Bill Clinton and His Consequences

Experts will be chewing, and gnashing, over the legacy of Bill Clinton's presidency for years to come; Clinton himself will probably participate in the assessment for three or four decades. President Clinton probably "mattered," for ill and for good, in more ways than we think, and sometimes for reasons that may not be obvious. Proud, solicitous, shameless, intellectually agile, facile and articulate, duplicitous and shrewd, selfish, empathic, by at least some measures brilliant, Clinton stands apart from, and towers above, any other politician of his generation.

During his presidency much changed. The era of politics that began with the New Deal, and defined government's role for sixty years, ended. What is now a liberal? It depends on what the meaning of "liberal" is. The President who ended welfare as we knew it, balanced the federal budget, and presided over a historic expansion of the prison population (and a historic decrease in crime rates) was no Reagan Republican but what was proudly called a New Democrat; and he set the example for an international revolution in politics that saw New Democrats rise over older generations of conservatives to redefine liberalism in Great Britain and Germany, too. America during these years led the world in a boom that achieved the seemingly impossible: a balanced federal budget, essentially zero unemployment, essentially zero inflation. The United States assumed the global role of keeper of the post-Cold War peace, a role guided by doctrine as yet unformed. The age of post-Watergate reforms ended: the new and unapologetically cynical boundaries for political cash harvesting that were set in the 1996 elections killed the campaign-finance laws; Kenneth Starr's investigation killed the special-prosecutor law. The practice of national politics, too, passed into a new age: the age of total war.

We asked a group of scholars, journalists, and essayists to assess some aspect of the Clinton presidency—the choice of subject matter was entirely up to them. What follows is not a debate or a roundtable but simply a collection of diverse voices expressing, as always with this President, divergent views.


He Was Slick, Thank God
Bill Clinton's talent for confounding his enemies, manipulating his friends, and playing all sides against the middle helped to create the economic golden years
by James Fallows

Was Clinton Cool?
Talking about my generation. And talking and talking and talking
by P. J. O'Rourke

The Triumph of Robust Tokenism
Clinton's racial strategy helped mainly those who had already helped themselves
by Randall Kennedy

All the President's Sidemen
Savvy enough about rhythm
by Francis Davis

Class and the Classroom
The 1990s were the time when "public education" lost its hold on our hearts
by Margaret Talbot

The Return of the "Undeserving Poor"
Welfare reform revived a hateful notion
by Glenn C. Loury

Relativism as Teflon
How Clinton kept us from getting his goat
by Roy Blount Jr.

The Promise Keeper
At least when it came to campaign pledges, Bill Clinton told the truth
by Carl M. Cannon

Mutual Assured Destruction
He made sex obsolete—at least as a weapon of political war
by Wilfrid Sheed

Sneak Preview
A cartoon
by Pat Oliphant

A Generation Without Public Passion
Clinton's chief legacy to the young was to drain politics of idealism
by Arlie Russell Hochschild

FLOTUS Blossoms
From a political appendage to a free-standing figure—who is, oddly enough, not really there
by Tish Durkin

Clinton and the Democrats
The President's party has lost its power base, both in Washington and in the states
by William Schneider

The Way It Wasn't
An alternative history of the Clinton Administration
by Jack Beatty