The question going into Bill Clinton’s farewell speech last night was this: Is this the last speech of the Clinton presidency, or the first speech of the new Clinton era? It was very much the latter, which is why he never said the word “goodbye” or “farewell.”
There was a time—it lasted more than 200 years—when American presidents came from America, journeyed to Washington to serve and then, when they were done, followed the tradition of George Washington and went back home to America, where they lived out the rest of their lives. The tradition underscored the ideal of citizens who left a good life to serve their country at considerable cost, and who then, work done, returned to normal life and the higher title of citizen.
In modern times Harry Truman did this, and Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter, who went back to the peanut business, and Ronald Reagan, who retired to California. George Bush returned to Houston. But Bill Clinton will never leave, and he made this clear when he said, “My days in this office are nearly through, but my days of service, I hope, are not.”. He has never been much interested in traditions, or their meaning.
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As a speech it was not terrible. He looked, finally, comfortable in the Oval Office, as if he thought he belonged there. In outlining his economic triumphs he congratulated the American people—”you have risen to every new challenge”—in the same tone with which on your bad days you congratulate your child for doing well at school or sports. He said that he had taken the steps and given the leadership that ignited the American economy, but he noted that “I’ve tried to give all Americans the tools and conditions to build the future.”
He claimed to have created “a new kind of government: smaller . . . more effective.” He said, “Our schools are better.” And so a presidency that began essentially with lies ends essentially with lies. There is a lovely egg-like completeness and perfection to this.
The speech was mostly a legacy speech, similar to the dozen or so goodbye speeches and interviews with which Mr. Clinton has been filling his last months in office. (Ronald Reagan gave only one farewell interview and one farewell address, and that in December, so as not to intrude on the new president’s inaugural. But he was old fashioned—and a gentleman.)
Once again, last night, Mr. Clinton argued the case for his greatness—the economy up, a world at peace, Americans never so happy. He refrained, however, from saying, as he has in speeches in the past week, that it is possible some other president will come along some day and be as good as he, nor did he note that the wonderful things he has done he learned first in Arkansas.
He said he wanted to leave the American people with three thoughts. The first was that we must stay the course on fiscal restraint. By this he meant: Don’t pass Bush’s tax cut.
His second point, and a long one it was, was that global poverty “requires more than compassion.” I think a deconstruction of this thought is: It requires programs, i.e., liberal programs. In other words: When Osama bin Laden and his henchmen blow up an American city, it won’t be my fault, it will be President Bush’s.
His third thought was that America is a nation of many ethnic and racial groups, and we must continue to honor this fact and help those in need. We need programs for this, he suggested. “Compassion isn’t enough,” he said, in the speech’s clearest shot at Mr. Bush. What he was really saying was: That compassionate conservative guy is a big phony.
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That the speech was lacking in grace or largeness goes without saying, that it offered seemingly wise and even avuncular words with a subtext of political aggression and competitiveness was in its way perfect. That is what Mr. Clinton’s career has been, aggression offered as sympathy.
I watched the speech with a gathering of Democratic and Republican speechwriters, veterans of the craft who approach presidential speeches with a mixture of sophistication and sympathy. It was a sparkling group, and I always feel honored to be among them, for history walks the room when they are there. Their reviews of the speech:
From a Democrat: “Listening to Bill Clinton is like eating cotton candy. it’s sweet going down but it’s only air.”
From another Democrat: “He didn’t say, ‘So long’; he said, ‘I’ll see you Monday.’ ”
The Republicans were similarly negative.
There is a great cliché in America, among conservatives, that the American elite like Mr. Clinton, while the good common people are more likely to deplore him. But in my experience, no one has contempt for Mr. Clinton like sophisticated Americans, particularly sophisticated and accomplished liberals. I think it is to some degree snobbery—they do see him now as a low-rent oaf with a squat and grasping wife—but it is more than that. They understand what he has done in letting foreign nationals buy U.S. foreign policy, and deep down they are not amused. They think he is a weak egomaniac, a man who’ll do anything from fear and hunger. Also they’ve all been in therapy, and they see his sickness. They know who he is.
But now he is over, or rather his presidency is. He will stay in Washington and New York. I was interested to see that no one back home in Arkansas seemed upset or surprised about this when he went home to speak at the state house in Little Rock this week. They knew he was never coming back, and they knew that he was not really of them, but only using home as a base to stay viable within the system.
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Mr. Bush comes in tomorrow, and that is good. Even if he is a bad president, he will be better than what we’ve got. There is something I hope he does as soon as he gets into the White House. It has to do with a fanciful, perhaps, sense of evil. I think that all places of concentrated power have within them the devil’s little imps—little imps, unseen, sitting on the cornice of the doorway in this office, giggling quietly in a corner on a book case in that one. They are in all places of power I think and they feel very much at home in such places, and the good people working in them don’t even sense their presence, have no awareness of them, but get tripped up by them, tormented by them, even wind up sometimes doing their work for them and not even knowing it.
All White Houses have them. But in the one just ending the imps ran wild. It would be a very good and important thing if Mr. Bush invited in a fine and good priest, a wise and deep rabbi, a faithful and loving minister, and had them pray together in that house, and reanoint it, and send the imps, at least for a while, on their way. Perhaps they could include the prayer of old John Adams, that only good men serve in this great and stately mansion.
It’s good to start out clean. And it’s good to begin any great enterprise with prayers, which seems to be something the Bushes know well.