Imagining Politics: Alternate Clintons


Bill Clinton's effusively warm farewell to himself at the Democrats' convention has inspired a new and extremely promising literary genre. E.J. Dionne Jr., political columnist for The Washington Post (and a friend and former colleague), was sufficiently impressed by the president's performance to lament that the man had made so much trouble for himself. Writing from Los Angeles on August 15, Dionne said that the speech "made you want to imagine a Clinton presidency in which he lets Monica Lewinsky just drop off the pizza and invites big donors to sleep at the Hay-Adams instead of the Lincoln bedroom."

Thus is born the genre of "Alternate Clintons." Similar genres already exist: There are plenty of what-if speculations involving Lincoln, for example. Indeed, an entire anthology of 25 Alternate Kennedys was published in 1992; it featured an inevitable vision of The Kennedys as the world's hottest Top-40 rock group. (The editor of that anthology, Mike Resnick, also released a collection called Alternate Presidents the same year.) Given Clinton's elastic public persona, and his administration's rich legacy of scandalous irresolution, his presidency is brimming with what-if possibilities, many of them in marked contrast to Dionne's sympathetic speculations.

Indeed, one could argue that the nation has been trapped in an implausible alternate universe since 1994, when the "incompetent" Clinton transformed himself into the "presidential" Clinton by using Newt Gingrich as a stage prop. What if Gingrich hadn't led the Republicans to control of the House? Would an un-triangulated Clinton have continued his series of foreign-policy disasters and domestic policy failures until 1996, and been replaced by President Dole? For that matter, Would Clinton have been elected in the first place without the barely imaginable presidential run of Ross Perot? After all, Clinton never attracted a majority of votes.

Or suppose that the Clintons had succeeded in nationalizing one-seventh of the economy under their health-care plan, and in passing their "stimulus" package involving tens of billions of dollars in urban pork. Clinton once insisted that his stimulus plan was the linchpin of economic revival. How would such actions have effected growth?

Clinton has spent his professional life in elective office. Suppose he had tried to get a job. What kind of career opportunities awaited him in Hot Springs? Are music critics in another timestream dismissing his latest saxophone CD as "too derivative of Eisenhower-era sax playing"?

Or how about an Alternate Sudan, in which people can get medicine produced in their still-standing pharmaceuticals factory? Or an Alternate Iraq, featuring hundreds of thousands of still-living children? Or an Alternate Kosovo, where there is an ongoing exchange of terrorism and retribution, but no massive destruction, no massive ethnic cleansing by any side, and no massive military presence tied down for the foreseeable future?