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CNN Today

How Will History View William Jefferson Clinton?

Aired February 9, 2001 - 2:40 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Former President Clinton has never strayed far from controversy both in and now out of office. And this latest flap involves $28,000 worth of furnishings. National Park Service officials say the items in question were intended as gifts to the White House, not the Clintons. The former president and his wife said they understood that the couch, rug, kitchen set and some other items which are now returned were available to them. They have in fact been returned.

Here with a look at Bill Clinton's image, his legacy and his future: presidential historian Carol Berkin in New York.

Professor Berkin, it's nice to see you again.

CAROL BERKIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Hi. Hello.

FRAZIER: Thanks for joining us.

BERKIN: Sure.

FRAZIER: It's hard to get a sense of this historically, whether these little misunderstanding are unique to the Clintons. Or has this sort of thing happened in the past?

BERKIN: Oh, I think they have happened in the past. I'm not sure that we paid as close attention to these. Some of these -- and it's not an insult to the media -- some of these things become media events just because you can find out about them so fast and people are accustomed now to gossip in a way that, perhaps in the 19th century, they weren't about the presidency.

Other people have made off with things from the White House and cleared out some gifts that they probably thought were intended for them. The Clintons just have a remarkable ability to do it in a way that attracts attention, I think.

FRAZIER: Well, in your field of history, is there anyone else, any other former president who has, between these last-minute pardons and this furniture flap, left the White House in such ignominy?

BERKIN: It depends on what kind you are talking about. John Quincy Adams left in, I think, the greatest disregard of any president ever, but largely because of his politics, which -- and his policies -- which seem to be the most out of step with the times of any president ever.

If Harding hadn't died -- there are presidents whose deaths saved them from other scandals and other criticisms by the public. But I think that Bill Clinton has always been larger than life in every way. And he pays the price for it. He's the kind of "National Enquirer" headline-waiting-to-happen in so many ways. And once you have that kind of personality, I think it's like a magnet collecting pieces of lead dust.

FRAZIER: When you say their death saved them from this, I can't help but think of John Kennedy. Is that the comparison you were making?

BERKIN: Yes, yes, absolutely. And, you know, I know this is controversial, but think about Abraham Lincoln. Many Republicans in the government after the Civil War were highly critical of his kindly response to Reconstruction: that is to the Southerners. There were many people highly critical of the suspension of habeas corpus during the war.

You -- here's an icon who you really do not know what might have happened if his assassination hadn't instantly made him a martyr. And his -- you know his wife drove up tremendous debts. There was some question about her mental condition there. Even an icon like this certainly was saved from criticism by scholars and the public by assassination. And the same I think is true of Kennedy, even though now, years later, much of the reassessment of Kennedy is being made by scholars.

FRAZIER: Let's look ahead to what kind of post-presidency Mr. Clinton might have. Other than Jimmy Carter, a lot of presidents have just gone off to the speaking tour and the golf course.

BERKIN: Right, right.

FRAZIER: Let's look a little farther back. Was there anyone who assumed a prominent position in American life?

BERKIN: Well, oddly enough, John Quincy Adams redeemed himself tremendously when he served in the Congress and spoke out against the gag rule that forbid petitions advocating abolition to come to the Congress. And so here's a man who became a statesman for American liberty after he had been -- I hate to use the expression -- pooh- poohed by everyone for his presidency. So there are people who have redeemed themselves afterwards. And I think a lot will depend on what Bill Clinton does in the next 10 years.

FRAZIER: There hasn't been a president leaving office at this youthful age, has there?

BERKIN: No, no, no. And...

FRAZIER: Teddy Roosevelt, I guess.

BERKIN: Well, but he ran again.

FRAZIER: Right.

BERKIN: I think that Clinton will not seek the presidency again. I -- and it's very difficult to tell what role he'll have. As I always say, historians predict the past, not the future.

(LAUGHTER)

BERKIN: But much of his legacy is going to depend on what happens to the economy in the next 10 years, whether a Republican president can make a lasting peace, help make a lasting peace in Israel. Clinton may come out looking really wonderful by comparison. Or he may come out looking like someone whose personal flaws also flawed his administration. And a lot of that really doesn't depend on him. It depends on the people who come after him, which I'm sure is very distressing to a man like Clinton, who likes to be in control of his own destiny.

FRAZIER: Well, we're grateful for you joining us again, Professor Carol Berkin, a professor at Baruch College in New York City. Thank you.

BERKIN: Thank you. Thank you.

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