Bye, Bye Bill

Farewell to the Entertainer-in-Chief


President Clinton becomes former President Clinton in a few days. Many of my conservative mates in D.C. can't wait to see him go. "Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out," has been their attitude for years. It's not mine. I've grown to consider him almost ideal, a sort of Miller Lite Maximum Leader: "Everything I want in a President and Less."

Clinton's even getting a tough rap from D.C.'s middle-of-the road thinkers. "Looking back on the past eight years, two things stand out," writes National Journal economic columnist Clive Crook, "how well the economy has performed and how little the Clinton administration has achieved." "President Do-Nothing" is what Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson labels the Man From Hope. "The Clinton paradox is this: Rarely has a president so dominated the public stage and so little affected the public agenda," clucks Samuelson, who seems personally aggrieved that the first baby boomer president failed to live up to a standard of greatness that matches baby boomer hype.

I don't want greatness in politicians. (This attitude serves as a nice mental salve for the next four years since, unlike many of my more liberal friends, I'm not worried about whether our incoming president is up to the task.) However much I would have liked for Clinton to reform Social Security—that would have been great indeed—he found himself occupied with other sticky issues during his second term. He needed core supporters to get him through the impeachment ordeal, and those supporters wouldn't cotton to his touching Social Security. So that opportunity was lost. But look at what we gained (besides a heavy dose of reality TV far more lurid and watchable than Fox's upcoming Temptation Island): More than a year of presidential inaction on virtually every front.

There just might be a causal relationship between how little Clinton did and how well the economy did. REASON Editor-at-Large Virginia Postrel was the first to clue me in on why the Lewinsky scandal was good for the economy. It wasn't just that the higher-ups in the White House and Congress were concentrating on low matters and therefore unable to develop, pass, and implement plans to make our lives better. This certainly helped, as it left Americans, if not White House interns and volunteers, unmolested and free to prosper. Beyond that, Postrel pointed out, the teams of over-educated, loud, and bossy commentators, analysts, and professional worriers were too busy parsing the meaning of is, hashing out the definition of sex, and researching the nuances of impeachment law to inform Americans on the myriad of problems plaguing the country.

There's simply no denying that Clinton has presided over eight insanely great, mind-blowing years. One doesn't have to buy into the ridiculously long and detailed list of day-by-day achievements on Clinton's official Web page (which includes the laugh line, "increased school choice") to recognize that America thrived under his watch. Along the way, he taught us a powerful lesson about unintended consequences. He came into office chanting, "It's the economy stupid." His stimulus plan for the economy and his terrible health-care policy never made it into law; he did little else in the way of activist economic policy and the economy prospered. Not only have we acquired great stuff—portable CD burners, google.com, and compact SUVs—but many troubling cultural indicators, such as teen pregnancy and crime, are down as well.

As important, Clinton put on a good—a great—show, especially for those of us lucky enough to live in Washington. I once heard a conservative D.C. wag justify his support for Mayor Marion Barry by saying that if he couldn't have good government, he might as well have entertaining government. Under Clinton, it turns out that entertaining government might just be good government. In fact, Clinton was more than a booze-on-the-job night watchman. He was the entertainer-in-chief, a role he auditioned for during the 1992 campaign and then played successfully for eight years. The man oozes charisma and dominates any situation in which he finds himself.

Ask yourself this: How much would you have been willing to pay to get Gloria Steinem to declare a "one free grope" policy in a New York Times op-ed? Who else could have gotten the grand dame of the feminist movement to justify his making passes at, and even copping a feel or two from, employees and job seekers? You could practically hear the high fives when D.C.'s employers got word that neo-feminist dogma held that getting serviced by an intern in your office while eating pizza and talking on the telephone is not inappropriate, just so long as such activity is consensual.

More than anything, I'll miss the effect Clinton's low character had on the high-minded conservatives—and on lefty Christopher Hitchens, who'll have to find something else to rant about (an early attempt by the entertaining Brit to get lathered up at George W. Bush's alleged dyslexia went out with a whimper). Clinton engendered eternal, telegenic outrage, and not simply in such rage-a-holic pushovers as Death of Outrage author Bill Bennett. The president showed that the rakes do make progress and that the virtuous—those who don't smoke dope in college, don't chase women, and don't go back on personal assurances—are simply suckers.

Maybe that uncomfortable truth threatens the basis of Western Civilization. After all, what's the point of being virtuous if others don't pay a price for their vices, whether through public disgrace, professional and economic ruin, or medical calamity? But it was often fun watching the disconnect between virtue and fate be revealed bit by bit over the past eight years.

Perhaps that's the final Clinton legacy. His very existence poses a moral conundrum worthy of deep contemplation: He came into office promising to take care of those "who work hard and play by the rules," but he has never played by the rules. And he never paid a critical price. Some might even say he prospered. And we did right along with him.