On Monday night you deliver the last big speech of your presidency. Or rather the last big political speech in front of a huge crowd, with the whole country listening.
There is in truth one other big speech after Monday night, your farewell address, in December. That, by tradition, is a sober address from the Oval Office. That’s where Eisenhower and Reagan did theirs, and they were the last of the two-termers before you. You probably won’t feel able to speak from the Oval when you say goodbye. what people think about when they see the words “Bill Clinton” and “Oval Office” in the same sentence, or on the same superimposed network caption.
They think of—well, the fundraising things, the meetings with foreign operatives who gave you money. They stood there with their shiny $400 shoes on the presidential seal on the rich blue carpet. And they think of the intern, and all the trauma and embarrassment. So just speaking from the Oval Office, as a president does, makes your constituents think of things you don’t want them thinking of. So maybe your farewell will be inevitably somewhat muted, and maybe you’ll make it in the East Room, or the Press Room, or some other place.
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But Monday night—Monday night is a political speech, and you’ll speak where you’re most alive, where you’ve always wanted to be: The man at the big-miked podium, the cynosure of all eyes. You’re probably pumped. You can really help Gore with this speech, and Hillary too.
This is your last speech to the troops, to the Democratic Party that elected you, defended you, derided you behind your back but held high your colors through all the long battle.
You owe them a lot. If they had abandoned you the way the Republican Party abandoned Nixon during his scandals, you’d have been finished. The Republicans in those days couldn’t stomach the whole seamy mess and told Nixon he was over. But the Democrats stayed with you; they were tough and disciplined and went out and took your talking points onto the airwaves. They drew a lot of blood for you.
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And maybe you’d like to tell them and us why, what the larger meaning was. This is your chance. You can, looking back from the high point of eight years, define what it is you meant to do, and what it is you did during these two administrations. You can define, if only for three pages of a 15-page speech, what you think Clintonism is, and was. This would implicitly make the case for its continuance—via the election of Al Gore.
It’s amazing that eight years in, most people still don’t know what Clintonism is or what you meant it to be. If asked what word or thought they associate with Clintonism they’d say “Well, the economy’s good,” and then they’d say some variant of “Well, he sure kind of . . . went wild in that place, didn’t he?” With Reagan it was, “Well, the economy’s really come back,” and “He brought down the Wall, Russian communism fell,” and “He made us feel that America was a good force in the world.”
What words or thoughts, in your view, should Americans think of when they think of what you stood for or tried to do?
It would be good for history if you explained this.
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You’ll probably have a few pages with a lot of official-sounding numbers. This is where you’ll make the argument Gore does, that before Clinton-Gore, America was in a depression, with Wall Street guys jumping out of windows and unemployed fathers selling apples on the street.
That’s what Gore says, not exactly in those words, and with a blithe and energetic disdain for . . . well, for facts. He knows what the Carter era was, and what the Reagan era was after it. But he’s out there every day saying he and Clinton were FDR and Bush and Reagan were Hoover, and he makes some headway when he says this. The great reason behind the assertion is the wisdom Gore and his people have learned from watching Jay Leno. They watch Mr. Leno’s monologues, as all who are in politics and can stay awake do, in order to get a sense of what middle America is laughing at, and what can be inferred from that laughter.
Gore and his people have watched Leno and seen those street interviews he does where he asks people: “Which American President was in the White House when we fought Hitler?” and a nice 25-year-old guy who’s a paralegal scrunches his brow and says, “George Washington?” And Jay says, “What was the U.S. Civil War about?” and a 30-year-old woman says, “Um, they were killing the Jews? Like, you know, the Schindler list thing?”
Gore and his people seem to think Americans have grown very, very stupid. That’s part of why Gore talks so slowly, so we’ll be able to understand him. Anyway, they clearly think telling people in their 20s and 30s that 1980 marked the beginning of the Reagan depression will work, and really so far there’s no particular reason to think they’re wrong. The crowds cheer when Gore says it.
Will you say it, Mr. Clinton? And if you do, do you think history will notice and correct you?
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You probably think: Politics is politics. Don’t matter what’s true as long as what we say seems to be true. All the rest is just some argument on “Crossfire.” Why shouldn’t I fudge the facts? Enough lies were said about me over the years. I’ve been through a dozen campaigns, and like I tell my friends, I can’t take my T-shirt off in public cause they’d see the marks from the flayings.
Actually I heard you say the last part, about the T-shirt and the flayings, way back in 1990, to friends, before you were president. I thought: This fellow sure has a sharp sense of his sufferings.
And you do. But you could give us all a sharp sense of how you see economic history in your speech, and I hope you do. I hope you offer not just the red meat but the hard spine of logic.
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After you make the case that the Clinton-Gore administration ended a depression and brought America to new levels of wealth, you’ll probably echo Al Gore in that line he says: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” It’s a great jaunty line. Gore’s people stole it from Reagan in ‘84. He’d remind people of the recession of the Carter years—inflation and interest rates that topped 20%. Reagan called it the misery index, and as much as anything it did Carter in. All Reagan had to do in ‘84 is point out he’d cut unemployment and inflation in more than half, that interest rates were way down, that the misery index was a thing of the past.
