaign. But ultimately Perot's candidacy was damaged beyond repair by his own inconstant commitment to running—a posture that benefited the Clinton challenge.
On November 3, Clinton received more than twice the number of Electoral College votes than did Bush. Perot drew support from both parties, winning approximately 19 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes. Clinton had delivered on his promise to do well in traditional Democratic strongholds, to win back large numbers of Reagan Democrats, and to attract middle-class Republicans. However, when his vote is compared to the combined Bush and Perot totals in 1992, it is clear that Clinton was a minority President. On the other hand, a larger percentage (55 percent) of the electorate voted in 1992 than in 1988, 1984, and 1980. And when the Clinton and Perot popular vote totals are combined (62 percent), the 1992 election amounts to a dramatic vote for change.
The Campaign and Election of 1994
Midway through his first term in office, Clinton's reelection prospects were dim, given the stunning victory of Republicans in the 1994 off-year elections. For the first time in forty years, both houses of Congress were controlled by Republican lawmakers. And almost everyone blamed Clinton. His campaign promise to reform the nation's health care system was soundly defeated. His controversial executive order lifting the ban against homosexuals in the military enraged conservatives and failed to generate significant public support. Clinton's work on behalf of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) split the Democrats, many of whom feared the loss of jobs to Mexico and Canada.
Additionally, a barrage of political and personal scandals plagued the Clinton administration in its first term. The most damaging issue surrounded charges that the Clintons had illegally profited from their involvement with a failed savings and loan that had dealings in Arkansas real estate on the Whitewater River. Charges swirled fast and furious, specifically linking the White House to a cover-up of the Whitewater affair and the suicide of Vincent Foster, a top White House aide and close friend of Hillary Clinton. Moreover, the administration was negatively affected by allegations of suspicious commodity dealings by the First Lady (she had turned a $1,000 investment in commodities into a $100,000 profit), and the rumored sexual escapades of President Clinton while governor of Arkansas (including allegations that he had sexually harassed an Arkansas state employee, Paula Corbin Jones).
Republican Contract with America
Although only 39 percent of the electorate voted in the 1994 congressional elections, the Republicans swept to victory. The well-organized right-wing of the Republican Party, under the leadership of Georgia congressman Newton ("Newt") Gingrich and assisted by the rise of conservative talk-radio (Rush Limbaugh, Oliver North, and G. Gordon Liddy), trumpeted their "Contract with America" to spectacular electoral response. The Contract, tested in focus groups around the nation, promised to complete the dismantling of the New Deal state that had been started under Ronald Reagan. (See Reagan biography, Domestic Affairs section, for details.) Gingrich became the Speaker of the House and Senator Robert Dole of Kansas became the Senate majority leader. Republicans controlled the House of Representatives 230 to 204 and held 53 Senate seats to the Democrats' 47 seats. Pollsters and political commentators predicted the end of the Clinton presidency—indeed, had the United States operated with a parliamentary system of government, Clinton would have been driven from office. Clearly, the 1994 election had been a dramatic political repudiation of the President.
Within two years, however, the Republican ascendancy and Contract with America was in a shambles. In January 1996, President Clinton delivered a State of the Union address that waxed eloquently about the future. His ratings were on the rise, and it looked as if the Comeback Kid stood a good chance to do what no Democrat had accomplished since FDR: serve two consecutive elected terms to the presidency. What had happened?
Part of the answer rests with the over extension of the Republican charge. House Republicans had used the Contract as an inflexible governing plan when in fact American voters had never clearly endorsed its particulars. By 1996, Gingrich's no-holds barred attack on government programs had frightened many moderate Republicans. Americans began to wonder about the long-range consequences, for example, of dismantling environmental protection programs. Most importantly, when the Republicans proposed drastic cuts in Medicare expenditures coupled with a tax-cut disproportionately pegged to benefit the wealthy, an anti-Gingrich backlash began to roll across the nation. Americans grew weary of the nonstop personal attacks on Clinton and the First Lady by conservative ideologues they linked to the House Republicans. Millions of Americans began to identify the Republican majority in the House with a fringe "mean streak" in politics that offended their sense of fair play.
Finally, the Republican majority stumbled badly when it decided to force a government shut down unless Clinton signed its budget. Clinton, sensing the opportunity to show his mettle, vetoed Republican-passed spending bills in the fall of 1995, citing proposed cuts in education and Medicaid as being unfair. The U.S. government closed its doors twice, first for six days in November and again for twenty-one days in December 1995. Three-quarters of a million federal workers were caught in the middle of this political jousting just before Christmas, left to wonder whether they would be paid during the holiday season. Angry Americans, faced with locked government offices and closed national parks, blamed the Republicans, forcing them to back down and pass a temporary measure to reopen the government on January 5, 1996. Voters who had once urged the Republicans onward in their attacks on big government now applauded Clinton for protecting their interests.
Republican Challenger Robert Dole
For most of the time after 1994, Senator Robert Dole was the hands-down front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. The only serious question was whether retired general Colin Powell would run. But Powell removed himself from contention, in 1995, leaving Dole as the man to beat. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, millionaire publisher Steven Forbes, and right-wing gadfly Patrick Buchanan squared off in the early primaries. Buchanan did well in New Hampshire, and Forbes's expensive commercials (in which he advocated a universal "flat tax") forced Dole to spend precious dollars in response. Nevertheless, Dole took the key South Carolina primary on March 2, which positioned him to win enough delegate votes to sew-up the nomination by April.
