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The 'Legacy's Clinton as History's Worst President  

James V. Schall, S.J.

When asked what I thought of this president, I usually replied, in my jaundiced, freedom-of-speech opinion, that "from what I can observe, he was the worst man ever to be president, and he was the worst president." Compared to previous presidents both on the score of integrity and accomplishment, I place the president from 1992-2000 at the bottom of both lists.

A friend of mine who was in one of Bill Clinton's university classes often remarks that, even in college, he planned to be president.

Plato, for good reasons, remarks that the last person who should have an important political post is someone who eagerly wants it.

Unlike, say, Cincinnatus or Washington, we cannot, I suppose, expect Mr. Clinton to retire quietly to some farm in Arkansas to lead a sedate life. We have the impression that Mr. Clinton knows no other life but the political life, one of mankind's most unhappy situations. As an ex-president he will go around the world preaching what he has always preached, justifying what he has always justified.

The press frequently brings up the question of Mr. Clinton's "legacy." What is it that he bequeaths to us? One should only answer this question with the utmost frankness. There is, in principle, no objective judgment on moral and political issues that does not include some statement about the goodness or badness of the human actions under consideration.

Of course, we might try to impose some Machiavellian standard by which we attempt to praise a politician by with drawing any consideration of good and evil from our analysis. We concentrate only on "success" in staying in power. Mr. Clinton stayed in power. This is a fact. He was a "success." Whether this type of tenacity is to be admired is another question.

When asked, which is not often, what I thought of this president, I usually replied, in my jaundiced, freedom-of-speech opinion, that "from what I can observe, he was the worst man ever to be president, and he was the worst president." Compared to previous presidents both on the score of integrity and accomplishment, I place the president from 1992-2000 at the bottom of both lists. Previous presidents are superior by these standards. Somebody has to be at the bottom.

What this president did by way of executive orders, by way of influence, by way of example and this is an opinion; it could be awry corrupted much of our public life by making what is wrong either to be tolerated or approved, something to be admired.

But, someone might well object, the economy was prosperous. Economy is not politics; the main thing that Mr. Clinton did for the economy was not to bother it. He got us into no big wars, though all the little wars he did get us into seemed to be principally a function of some political need he had to cover his domestic actions. He seriously lessened our military capacity and its morale. He was, no doubt, well liked, even admired by not a few. He was also, I think, feared.

I have mostly seen the Clinton legacy in terms of Plato. This view might be imposing an outside, out-of-time view on something in our own day. But it is precisely because of what we do here and now that the Platonic shadow is so startlingly pertinent. The essence of the Clinton legacy was that a man of highly disordered soul became a model to justify the disordered souls of a significantly proportion of the citizenry. Several previous presidents had, no doubt, disordered souls, but they did not present their deeds as justified. Mr. Clinton gloried in legally getting away with what he did. "They never laid a glove on him," one could say of his enemies.

This escape from punishment itself was, in Plato's view, the most unfortunate thing that could happen to someone who has violated basic human standards. The failure of the Senate to remove him from office when he had in fact lied and thus corrupted our judicial system and the rights of others to the truth was, paradoxically, the worst thing that could have happened to Mr. Clinton himself. It enabled him to continue in his illusion that he had done nothing wrong. The worst punishment that can be given someone with a disordered soul, Plato thought, is to prevent him from acknowledging that he did anything wrong. Plato's observation here almost seems eerie.

Mr. Clinton is, it seems, a perfect replica of the sort of man Plato called a tyrant, a word we usually do not analyze with care. When we use that word today, we often have the wrong image. We think we would recognize a tyrant as an ugly, horrid person, repulsive in every way. Plato did not think this way. A tyrant was invariably very popular, handsome, clever, with loyal friends, eager to please, aware of the sins and shallowness of most men, limited by nothing but his own interests and daring. Plato's tyrant did not have much of a soul of his own. What he held from day to day changed with what the people wanted. It did not much matter what they wanted. That was the point.

On the other hand, the tyrant saw the weakness of the democratic man. The latter simply wanted what he wanted and called it freedom or liberty. There were no self-evident principles behind it. The leader who knew how to appeal to this ungrounded desire could pretty much do what he wished. Almost the only things, in retrospect, about which Mr. Clinton was consistent were what we call "pro-death" issues that he seems to hold even if the people would be against them.

The saddest part of Mr. Clinton's regime is that he was never really fully investigated. The Justice Department and often the press saw their purpose to protect the president, and did so. And it was dangerous to suggest anything was wrong. Reputations and families were attacked if they were called to witness. Much of this information will come out. Indeed, it is already coming out, even on TV, as Dorothy Rabinowitz pointed out in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 8. The print media will have a field day both in attacking and explaining this president.

The Clinton legacy, as many have pointed out, is that of a vast opportunity missed because of a soul concerned more with itself than with the objective principles of what is good and just. This condition is an affirmation of Plato's basic principle that the disorder of polity begins in disorder of soul. Mr. Clinton succeeded in separating the two orders in the public mind, but it cannot be done. The legacy is, as it must be, that men in high office have first to look to their own souls and to recognize a right order, the outlines of which they cannot change by their own wills.


James V. Schall, S.J. "'The Legacy': Clinton as History's Worst President." National Catholic Register. (January 21-27, 2001).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Roman Catholic Political Philosophy, Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright 2001 National Catholic Register



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