It was true, and he won. Bush did much of the same in ‘88, and what he said was true, and he won.
And now Al Gore is using Reagan’s and Bush’s arguments, and their language. But the facts don’t stack up. Gore is telling the truth when he says things are even better than they were in the ‘80s, at least economically. But they were good in the ‘80s, too. And people knew what Reagan did to get the economy going again. He slashed taxes, and he cut regulation. The economy took off, for the first time in a generation.
Gore has to convince people that you and he did something to make the economy good. He has to explain exactly what you did to make things better, because a lot of people don’t think the Clinton-Gore administration did much of anything. Or rather, they think you kept the economy good by getting beaten back when you tried to raise taxes, beaten back when you wouldn’t balance the budget, and beaten back when you wouldn’t back welfare reform. When these things were forced on you, you did them. The economy moved forward.
This is true, but it’s hard to say you got things better by getting beat.
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It would be good in the Monday night speech if we could hear the Clinton-Gore argument for how you created this era of riches. You could tell us in your speech. I wish you would so that we could all look at it and think about it and turn to each other and say, “What do you think, does this hold water?”
I suspect half the country thinks we owe our riches to three things, the fact that entrepreneurial genius can flourish only in freedom, and we’re free; the fact that Silicon Valley has transformed the world; and the fact that investors, stockbrokers and Wall Street guys take Prozac now, so they don’t wake up like bears anymore but like bulls, charging into the day.
A lot of other people think it all began 19 years ago, when President Reagan lowered the top tax rate from 70% to 35%, cut marginal rates and helped free up the money that allowed Silicon Valley to become what it is.
But a lot of Americans have a kind of rough fairness: If you were president when the good stuff happened you get the credit, period. Tell them how they’re right to give it to you and Gore. And tell them what Gore will do to continue these bounteous years.
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So you’ve said thanks and you’ve claimed triumph and you’ve bragged on the economy and explained how and what you did to make it expand.
One more thing would be good.
You’ve shown all these years that you’re intelligent and energetic and riveting in terms of your character and personality. But you’ve never shown . . . grace. Courage. Class. A generosity of spirit.
You could on Monday night, though.
And in showing you have some grace, courage and generosity you could do Al Gore a big favor.
You could talk about the triumphs of your time but then admit the things you’ve done that you shouldn’t have done, and claim them as your own, and take responsibility for them. The whole deal, from fundraising to losing our nuclear secrets to girls to . . . unleashing the fierce energy of your hatred into the national bloodstream, and getting all your people out there on television every day to hate for you and bringing the national conversation a few rungs lower.
You really pulled the country into some bad places, and sometimes, at some point, you must know this and admit it to yourself.
Maybe you could admit what went wrong, and point out, if it is true, that Al Gore wasn’t there. And then talk about what did work, and say, if you can, that Gore was there for that, and had a part in it.
Maybe you would, through this honesty, take Gore off the hook. Every day he wriggles like a caught fish because of the things you’ve done, things people associate with him. He can’t turn on you; that would finish him. And he can’t not be honest about you, because if he continues that he’ll lose.
So why don’t you be honest for him. Turn on yourself. You’ve got nothing to lose, really. And you have the respect of history to gain. Historians always smile on candor and kindness, have you noticed? They’re human, and recognize acts of grace.
You could do Hillary a favor, too. Of course you’ll talk about her Senate race, and maybe you’ll throw her a kiss and mouth “I love you” again. Democrats seem to like that a lot, so it will get applause. But I’ll tell you, everyone else cringes. Here’s a way to help her. They liked her a lot in New York when they thought she was your victim. Then the past year when she looked like just another blunderbuss pol, just another maneuverer playing games with things like the FALN terrorists—well, she looked like a much worse version of your average pol.
You’d better remind New Yorkers she was once first lady, and met with people and was nice to them, and you better remind them she’s a victim, if that’s how you and she still see her. She really was more liked when people felt sorry for her. So that’s another reason you might be gracious, and candid.
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Why would you do such an extraordinary thing? Because if Gore wins and Hillary wins then you know what History’s headline will say: “Clintonism Endorsed! The People, Yes—They Demand Eight More Years of Good Leadership!” And if Gore and Hillary lose, you know what that headline will be: “Clintonism Rebuffed, America Throws The Bums Out, Clean New Era Begins!”
You’re fighting for history’s headlines. And there’s another thing that motivates you. If the Repubicans win they will be happy. Those greedy narrow-minded frightened bullying hypocrites will be smiling all over the tube.
And you can’t have that. Because you hate them, you really hate them. That’s why you call them Nazis. That’s why you’re thinking, as you prepare this speech, They ain’t gonna win this. You watch. Bubba came to play.