Mindful of the disastrous Republican convention in 1992, Dole's handlers tried hard to distance the candidate from the far right without losing its support. In his nomination acceptance speech, he promised a 15 percent tax cut and announced his commitment to a "fairer, flatter tax"—a clear attempt to appeal to Forbes supporters. Moderate Republicans worried that the nominee's acceptance of a tax cut and a flat tax meant his conversion to Ronald Reagan "supply-side" economics, a sharp contrast to Dole's traditional interest in balancing the budget. When he announced that New Yorker Jack Kemp, a conservative, tax-cutting former congressman and member of the Bush administration, would be his running mate, Dole's moderate supporters feared the worst. A high point at the convention came with an informal and chatty speech by Dole's wife, the popular Elizabeth Dole, who went right into the audience, imitating the style of television talk-show hosts.
Dole headed into the campaign significantly behind Clinton in the polls. Although Dole received high marks for his integrity, his age (seventy-three), speaking style, and excessively dry wit worked against him. Dole tried hard to play up his combat record in World War II (during which he had lost the use of an arm) and his experience in office. But he seemed out of touch with a more youthful America. At one point, he criticized Hollywood and its amoral values. But instead of giving him a boost, the pitch came across to many as the ramblings of an old man. Most voters were fully aware that Dole would most likely be the last presidential candidate to have fought in World War II, a war that seemed like ancient history to the "baby boomers" (those born just after the war) of Clinton's generation.
The Ross Perot Candidacy
As with the 1992 election, Ross Perot again jumped into the fray, using his newly organized Reform Party to mount an independent bid for the presidency. The former governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm, challenged Perot for the Reform Party nomination but lost badly. Similar to his 1992 campaign tactics, Perot attacked both major party candidates. However, he failed to capture the public's attention to the same degree as in 1992. His selection of the little-known Washington author Pat Choate as his running mate did not help his campaign. Neither Clinton nor Dole agreed to debate Perot, and when the federal courts denied Perot's suit for a place in the debates, the third party candidate remained largely on the sidelines.
Engineering a Presidential Comeback
Starting in 1995, after Clinton defeated the Republicans in the budget battles, he engineered one of the most impressive comebacks in presidential campaign history. Clinton moved decisively to emphasize his earlier commitments to reforms aimed at the middle class. To that end, Clinton brought Dick Morris back into his strategy team. As the President's old friend and political consultant who had helped engineer his gubernatorial comeback in 1982, Morris quickly identified the key issues where Clinton could preempt the Republicans: crime, welfare reform, the federal budget, and affirmative action. Morris came up with a strategy in which Clinton distanced himself not only from radical Republicans but also from the liberals in his own Democratic Party.
Clinton embraced much of what Morris recommended. Seeking the public endorsement of police associations, Clinton supported a crime bill, claiming it would put 100,000 new police officers on the streets; he also championed anti-assault weapons measures. In addition, the President promoted the goal of a two-year limit on how long a person could remain on welfare—a stance that angered many in his party. He also focused on tax policies which targeted the middle class while shifting the burden to the upper class.
Along with his shift in strategy away from health care to more acceptable middle-class goals, Clinton capitalized on various opportunities during 1995 to improve his public standing. He delivered a stirring eulogy for government workers who had died when home-grown terrorists destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City. He sprang to the defense of religious congregations whose churches had been burned in what appeared to be racially motivated arson attacks. The President's much-criticized decision in August of 1995 to authorize air strikes against the Serbs in Bosnia had unexpectedly produced a cease-fire within a month, giving Clinton the image of competence in foreign affairs.
Meanwhile, the Republicans seemed to be dooming themselves. The public soured on the political zeal of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, especially evident in his complaint over seating arrangements on Air Force One en route with the President to the funeral of assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. Then, when the Senate investigation (headed by Senator Alphonse D'Amato of New York) into the economic activities of the Clintons in Arkansas yielded little tangible evidence linking them to any criminal activity, the whole Whitewater investigation looked more and more like a partisan gambit. (This investigation ran parallel to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's Whitewater probe.) Most importantly, the economy had rebounded in the previous five months, allowing Clinton to take credit for low interest rates, a low unemployment rate, and a dramatic decline in the federal budget deficit. Thus, for Clinton, the harmonious August 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago, in which he won renomination without any opposition, was a vindication of his first term and reflected his successful strategy of offering centrist issues to the public.
On the Campaign Trail
As the campaign unfolded, it looked as though Dole would go down to certain defeat. Clinton offered the public more of the same, including "McIssues" such as school uniforms and after-school programs for teenagers, none of which constituted major policy initiatives, but all of which preempted the Republican attempt to portray Democrats as dangerous radicals. Instead, Clinton became the candidate of "family values" and successfully won the suburban family vote, especially that of the "soccer Moms." The one negative for Clinton proved less than fatal. Press reports broke a story alleging improper contributions to the President's campaign war chest. The story embarrassed the Democratic campaign but failed to turn public support to Dole. The seventy-three-year-old senator from Kansas had announced his resignation from the Senate to focus on the campaign, and then he barnstormed the country nonstop to demonstrate his energy. While both tactics won him great respect, they did not change the outcome of the election.
The Democratic Clinton/Gore ticket won more than twice the number of electoral votes than the Republican Dole/Kemp ticket. Perot captured no electoral votes and garnered less than half of his 1992 popular vote. California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and the Republican strongholds of Florida and Arizona were among the thirty-three states Clinton won. The President failed, however, to win his desired mandate with a popular majority, and thus he remained a minority President. Still, the victory for the "Comeback Kid" was especially impressive in view of his predicted demise in 1994.
