In the summer of 1996, as he prepared to turn 50—and win a second term in the White House—Bill Clinton took to musing aloud that he now had “more yesterdays than tomorrows.” If that sentiment seemed maudlin for a man still in the prime of life, it was rooted in fact: The men in Clinton’s family died young—his birth father at 28, his stepfather at 59.
Today, Clinton turns 73, having exceeded Psalm 90’s allotted three-score years and 10, and having survived impeachment, open-heart surgery, and more than enough personal and political scrapes to exhaust nine lives, much less one. Unless he lives to 150, the 42nd president really does have more yesterdays than tomorrows. But what should have been these golden years are turning out to be leaden.
Clinton is not quite a full-on pariah in the modern Democratic Party—the one he did so much to reshape and rebuild. But some of his signature policies are the butt of attacks by the current crop of Democratic contenders, and the sitting president has floated the utterly unproven conspiracy theory that Clinton may have had something to do with the jailhouse death of Jeffrey Epstein, the serial sex trafficker whose company he once kept.
Clinton’s checkered past with women—his acknowledged infidelity and serious allegations of predation—left him sidelined as a surrogate in last year’s midterms, too toxic to raise money or stump for candidates in the #MeToo era. He is no longer the party’s reigning “Secretary of Explaining Stuff,” as Barack Obama famously dubbed him. It seems more than likely that he won’t have a prime speaking slot at next summer’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee—if he appears at all.
Harry Truman, George H. W. Bush, and even Herbert Hoover left office in disfavor, only to see their reputations revive (to one degree or another) in retirement. Jimmy Carter, whose defeat after one term nearly 40 years ago made him variously persona non grata or a pain in the neck to his fellow Democrats, has aged into an admired elder statesman, revered around the world for his good works, still teaching Sunday school at 94.
Clinton’s trajectory has been different. He left office in January 2001 with a 65 percent approval rating, the highest of any of his predecessors in a half century. During the contentious, war-torn presidency of George W. Bush, Clinton’s comparatively fat and happy eight years in office seemed a kind of halcyon age for most Democrats. That changed with his sharp-elbowed campaigning on behalf of his wife in her run against Obama in 2008, and revelations about the sometimes sloppy conduct of his postpresidential personal and financial life (including flights on Epstein’s private plane) dimmed his luster further. His famously empathic personality—“I feel your pain”—seemed transmuted into an unbecoming crankiness and sense of grievance (qualities that, to be fair, had long marched hand in hand with more appealing traits).
By the end of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign—in which Donald Trump went so far as to bring three women who’d accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to a debate—the bloom was well off the rose. The following year’s revelations about sexual allegations against powerful men from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer cast Clinton’s history with Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and, above all, Monica Lewinsky in a stark new light. It is a perverse reality that Trump is given a ho-hum pass by the public for repeated allegations of sexual misconduct and comments that would have convulsed the country in Clinton’s day—and that indeed did so—while Clinton’s reputation has been retroactively punished further. Both men should bear responsibility for their actions.
So it is just that much harder to remember the real achievements for which Clinton was once so roundly hailed. “You put us on the path to prosperity with record economic growth,” as Clinton’s longtime fan Barbra Streisand put it in a birthday letter circulated by the Clinton Foundation last week. “You inherited a budget deficit and transformed it into a surplus of $236 billion dollars by the end of your second term … You enacted sensible gun control legislation that banned assault weapons … a ban that the Republican-led Congress would later allow to expire.”
In this summer’s Democratic debates, the omnibus crime bill that contained the assault-weapons ban was not praised as a daring defiance of the political power of the National Rifle Association—and one that might well have helped to deter the recent wave of mass shootings—but derided as the law that led to mass incarcerations. It’s a cruel twist that something that was seen at the time as one of Clinton’s riskiest and most courageous moves should now be regarded as retrograde.
Clinton is far from the first president to become a prophet without honor in his home party. In 2008, John McCain’s campaign team kept George W. Bush away from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, because Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on the Gulf Coast and memories of the Bush administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina three years earlier were still fresh. Bush was philosophical about his exclusion, but as Tim Alberta reports in his new book, American Carnage, while watching convention coverage on television one evening with his press secretary, Dana Perino, the president was moved to ask, “Do you think they know they’re insulting me?”
As president, Clinton sometimes lamented that he was serving in times of broad peace and prosperity, because true presidential greatness was granted only to those leaders who governed in war or crisis. For those who lived through his bitter partisan battles with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and right-wing attack radio—not to mention the shadier cells of conspiracy theorists who sought to link him to everything from drug running in Arkansas to the suicide of his old friend and Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster—the Clinton era seemed singularly rancorous in real time. Now it feels more like the quaint twilight of an age in which bipartisan cooperation on issues such as welfare and the federal budget was still possible.
In his 2004 memoir, My Life, Clinton was fatalistic about his legacy. “I couldn’t control what happened to my policies and programs; few things are permanent in politics,” he wrote. “Nor could I affect the early judgments of my so-called legacy. The history of America’s move from the end of the Cold War to the millennium would be written and rewritten over and over. The only thing that mattered to me about my presidency was whether I had done a good job for the American people in a new and very different era of global interdependence.” His best hope: “I believed that if we were on the right side of history, the direction I had taken into the new millennium would eventually prevail.”
It is the burden of Clinton’s advancing age that the question of whether or not he was on the “right side of history” remains hotly debated. Through the lens of contemporary politics, it is hard not to see him as having had a hand, through his own lapses in judgment, in opening the door to a new media and societal environment in which salacious personal behavior became fit fodder for public scrutiny and debate. No one—not even his most ardent supporters—could really argue that he conducted his life or his presidency on a morally flawless plane.
But with the hindsight of history, it is also hard not to acknowledge that Clinton, at his best, stood for something basic and decent about the American idea: the aspiration of citizens for a better life and a fairer shake. If polls repeatedly showed that the public didn’t especially trust Clinton, surveys just as consistently showed that voters trusted him to look out for people like themselves. A president could have a far worse epitaph.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone in American politics in my lifetime like him,” Clinton’s old friend and Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor said to the Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect—far from it—and it doesn’t mean everything the Clinton administration did was successful. It wasn’t. It does mean that there is at least one thread among many that runs through the Clinton career and presidency, and that is everyone’s amazement at just how talented and bright and connected he is.”
Today, as he marks a birthday he might once have doubted he’d have, Clinton’s name means something different than it did 20 years ago, particularly among Democrats. Nearly all the two dozen 2020 candidates vying for the party’s nomination would likely hesitate to accept his open endorsement. Eleven months from now, Clinton may find himself, as Bush once did, at home on the couch, watching the national convention, asking aloud a question, the answer to which he already knows.