Benjamin Barber on the Clinton Legacy

Benjamin Barber, The Truth of Power

With Hillary Clinton dropping out of the race and Bill Clinton recently telling a crowd in South Dakota that he may not be involved in another political campaign, attention will undoubtedly once again turn to examining the Clinton legacy and his imprint on U.S. politics.

In The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House, Benjamin Barber looks back at his involvement with the Clinton White House and in the book’s new afterword he considers what President Clinton’s final place in history might be. In 1994 Barber was invited by President Clinton to participate in a seminar on the future of democratic ideas and ideals. Following their meeting, Barber became an informal consultant to the White House which included several interactions with the president himself.

Like many, Barber was taken by the president’s charisma and intelligence but was disappointed by his ultimate lack of vision and his penchant to court accommodation and accept compromise rather than take on bold initiatives. Clinton recognized that the world was becoming more interdependent and that this would create new challenges for the United States but ultimately did not provide or act on a vision to grapple with these changes.

From the afterword:

In spite of my admiration for Clinton’s many excellent public works and his devotion to achieving a more just society, I conclude … that Clinton was a compromised president not because of personal deficiencies or psychic liabilities alone, but because of the absence of an overriding vision—an absence that allowed his liabilities to weigh down his presidency. Clinton recognized that a new emergent interdependent world lay on the other side of his “bridge to the future.” Yet his perspective appeared to be that of an astute observer rather than of a bold architect. With his sharp eye, he saw new challenges before America that would rock the nation. But he was satisfied with agile political gamesmanship and facile personality politics as responses, and while he secured a host of changes that made America a better place for all Americans, especially those on the periphery, he could not secure a permanent change of course for a nation sinking under the weight of self-absorption, market greed, and an anemic citizenry. Putting people first translated into a political doctrine that put ideas well to the side. The bridge to the future was more rhetoric than plan of action, much like Reagan’s “morning in America.”

Americans love such vague imagery, with its hazy invocation of hope, optimism, and an “exceptionalist” America that is the greatest nation on earth. The presidential campaign in 2008 was afloat in what Christopher Hitchins called a “tsunami of rhetorical drool.” But rarely do citizens look across the glow of morning to high noon, or beyond the other side of the bridge to the future to the somber and uncertain landscape to which it leads. Americans think of themselves as future oriented but are too pragmatic and reactive to live by lessons that might be learned from real prescience. And so with the pragmatic and wily Bill Clinton the nation had a man in office who was—however effectively—perhaps the smartest president in history to treat ideas so slightingly. Perhaps this was a tribute to just how smart he was.

Read the entire afterword.

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