Although Clinton had won a personal victory, his party remained in deep difficulty. Republicans continued to control the House and Senate, proving that their congressional victory in 1994 had been no fluke. Moreover, Republicans maintained their recent gains in state legislative seats and in governorships, particularly in the South. In 1993, Clinton's first year in office, there had been 30 Democratic governors; that number fell to 17 entering 1997. Moreover, almost all the large states had Republican governors, and the Republicans had achieved parity in a long-time Democratic stronghold: state legislatures. The electorate was about evenly divided in party identification. In the South, a large majority of whites were now firmly aligned with the Republicans. During Clinton's two terms, the President failed to stem the slow but steady disintegration of the New Deal coalition toward a realignment favoring Republicans and independents.
Bill Clinton began his transition into the presidency promising to focus "like a laser beam" on the economic needs of the nation: unemployment, the runaway deficit, the health care crisis, and welfare reform. On all fronts but one, health care reform, he succeeded significantly but not completely.
Fulfilling Campaign Promises
By the end of his first year, Clinton had battled Congress to secure adoption of an economic package that combined tax increases (which fell mainly on the upper class) and spending cuts (which hurt mainly impoverished Americans). His 1993 economic package passed without a single Republican vote in either chamber of Congress, and despite that party's dire predictions that it would result in economic chaos. This economic policy lowered the deficit from $290 billion in 1992 to $203 billion by 1994. By 1999, surging tax revenues from a booming economy had generated a surplus of $124 billion—a development few would have thought possible in 1992. Surpluses amounting to $1.5 trillion were then projected for the first decade of the 21st century. Equally important were the pace of economic growth and low inflation. Combined with historically low interest and unemployment rates, these factors positioned the American economy as the world's strongest and most robust.
On some other issues, like passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which cleared Congress in 1993, Clinton essentially endorsed Republican programs and benefited from Republican support. On others, like welfare reform, the Republican-controlled Congress accepted Clinton's lead in publicizing the issues, but dominated the writing of legislation creating the actual programs. In the summer of 1996, Congress passed a sweeping reform bill, fulfilling Clinton's 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it." The legislation replaced the long standing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with a system of block grants to individual states. It also dropped the eligibility of legal immigrants for welfare assistance during the first five years of their residency. Clinton also won an increase in the minimum wage to $5.15 per hour. At the same time, the President blocked Republican attempts to bar public education to children of illegal immigrants.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton had also vowed to end the exclusion of homosexuals from military service. A federal court ruling just days after Clinton's election moved that controversial topic onto the public agenda, where it was difficult for the President to set it aside until a more convenient time. A political fight ensued with conservative members of Congress and the leadership of the armed forces. Clinton compromised by agreeing to delay a decision on gays in the military for six months. He ultimately proposed a policy of "don't ask, don't tell," meaning that the military services would not ask about the sexual orientation of service personnel and that these personnel, in turn, would not be required to divulge this information. The compromise seemed to satisfy few people. Liberals and gays felt betrayed by the President, and conservatives overrode the administration's executive directive by writing a more restrictive policy into law in a defense authorization bill. But the controversy knocked the administration off balance politically at the very outset of the first term.
Clinton also looked weak and out of his depth when he withdrew the names of two female nominees for attorney general because they had legal problems with hired immigrant household help. The President's image problem took another hit when he retracted the nomination of Lani Guinier, an African-American law professor and old personal friend, to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Guinier's nomination was jeopardized when critics attacked her legal writings about representation as too radical.
Cabinet and Staff Appointments
During his campaign in 1992, Clinton had promised to form a cabinet "that looked like America." Having lost two female candidates to early controversy, Clinton finally settled on Florida prosecutor Janet Reno for attorney general. Clinton went on to name three other women to cabinet positions: Donna E. Shalala, who had been chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, as secretary of health and human services; Hazel O'Leary, an African-American woman, as secretary of energy; and Madeleine K. Albright as secretary of state (she had previously served as Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations).
The President also put women in several other important posts. His campaign media manager Dee Dee Myers was appointed press secretary and California economist Laura D'Andrea Tyson became chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Florida environmental official Carol Browner—also Al Gore's one-time legislative assistant—was named to the top slot in the Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, an African-American who was serving as the Arkansas health director, became U.S. surgeon general. And when Supreme Court justice Byron White retired in 1993, Clinton named Ruth Bader Ginsburg as his replacement; Ginsburg was a federal appeals court judge who had taught at Columbia Law School and pioneered the litigation of cases involving sex discrimination.
Clinton also named several African-American males to leading posts in the administration. He tapped Democratic national chairman Ronald H. Brown as secretary of commerce; former Mississippi congressman Mike Espy as secretary of agriculture; Jesse Brown, a disabled Marine veteran, who ran the Disabled American Veterans office in Washington, as secretary of veterans affairs; and Clifton Wharton, Jr., chairman of TIAA-CREF, as deputy secretary of state. Latinos were also appointed in more substantial numbers than in previous administrations, with former San Antonio, Texas, mayor Henry G. Cisneros as secretary of housing and urban development and Federico Pena as secretary of transportation.
Health Care Reform
Along with the political scandals that plagued his presidency, Clinton failed to realize a major goal of his administration: affordable health care insurance for every American. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without a universal health care system, and Clinton felt passionately about the fact that 60 million Americans did not have adequate health insurance. In addition, health-care costs had skyrocketed since the 1970s, consuming, according to some estimates, one seventh of the nation's goods and services—a greater proportion than that of any other industrialized country in the world. Winning a national health package would have provided Clinton with a lasting historical legacy, much as Franklin D. Roosevelt had achieved with Social Security. In the minds of some, Clinton's health care program—if realized—would have constituted the most important piece of social legislation in American history.
