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How Will President Clinton Be Remembered?

Aired January 12, 2001 - 1:31 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, this time next week we'll just be a day away from seeing the inauguration of a new president. And as his time winds down, President Clinton is trying to tie up loose ends, one involves health. He left for Bethesda Naval Hospital this morning to undergo his final routine physical as president. Mr. Clinton is expected to get a clean bill of health as he heads into presidential retirement.

But before he goes, the president continues on this last hurrah he's been going on around the country. His farewell tour is a chance for the president to say thanks to his supporters and to talk about his legacy. And we're going to talk more about it now with presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who joins us from Detroit to talk about what history might say about the Clinton era.

Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Brinkley.


ALLEN: First of all, let's talk about the farewell tour the president has been on. Some have likened it to a rock-'n'-roll tour. Has any president ever done this before and what do you make of it?

BRINKLEY: No, there's never been anything quite like this before. You know, all presidents try to sum up their administration and prepare for their legacy. It's more traditionally been done through the farewell address where you have somebody like Dwight Eisenhower 40 years ago giving that memorable speech about the industrial military complex which still reverberates around our society today.

Jimmy Carter, who Bill Clinton says he wants to his model post- presidency on, did the same thing. Carter gave a very significant farewell address where he kind of said here's what I did well as president. I'm going to continue doing these, in a sense, as ex- president, meaning promoting human rights and democracy abroad.

So -- but to go and kind of back to your old political stomping grounds, to New Hampshire and Michigan and thank the voters for being pro-Clinton or at least helping him become president is kind of unique, but everything about Bill Clinton is a little bit unique.

This is -- you know, Bob Dylan has a tour right now. It's called the never-ending tour, and because Dylan got tired of dubbing each tour by a different name and I think it's same with Bill Clinton. From now on until illness or the grave hits him, we'll be seeing Clinton going, going, going and trying to rebuild on his legacy.

ALLEN: Well, on that score, we know that he has that million dollar home in New York. He's also going to have a home in Washington, and you talk about he keeps going, going, going, what might the Bush administration think of the fact that he's going to be right there. So many Republicans wanted Clinton gone, out of their mitts forever?

BRINKLEY: I think that going -- they're going to -- it gives them the creeps to know that big Bill Clinton will be looming all over Washington and New York. What's so interesting is usually presidents leave Washington. They really can't wait to get out. You have, you know, Harry Truman, anxious to get on the train back to Independence or Carter going back to a small town of Plains, and Ronald Reagan to Bel Air and Beverly Hills.

But in this case, you're seeing Bill Clinton staying in the vortex of power and where the cameras are. He will be in Washington and New York. Those are going to be his real bases and the presidential library in Little Rock which, while significant, seems like it's going to be a third or fourth concern of his.

ALLEN: Well, let's talk now about his presidency. The high points, the low points; certainly everyone knows the Lewinsky affair and impeachment. But what were some other issues that were low points for him?

BRINKLEY: Well, I think the low point in general would be the relations with Congress. I mean, there will be books written on first, you know, Gingrich and Clinton; how similar and dissimilar they are as individuals.

What, you know, Bill Clinton versus the Gingrich revolution; a constant bad relationships with Congress I think becomes number one. I think the second one will be the disaster of the health care is a low point, that he came in really wanting to do something on health care reform and really has produced very little in that regard.

ALLEN: What about on the international scale? He wanted so badly to have a breakthrough in the Middle East. It does not look like that's going to happen. Is that something that history will look at him favorably for any gains he made there or unfavorably for not being able to produce something more substantial?

BRINKLEY: Well, if you just look at the Middle East I think he did not do particularly well, although he tried extremely hard and all of us should be very cautious about criticizing a president in the Middle East peace process. But for example, in the first term Bill Clinton, sent Warren Christopher 27 times to Syria, never really got a deal.

The high hopes this past summer of Camp David, it seemed to fizzle into violence. He's been tenacious. He's been there all the time, but he hasn't produced a kind of golden moment except for that handshake that he orchestrated early in his administration after the Oslo agreements, but that was done not by Bill Clinton. He was there as a facilitator, not as the negotiator of that important historical accord .

So, I give him low -- mediocre to low marks on Middle East diplomacy, but strong in other areas of foreign policy and the verdict is still out in Kosovo and Bosnia, but Bill Clinton did show that he had guts and wasn't just a hostage to public opinion polls in his military interventions in behalf of humanity in those two cases.

ALLEN: Northern Ireland, too, for sure. Something he's proud of. And what about his other achievements here back at home. What will people remember about Bill Clinton?

BRINKLEY: Well, you know what's so interesting, instead of becoming a lame duck president after his impeachment, he, as Norman Mailer once said, only in movement does man have a chance, and I think you saw Bill Clinton going everywhere around the globe trying to be a global leader.

And I think he scored points that way. I think Bill Clinton is seen as a good U.S. president abroad, and then the other thing he did; thanks to Theodore Roosevelt who in 1906 implemented the Antiquities Act, he's able to create national monuments without the consent Congress and Clinton has done that.

He's created more national monuments than any other president and now these past weeks he's stopping the new roads being built into our national forests, and I think his environmental legacy is going to look much stronger than it seemed like maybe a year or two ago.

And, of course, welfare reform, and the buzz line people that want to remember the good news about the Clinton years, it was a time of great economic prosperity. We are not going to be bemoaning life in the '90s 50 or 100 years from now. Clinton oversaw time of extraordinary prosperity and we do have to give him some bit of credit for that.

ALLEN: And I'm curious, how much credit the Americans will give him say decades from now when new kids come along and say, grandpa, grandma was president Clinton a good president? What do you think the answer will be?

BRINKLEY: I think the verdict will be that he was a good president; that he was an excellent manager; that he did the things he set out to do by and large, which is domestic renewal and making trade policy the heart of our foreign policy. So, I think he'll get higher marks than we see now.

The curse of Bill Clinton is that great I that's embroidered on his chest for impeachment. He will be trying to scrub that I off during his post-presidency. It's going to be tough because on that one issue of moral character he ranks on the bottom heap of presidents with Warren Harding and Richard Nixon and I think it's going to be hard for him to rehabilitate himself in that regard. But I think there will be some Clinton nostalgia, Clinton longing, maybe not so much for the man but for this decade of the 1990s which has been a time of general peace and a prosperity unprecedented in our nation's history.

ALLEN: And it'll be interesting to see what a post-presidency is like for Bill Clinton. Doug Brinkley, thanks so much, Doug.

BRINKLEY: Thank you.



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