Roundtable
Does Clinton Matter?
Sean Wilentz
Round Three - February 9, 2000

Historians interpret facts. Unfortunately, even when some of our best political writers discuss Bill Clinton (and here Brooks's and Corn's uncharacteristically shallow pieces are typical), facts are suddenly in extremely short supply. Polemics and cynical "we-all-know-he's-a-creep" posturing unite the left and the right, without reference to Clinton's actual accomplishments and shortcomings. All a historian can do is respond with more facts.

Jack Beatty is open-minded, but he's also too willing to accept the pundits' conventional wisdom at face value. I'm not sure, for example, where he gets his information on the "narrow" use of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The fact is that, as of the end of January, 2000, more than twenty million Americans have taken advantage of the act in order to help nurse a child or ailing relative.

As for his discussion of health care, Beatty embraces the commonplace, ludicrous assumption that Clinton was chiefly responsible for defeating his own plan. I agree with Beatty that, had health-care reform passed, Clinton might well be widely hailed as a great President. And I agree that the Administration made political blunders, including formulating its plan in hypersecrecy. But who, in fact, really killed the initiative? To answer this question, let me turn to my New Republic colleague John Judis's new book, The Paradox of American Democracy (p. 212):

The defeat of Clinton's health care plan was sparked by conservative political operatives and politicians who had little knowledge of or interest in health care legislation, but who feared that through the passing of health care reform, Clinton would create a lasting Democratic majority. The plan was also killed by the efforts of businesses that were directly threatened by health care reform. These included small family-owned businesses that did not provide their employees with health care, small health insurance providers that under the Clinton plan would be squeezed out by the larger, more cost-efficient firms, and corporations that owned subsidiaries that did not provide health insurance for their employees.

Judis goes on to show how Grover Norquist, the ubiquitous right-wing political operative, along with lobbyists from the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association, and home-schooling organizations, confederated with The American Spectator, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative media heavies, and then led the attack on Clinton's health-care proposals. Those are the facts. Blaming Clinton for the demise of health-care reform is like blaming Abraham Lincoln for Confederate secession.

I was sorry to see Beatty, one of the best literary stylists in American journalism, lower the tone of debate by resorting to Richard Nixon's favorite barnyard epithet in describing Bill Clinton. (I've come to expect as much from the likes of Congressman Dan Burton, the Republican who called Clinton a "scumbag" -- but not from Jack Beatty.) I was also sorry to see David Corn, whose incisive investigative reporting I greatly admire, say so little about the facts. Every one of Corn's assertions, about the "tiny" effect of the Health Insurance Portability Act, about campaign financing, about Clinton's trade policy (about which Corn seems to know as little as Pat Buchanan) -- not to mention Corn's charming remarks about phagocytes and Clinton-envy -- every one of these is baseless. Let me examine just one example, which Corn offers up in passing as if everyone knows it is so: namely, his charge that Clinton Administration policy has made arms control with the Russians far more difficult.

Here are a few of the facts: Clinton led the effort for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and was the first world leader to sign it (the GOP-controlled Senate -- not the Russians -- killed that signature); under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the United States is dismantling former Soviet chemical-weapons production facilities in Russia and Uzbekistan; Clinton added Russia (along with South Africa, Argentina, and seven other countries) to the Missile Technology Control Regime; at a hundred sites in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, and other countries, the U.S. is involved in new efforts to strengthen the security and accounting of nuclear materials.

Arms control more difficult? What Corn is really upset about is the expansion of NATO -- without which, incidentally, the Kosovo intervention could not have succeeded. But in order to back up his argument, he blithely ignores the facts.

David Brooks is one of the smartest and fairest conservative journalists in the country. Yet when the subject turns to Clinton, he offers no facts, or even factoids, whatsoever. He instead attacks me as a White House flack, makes fun of Corn's photograph, and cites anti-Clinton remarks by my colleague and friend Fred Greenstein (who also happens to think that Dwight Eisenhower was the supremely shrewd president of modern times). Brooks does observe that, in 2000, "[w]e are seeing nothing less than a progressive revival," and that the Republicans are "in obvious panic." With these last points, I agree, and I give credit where credit is due -- much of it to Bill Clinton. But Brooks simply cannot face that reality.

We began this debate with the contention that Bill Clinton has been indistinguishable from George Bush the elder. Fortunately, somewhere in round two, I think we all laid that canard to rest. But many more canards persist, and will persist, as long as Clinton's reputation is shrouded by the miasma of smug, ungrounded opinionation that dominates today's punditocracy, all across the political spectrum. When future historians chronicle Clinton's presidency, they will, I strongly believe, arrive at a much more balanced and positive view. That is because they will interpret the facts.

Round Three -- February 9, 2000
Jack Beatty | David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Round Two -- February 2, 2000
Jack Beatty | David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Round One -- January 26, 2000
David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Return to Introduction


What do you think?

Join the debate in Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Sean WilentzSean Wilentz is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and the Director of the Program in American History at Princeton University.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Wilentz photograph by Robert Matthews.