The consequences of health care reform were enormous. If Clinton could control health-care costs, he could remove a major drag on the economy. From a political standpoint, universal health care would link the middle-class and the working-class to the Democratic Party for at least another generation. Republicans understood the implications of such a victory and were, with rare exceptions, united in their determination to deny Clinton on this issue. Many Americans, while wanting health insurance, worried, too, that national health insurance was socialistic, a step that would deny Americans the right to see a doctor of their choice while placing physicians in the service of a government bureaucracy.
To push through a health-reform bill in his first hundred days in office, Clinton named his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, head of a task force to develop the program, and Ira Magaziner as its director. Hillary Clinton, a hard-driving, forceful, and committed feminist with a distinguished legal career, was Clinton's closest political confidant—his true partner in his political career. The President appointed her to head the task force, which would be administered by Magaziner, because he knew that she cared deeply about the issue, and that "if anybody had a chance to do it, she had the best chance." Hillary had led a commission on education reform in Arkansas for her husband—to critical acclaim—and the President wanted her to do the same thing for health care nationally.
The appointment of Hillary was a serious mistake. It immediately placed the First Lady in a position of being a major policy and political power—an appointment that deviated significantly from precedent, allowing critics to attack her as well as the program. Moreover, her unique relationship with the President meant that other advisers reacted to her differently than they would to any other task-force head, not wanting to alienate the President's wife with difficult but well-intentioned criticism. Hillary also blundered in several important ways. Her decision to recruit a task-force network of experts to work in secret on complex issues—such as health-care premiums, managed competition, and health-care alliances—looked too much like policy by cabal and fiat. A federal court forced her to make records publicly available of some of the proceedings, after some in the health-care industry sued for open access. Most importantly, the process largely left Congress out of the picture as the task force drafted the particulars of the plan, thus reducing the plan's chances for legislative success; Clinton had wanted to present to Congress a finished package, which meant that key participants in the congressional lawmaking process were not involved in its drafting. Moreover, there was significant internal disagreement within the administration about the costs of the plan, its scope, and its political marketability.
Republican and Public Backlash
The final product was a massively complicated and sophisticated measure, completely beyond the reach of the average citizen to comprehend. Nearly 1,350 pages long, the proposal had taken much longer to produce than originally imagined. Some critics immediately complained that the President had misstepped in not going to the public with the broad outlines of the plan that then could have been worked through the congressional committee process. Although Clinton's September 1993 speech on national health care effectively dramatized the need for reform, Republican opponents lashed out at the plan's size, incomprehensibility, and threat to small business and individual choice. A consortium of health-insurance companies funded a series of sophisticated, negative TV ads featuring "Harry and Louise," a middle-class couple deeply worried about losing the quality health care they had come to expect as Americans.
The coordinated Republican attack was greatly assisted by the outbreak of the Whitewater investigation and the suicide of White House aid Vincent Foster—a distraction that put the Clinton administration on the defensive. No extreme seemed out of bounds in attacking the President and First Lady. Conservative talk-radio hosts ridiculed the President daily, suggesting that Foster's death might have resulted from his harboring dark White House secrets—or even that someone close to the President had murdered him.
Although Clinton had threatened to veto any health-care proposal that did not include universal coverage, no legislation ever got that far. By summer of 1994, health care reform was doomed; congressional leaders dropped consideration of it in August. Opinion polls revealed public support for the general principles of reforming the health-care system, but the approval number dropped enormously once Clinton's name was attached to such a proposal. The loss of health care reform was a devastating setback. In the minds of many political analysts, it was a botched opportunity of gigantic proportions.
Scandals and Impeachment
Throughout his time in office, Clinton was regularly besieged by political opponents, especially those on the far right-wing of the Republican Party. A combination of such attacks, and the Clintons' own missteps, made the President and First Lady the subjects of numerous special investigations.
Whitewater and Paula Jones
The earliest sustained attacks on Clinton were those that charged him with a cover-up of financial impropriety in his Arkansas investments prior to becoming President. The issue involved a failed savings-and-loan company operated by Clinton business associates James and Susan McDougal, who had engaged in questionable business dealings involving real estate on the Whitewater River in Arkansas. Once credible charges of impropriety were made, Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, named a special counsel, Republican Robert B. Fiske, Jr., on her own authority, to investigate. Not long thereafter, President Clinton signed into law a statute reauthorizing the naming of independent counsels. A three-judge federal panel subsequently claimed that Fiske had a conflict of interest because the President's own attorney general had appointed him, and so it removed Fiske and replaced him with Kenneth W. Starr. Starr was a attorney and former federal judge who had also been retained by various conservative clients, including corporations such as tobacco firms that had actively opposed parts of the Clinton agenda.
Searching for evidence of crime and cover-up, Starr began an open-ended inquiry into every corner of Clinton's life, revisiting issues Fiske had considered settled in the President's favor (and ultimately reaching similar conclusions on those mattes as his predecessor.) No stone was left unturned, including an unprecedented subpoena of the First Lady to testify about lost billing records from the Rose law firm (in which she had been a partner in Arkansas) that mysteriously turned up in the residence area of the White House. Personal or business associates of the Clintons, past and present members of the President's political staff and administration, and just about anyone who might have knowledge of their private and public actions were subject to subpoena as witnesses to be questioned. Any criminal actions uncovered in the search for evidence against Clinton were subject to prosecution regardless of their links to Whitewater or to the President. Defenders of the President, and of the institution of the presidency, decried excesses in these investigations as detrimental to justice and to the fair functioning of the political process. Starr defended his actions as essential to getting at the truth of what the Clintons had done on a series of questionable legal and financial transactions.
