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Leading By Leaving

By Garry Wills

TIME magazine

(TIME, August 31) -- Sure, he can survive. But can he lead? Sometimes one can lead merely by surviving. Clinton did that after the 1994 Republican revolution seemed to make him irrelevant. He shrewdly maneuvered, played for time, let his enemies' overconfidence do them in. By living to fight another day, he retained the opportunity to advance goals important to him and to the nation. Some of his supporters felt betrayed by the temporizing measures he adopted in order to survive, especially his "devolution" of welfare to the states. That was shortsighted of them; sacrificing one measure to save the whole program is the kind of strategic choice a leader must make when in straits. The greatest comeback of the comeback kid was that recovery of his position after 1994, which made his 1996 victory--the first Democrat since Roosevelt to have won re-election--as much a "miracle" as Truman's 1948 victory.

So it is not surprising for him to think he can survive again. But the situation is different now. In 1995 his temporizing protected his dearest goals. The President had a remarkable opportunity, which he used remarkably, to bring the social concerns of a whole new generation into the White House. On issue after issue, he has done just that--women's rights, gay rights, minority rights. With his emollient personal skills, he was able to speak to and for the baby boomers, overcoming the resistance and resentment felt for the whole world of the '60s. Was he too much the child of his times, too relativistic, hedonistic, elitist? Was his wife more a superlawyer and schemer than the domestic icon expected in her role? With a reassuring sense of symbolism, Clinton overcame most of these suspicions. By now the symbols have abruptly swung in ways that confirm all that was felt about him and worse. It was always silly to say Clinton had stained the Lincoln bedroom by letting supporters into it. But what has he done to that other potent symbol in the White House, with the person he let into the Oval Office?

I know, and have said, that "other Presidents have done it" (actually, fewer than many people suppose). But as one of his closest campaign advisers told me, "He knew the rules had changed." He of all people knew. At the very time when he was stringing his Oval Office groupie along, he was under investigation for alleged sexual encounters. The claim that "mere sex doesn't matter" backfires on itself: if it did not matter, then he would have admitted to such an irrelevant thing from the outset instead of throwing a blanket of denial and distraction over the nation for more than half a year. His message as a result of this was less that "sex doesn't matter" than "truth doesn't matter." Perjury may not matter, or be provable, but the larger betrayal was of a generation that prized itself on candor, on an openness about sex and authenticity.

The rest of his presidency is bound to be a labor to repair the relationship with his followers. What time or energy will that leave for reaching the goals that followers are recruited for? Four months ago, I interviewed him about his goals. He said that many problems facing the world today cross national boundaries--environmental, health, drug, crime problems. "These factors argue for a vigorous, engaged America at this moment, which will not last forever, when we are the dominant power in the world," he said. "We should use this opportunity to put America at the center of all the emerging trade networks of the world, both for our national security, our global position and our economic health."

I left the Oval Office with my liking and admiration for him fortified. So I was shocked when my son returned from a 22-month bike trip around the world and told me that the ordinary people he met all over the globe reacted to his saying he was an American with snide jokes or questions about his President's sex life. It will be very hard for the President to ask the American people to look beyond mere material comfort to harder challenges when he used the resources of his office, that same Oval Office where I was impressed by him, not only for his own instant gratification but for long and painful cover-up attempts that put his family and friends and allies through demeaning ordeals.

Obviously, his instincts and principles tell Clinton not to quit, not to let the fanatical Ken Starr win. But principled resignation could be the one act of leadership that could save his own projects. Instead of draining energy from his party, his Vice President, his economic priorities, his country, he would reinvigorate them all. In this situation, further defenses further diminish him. With resignation, he would grow. He would be saying that the goals he fought for are more important than personal pride or prerogatives. He would change grudging approval and nagging doubts into open admiration. He would win back followers by doing what the leader must do, by directing their attention and energies to the goal they were seeking together, instead of tangling their energies in his personal difficulties. The wife who has stood by him so gallantly would lend his resignation stature by expressing the pride in it that it would deserve.

I have been thinking about Edmund Randolph, President Washington's Secretary of State, who was falsely accused of taking money from a foreign country. Rather than defend himself in office, distracting the nation from the delicate negotiations over the Jay Treaty, he resigned at once and conducted his defense as a private citizen. Clinton has a similar opportunity, though, as he said of this important time in America's history as a superpower, the moment can be squandered. The longer he resorts to half measures, the harder it will be to make a clean (and cleansing) break. It will be harder then to make it clear that he has larger purposes in life than mere self-defense.

President Clinton is a young man. He has a full life ahead of him. He can launch that new life better as a man who resigned out of principle rather than one who dodged, evaded and maneuvered through the long, dispiriting months between now and 2000. Merely surviving is not leading. Leaving would be.

Garry Wills, who teaches history at Northwestern University, is the author of Lincoln at Gettysburg

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 31, 1998

"I Misled People"
Leading By Leaving
Blowing His Stack
Justice Should Come Before Closure
The View From Congress
Lies, Tight Spots
How We Really Feel About Fidelity
Is This What We Expect?
Can We Get On to Something Serious?
Finally, the Telltale Lie
That's Where He Lost Me
The Notebook: Clinton Loses Touch
Lies My Presidents Told Me
President Gantry Addresses The Flock

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