Although the Clintons generally weathered the storm, they spent much of their time assembling their defense. Beyond the Whitewater affair, the President suffered a major setback on May 27, 1997, when the Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 in Clinton v. Jones that the sexual harassment suit Paula Jones brought against the President could go forward while he was in office. The Court, reversing the closest precedent Nixon v, Fitzgerald, held that the President could easily defend himself without being overly distracted from his official duties. The Court was proved to be wrong in this assumption.
Lewinsky Affair and Impeachment
In January 1998, news broke that President Clinton had engaged in an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. This story was political dynamite, not just because it was a sex scandal, but also because it had dire legal implications. Kenneth Starr's vast investigations into the Whitewater land transaction had stalled, with several prospective witnesses being uncooperative. Starr thought the White House was involved in efforts to buy silence. When a disgruntled White House employee, Linda Tripp, approached Starr's investigators with evidence of the President's hidden relationship with Lewinsky, Starr believed he saw the pattern being repeated once again: Lewinsky was protecting Clinton because she was being bought off with promises of employment. Thus Starr expanded the investigations to include not just the President's financial affairs but also his sexual behavior. Starr's investigators questioned Clinton under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. This testimony—and subsequent efforts by the White House to deal with Lewinsky-related evidence, which bore some signs of tampering—formed the basis for Starr's subsequent charge of illegal conduct by Clinton and were thus at the core of Clinton's impeachment. Starr was convinced that Clinton had lied in trying to cover up the affair, and that he had instructed others to obstruct justice by lying on his behalf. To many observers, impeachment or resignation seemed to be the only resolution.
The next seven months found the American public consumed by the Lewinsky affair, following every nuance of the investigation by Starr and debating the merits of the case. Nothing like this had so captured the attention of the American public since Watergate and Nixon's resignation from office. Startling revelations came out, including taped interviews in which Lewinsky described details of the affair as well as a dress that contained samples of the President's DNA. On August 17, 1998, following his testimony before a federal grand jury on the matter, Clinton acknowledged in a televised address to the nation his "inappropriate" conduct with Lewinsky and admitted that he had misled the nation and embarrassed his family. But he did not admit to having lied, having instructed anyone else to lie, or orchestrating a cover-up involving anyone else.
Starr then sent his report to the House of Representatives alleging that there were grounds for impeaching Clinton for lying under oath, obstruction of justice, abuse of powers, and other offenses. After a vitriolic series of televised House hearings and the release of thousands of documents—many in graphic detail—the House Judiciary Committee, on a strictly partisan vote, recommended that an impeachment inquiry commence. The House adopted two articles of impeachment, charging the President with perjury in his grand jury testimony and obstructing justice in his dealings with various potential witnesses.
The Senate, charged under the Constitution with judging the evidence, opened its trial in mid-January 1999. It became immediately clear that the Senate would not produce a two-thirds majority vote to convict Clinton and remove him from office. Those voting against impeachment argued that the President's actions constituted "low" and tawdry actions involving private matters, not "high crimes and misdemeanors" amounting to offenses against the state. Those voting against Clinton argued that even in private matters, a President who commits perjury and obstructs justice is subverting the rule of law, and that subversion becomes a "high crime." Clinton was acquitted on both counts on February 12, 1999. On the first, 45 Republican senators voted to convict while 45 Democrats and 10 Republicans voted for acquittal. On the second article of obstruction of justice, 50 Republicans voted for conviction while 45 Democrats and 5 Republicans voted for acquittal. Thus, the second President to have been impeached in U.S. history (Andrew Johnson was the first) remained in office, acquitted and with two years left in his second term.
In the process of pursuing an impeachment of the President, the Republicans had seriously overplayed their hand. An indication of what lay ahead came when the party actually lost five seats in the House while gaining no Senate seats in the November 1998 elections conducted just prior to the impeachment vote. Traditionally, the opposition party registers significant gains in the off-year elections of a President's second term, and so the Republican loss was virtually unprecedented.
As the impeachment process unfolded, Clinton's ratings in public opinion polls were at an all-time high, hovering at close to 70 percent. Most Americans gave Clinton low marks for character and honesty. But, they gave him high marks for performance and wanted him censured and condemned for his conduct, but not impeached and removed. Many viewed key Republican attackers as mean-spirited extremists willing to use a personal scandal for partisan goals. In the end, voters were happy with Clinton's handling of the White House, the economy, and most matters of public life. Hillary Clinton's public opinion poll ratings actually exceeded the President's, in large measure because of her dignified demeanor during those trying personal times, thus lifting her popularity to among the highest ever for a First Lady.
The Republican Revolution
By 1998, the Republican offensive that captured both houses of Congress in 1994 had run out of steam. Not only did the Republicans lose the presidential election of 1996 (see previous discussion) but they also lost public support by overplaying their hands in the impeachment of a popular President during times of prosperity. As a result, the nation settled for compromise or deadlock for the last two years of the Clinton presidency. During this period, the administration decided that it could best achieve some of its policy goals through executive order. For example, the President signed several proclamations in 2000 creating national monuments out of vast expanses of the American West. Of course, as they were to discover in subsequent years, anything done by executive order can also be undone that same way, if a succeeding President is so inclined.
In one remaining area of executive authority, the President sparked a final controversy. In the dwindling hours of his term, Clinton issued 140 presidential pardons, several of which drew heated criticism not just from the President's usual opponents, but also from some supporters. The most controversial was the pardon of international fugitive Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a prominent Democratic fundraiser. Few questioned the President's authority to exercise this constitutional power, but many believed that the authority had not been wisely used in several cases. Clinton thus left office dogged by charges of scandal that had been a staple of his time in the White House.
Bill Clinton came into office with relatively little experience in foreign affairs. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world produced a number of foreign policy crises which challenged Clinton's abilities as a statesman.
Missteps in Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti
Weeks before Clinton took office, outgoing-President George H. W. Bush had sent American troops into Somalia, a country located in eastern Africa. What started out as a humanitarian mission to combat famine grew into a bloody military struggle, with the bodies of dead American soldiers dragged through the streets of the Somalian capital of Mogadishu in October 1993.
Public support for the American mission waned, and Clinton announced a full withdrawal of U.S. forces, which took place in March 1994; United Nations (UN) peacekeeping troops remained in the country until the spring of 1995. The intervention ultimately accomplished little in Somalia: warlords remained in control, and no functioning government was restored in the country after the United States and the United Nations left. The failure of American troops to be properly equipped for the mission led ultimately to the resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and created the impression of a President ill-prepared for foreign affairs.
In April 1994, a vast killing spree broke out in Rwanda, a nation located in central Africa. An estimated 800,000 Tutsi and their defenders were murdered in a government-sponsored genocide. With the failure in Somalia still very much in the minds of American policymakers, neither the United States nor the United Nations moved aggressively to stop the slaughter. Both Clinton and the world community were criticized for not acting quickly and decisively to stop the violent deaths of Rwandans. In 1998, the Clintons embarked on an extensive six-nation tour of Africa, during which the President stopped briefly in Rwanda to meet with survivors of the civil war and to issue an apology for actions not taken.
In Haiti, following Clinton's failed October 1993 attempt to oust Hatian strong man Raoul Cédras, former President Jimmy Carter stepped in to negotiate with the brutal military dictator for his removal from power. Cédras had overthrown the Caribbean nation's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in a 1991 coup. Accompanied by retired General Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), Carter communicated Clinton's threat to invade unless the generals of the junta relinquished power. With American planes in the air, the generals buckled and agreed to leave. United State forces were sent in to make certain that the agreement was enforced, but they were eventually withdrawn. The democratic institutions of this impoverished nation remain fragile and endangered.
Doctrine of Enlargement and Policy Successes
Notwithstanding these early difficulties, Clinton knew that the success of his presidency required a cohesive foreign policy. Trained as a student at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Clinton eventually focused on the creation of a new approach to international affairs, a policy his advisers called the "doctrine of enlargement." This doctrine, based on the idea of expanding the community of market democracies around the world, embraced free trade, multilateral peacekeeping efforts and international alliances, and a commitment to intervene in world crisis situations when practical (i.e., with little risk and low cost in U.S. lives) and morally defensible. The policy promoted an activist role for America and was designed to extend and protect basic human and civil rights insofar as it was within the power of the United States to successfully achieve those goals without undermining national security or depleting national resources. In Clinton's mind, the United States must continue its role as the principal leader of the world in promoting human dignity and democracy, with the understanding that it must never act in isolation or overextend its reach.
The Clinton administration achieved some notable accomplishments in foreign affairs. Russia was successfully persuaded to withdraw troops from the Baltic Republics of Estonia and Latvia in 1994. It also pushed through Congress two new massive trade agreements: NAFTA in 1993 and a revision of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1994. Administration initiatives also staved off an impending economic collapse of Mexico in 1995 and helped produce remedies in similar crises with Asian markets two years hence. Furthermore, an administration emissary, former senator George Mitchell, brokered peace negotiations between the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Sinn Fein ("Ourselves Alone"). In the Middle East, the administration facilitated negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. While these talks seemed to offer hope of a potential settlement, they broke off amid mutual recriminations and were soon followed by a renewed and more lethal round of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis.
Ethnic Wars in Europe
Major international challenges also came from the numerous civil and ethnic conflicts in the Balkans. After two years of keeping U.S. involvement in the conflict to a minimum, Clinton was eventually moved by Serbian atrocities against Bosnian civilians. The administration pushed NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to begin bombing Bosnian Serb positions. Eventually, that use of force, in tandem with diplomatic efforts led by Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Richard Holbrooke, brought the three warring parties—Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims—to the bargaining table. The resulting Dayton Peace Accords ended the fighting. Clinton sent a peacekeeping force of 20,000 American troops (part of a larger NATO deployment) into the region to enforce a cease-fire that was to be followed by free elections in September 1996. American and NATO troops enforced an uneasy settlement that stabilized war-torn Bosnia with no American casualties.
In 1999, Clinton moved with NATO to begin a massive bombing campaign against the Serbian government to end its "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians in the Kosovo region. Specially trained forces from the Serb Interior Ministry, along with paramilitary forces that had been active in Bosnia years before, had created hundreds of thousands of refugees through the application of this policy; Serb forces also murdered thousands of ethnic Albanians. But the bombing worked and, with the help of Russian diplomacy, forced the Serbian government to withdraw from the region. With no American battle casualties during the fighting, U.S. troops joined British, French, and other NATO forces to occupy Kosovo as peacekeepers under an agreement worked out with Yugoslavia. The province remained nominally part of Yugoslavia, but the Kosovars had gained autonomy, and the possibility of eventual independence. Clinton's forceful stand in Bosnia and Kosovo enhanced his foreign policy resume.
Dealings with the Former Soviet Union
The former Soviet Union and its East European client states constituted yet another challenge for the Clinton administration. The President lobbied successfully for the inclusion of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), indicating to Russia that neither nuclear weapons nor large numbers of troops would be placed in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, some Russians regarded expansion as an aggressive step by NATO and the United States. Clinton also supported the besieged leadership of Russian president Boris Yeltsin as well as the funneling of billions of dollars in loans to Russia from the International Monetary Fund.
In 1999, Clinton's support for financial aid to Russia came under attack in the face of mounting evidence that much of the borrowed money may have been stolen by an organized criminal syndicate which included members of Yeltsin's own family. However, supporters of Clinton's pro-Yeltsin policies credit his administration with an important achievement not easily measured in dollars or in the short run: the security of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Working through the provisions of the Nunn-Lugar Act, the administration provided extensive technical assistance and funding to the former Soviet states in the safeguarding of nuclear power plants and dismantling of nuclear weapons—an astounding achievement in view of the animosity that once existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the end of the Clinton presidency, the likelihood of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers was almost nonexistent.
After Bill Clinton left the White House, he moved to Chappaqua, New York, the home-base of that state's junior member of the United States Senate, Hillary Clinton. The former President keeps an office in New York City and maintains an active speaking schedule. His energies are devoted to two common post-presidential chores: writing a memoir and overseeing the creation of his presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Moreover, as one of the youngest men ever to depart the presidency, he is still actively involved in issues of public concern, especially through the work of the Clinton Presidential Foundation. The Foundation's agenda includes combating HIV/AIDS, fostering racial and ethnic reconciliation, and promoting the economic empowerment of poor people. Clinton also retains a reputation as one of the most astute political analysts within the Democratic Party.
While Hillary Rodham Clinton's activism as First Lady resulted in probably the highest public profile ever accorded a presidential spouse, the Clintons were deeply protective of the privacy of their only child, Chelsea. Chelsea, whose name came from the popular 1960's song, "Chelsea Morning," by Joni Mitchell, was born on February 27, 1980, and spent her entire childhood as the daughter of two very active public figures. Yet the Clintons insisted from very early in her life that they would try to raise Chelsea outside the glare of media attention, in as normal a fashion as possible. Even the Clintons' bitterest critics have generally given them very high marks for their successful parenting.
Some controversy did emerge when Chelsea was enrolled in private school in Washington, rather than in the public schools, which both Bill and Hillary had aggressively supported. But most observers seemed to understand the special demands on a school charged with educating the child of a President and thus the criticism did not take root. Chelsea was a strong student and eventually went to, and graduated from, Stanford University. She was also a frequent traveling companion of her parents and joined the First Lady on a number of international trips.
Professional responsibilities and public service had long been the consuming passion of both Bill and Hillary, but they also maintained a private side. Both loved to travel. Having no private residence to return to during breaks from the White House, they usually spent family vacations at the homes of wealthy friends in Los Angeles or on the East Coast. Bill Clinton also golfed, jogged, and played the saxophone. He devoured books, often working his way through several at the same time, and was an avid consumer of crossword puzzles. While flying on Air Force One, he spent much of his time playing competitive rounds of the card game Hearts.
The White House years proved, however, to be very difficult for the Clinton family. Hillary had long been considered especially close to her father, Hugh E. Rodham. He died in April 1993, just months into the first term, at a time when the Clintons were struggling to weather the early difficulties of the presidency. Bill's mother passed away less than a year later.
Moreover, allegations of sexual misconduct—some voiced openly, others whispered as innuendo—had been a constant of Bill Clinton's adult life. Some people close to Clinton have said that he decided not to run for President in 1988 after seeing Democratic candidate Gary Hart hounded from the race in 1987 because of the latter's womanizing. The 1992 race had barely begun when Gennifer Flowers went public with a story that she had been Bill Clinton's lover—and aired audiotapes to prove it. Both Bill and Hillary subsequently appeared on the television program "60 Minutes" to quell the controversy, with Bill admitting that he had done harm to his marriage and Hillary defending her husband and his work. Later, during the first presidential term, a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Corbin Jones, began legal proceedings against the President, charging sexual assault and harassment.
The pressure on the family reached its high point during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Just after the President had testified to a grand jury that he had not been wholly truthful in earlier statements about his relationship with Lewinsky, he made a nationally televised speech, focusing on the damage he had done to his family. "Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most—my wife and our daughter—and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so. Nothing is more important to me personally. But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours." Clinton's remarks drew heavy fire from both friends and critics for being insufficiently remorseful. But these words highlight the very personal havoc the Lewinsky affair wreaked on the First Family.
The population of the country exceeded 280 million people during the Clinton presidency. According to the 2000 census, there were in the United States 72 million children, 174 million working-age adults (18-64), and 35 million persons ages 65 and over. The U.S. population was 69.1 percent white, 12.1 percent black, 12.5 percent Hispanic (the fastest growing racial/ethnic group during the 1990s), 3.7 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 0.7 percent American Indian, and 0.2 percent "some other race." Another 1.6 percent of the population claimed two or more races as their heritage.
The most important development in the exercise of the franchise during Clinton's presidency was the enactment of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), more commonly known as the "Motor Voter" law. This legislation, which had passed Congress previously, only to be vetoed by Republican George H.W. Bush, required that states set up voter registration mechanisms at motor vehicle licensing facilities so that people registering their cars or renewing their drivers' licenses could at the same time register to vote. The intent was to engage in the electoral process segments of the population that might not otherwise take the time to register to vote. Republican lawmakers had been opposed to the reform in part because it threatened to increase electoral participation among traditional Democratic constituencies.
A Tumultuous Decade
With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of third-party insurgencies in 1992 and 1996, the 1990s comprised a politically charged era. Its most visible domestic convulsion involved the continuing dilemma of race, which had plagued the nation since the colonial era. The O.J. Simpson trial (the former football star was facing murder charges in the death of his wife, Nicole) which stretched into 1995, assumed a life of its own; blacks saw one story line unfolding and whites another. California voters adopted Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from receiving state benefits in education and health—a clearly emotional reaction to the millions of immigrants pouring into the nation during the 1990s and changing the face of America.
In October 1995, Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, organized "a holy day of atonement and reconciliation for black men," which brought a mass of African-American men to the nation's capital. The event became known as the "Million Man March." President Clinton appointed a presidential Commission on Race to start a "national conversation on racial issues." Meanwhile, California voters adopted Proposition 209, dealing affirmative action a major setback by abolishing programs to assist minorities in the state. Later, federal courts, in Hopwood v. Texas and other similar rulings, rendered decisions severely limiting affirmative action programs in higher education.
The 1990s were also the backdrop to a new era of public spectacle. The atmosphere included unprecedented personalized attacks on politicians, the impeachment of the President, and sordid tales of public officials and their sexual escapades on the nightly news. Some right-wing extremists and anti-American terrorists attacked the government itself, painting it as an enemy. On February 26, 1993, a group of radical Islamic militants bombed the World Trade Center in New York City. In April 1995, a federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up, killing 168 persons; the two men convicted in the bombing were U.S. citizens with links to an extremist "militia" movement seeking the overthrow of the American government. In July 1996, a bomb exploded at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, killing two and wounding nearly 100 others. Arrested for the attack seven years later was another U.S. citizen, who was also wanted for the bombings of a women's clinic and a gay nightclub.
The efforts made by gays and lesbians to attain political and social equality and civil rights in the legal arena was confronted by a strong backlash from social conservatives who considered homosexuality a sin or disease. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi had compared homosexuality to alcoholism or kleptomania. Gay rights advocates petitioned to have attacks on gays classified as "hate crimes," and the nation's TV audience watched with interest when Ellen DeGeneres, a popular media star, declared that she was a lesbian, just like the character she played on a situation comedy. Some communities that had previously passed anti-discrimination measures were immersed in controversy when well-funded conservative groups succeeded in placing measures on the ballot to repeal protections for gays and lesbians. Federal courts began considering legal challenges to these referenda, thus creating a new tension between majority rule and minority rights.
The Clinton presidency is still with the nation in ways that make it difficult to draw sound judgments about its lasting historical legacy. However, scholars are beginning to focus on some aspects of his administration in which Clinton's historical importance might be significant.
For example, Clinton managed to remake the image and operations of the Democratic Party in ways that effectively undermined the so-called Reagan Revolution. His "New Democrat" Party co-opted the Reagan appeal to law and order, individualism, and welfare reform, and made the party more attractive to white middle-class Americans. At the same time, the reborn party retained traditional Democratic commitments to providing for the disadvantaged, regulating the excesses of the private market place, supporting minorities and women, and using government to stimulate economic growth. Moreover, Clinton capitalized on growing dissatisfaction with far right-wing extremism within the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Clinton's claims to a lasting, positive legacy for the Democratic Party have been severely undermined by two realities: the shift in control of Congress to the Republican Party on his watch and the loss by his would-be successor, Vice President Al Gore, in the 2000 presidential election. Thus, Clinton's partisan legacy remains complex and uncertain.
Additionally, the Clinton presidency will certainly be studied and evaluated in terms of its major domestic success: eliminating the federal deficit and overseeing the strongest economy in recent memory. Although there has been some partisan debate about the extent to which the 1990's boom can be attributed to Clinton, the mainstream interpretation now tends to give great credit to Clinton and his economic team, especially Robert Rubin of the National Economic Council and later the secretary of the Treasury, for uncommon fiscal discipline in 1993. These efforts fueled a period of confidence in the financial markets. What is unclear is whether this great economic success will weigh very heavily in the judgment of future historians, who tend to evaluate Presidents more on enduring programs than on the quality of their budgets; a new national health care system would have been just such a program. Clinton's failure to win that battle may thus loom larger in the judgment of history than the economic successes that benefited Americans of his era. This may be especially true in Clinton's case, since his successor as President, George W. Bush, took steps which reversed the nation's fiscal position, from one of exceptional surpluses to one of exceptional deficits.
In terms of foreign policy, the Clinton record is also mixed. One of Clinton's core missions as President, he often said, was to prepare Americans for a world in which global economic forces failed to respect national boundaries. Perhaps his greatest accomplishments, then, came in the area of economic globalization-—establishing several new regimes of free trade, with NAFTA and GATT. Moreover, he and the Rubin Treasury Department, with the important assistance of Treasury Deputy Secretary Lawrence Summers, headed off a number of economic catastrophes in the developing world. But the complexities of the currency problems in Mexico and East Asia may deprive the administration of some of the credit it rightly deserves for resolving these problems. Not many Americans understood, or understand, exactly what was at stake in these arcane currency interventions. Those who watched carefully, however, often claim that the exercise of creative, unilateral executive power in the Mexican peso crisis, when the congressional leadership refused to provide legislative support, was one of Bill Clinton's brightest moments.
The President's success in the Balkans will undoubtedly resonate well historically, as the administration helped end a conflict that threatened both the security of Europe and the viability of transatlantic cooperative arrangements. But the failure to act in Rwanda, in particular, seems likely to loom large in future historical evaluations. Clinton's overall management of the immediate post-Cold War environment will certainly endure great scrutiny.
Finally, it is probably the case that few Clinton historical retrospectives will get very far before noting that this was only the second American President to suffer the disgrace of impeachment. It is evident from the presidency of his successor that any harm Clinton did to the institution of the presidency was, all things considered, rather meager, as the younger Bush has amassed an extraordinary degree of power in that office. But the damage done to Clinton's place in history is far more pronounced and probably permanent. Future historians will likely evaluate not just what Clinton did, but also what he did not accomplish, because he was tied-up in a second-term struggle for political survival. It is this consideration of "what might have been" that may be Clinton's greatest obstacle to gaining historical stature.