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Running For History

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In his final months, Clinton has been as busy as ever, waging his campaign for the ex-presidency

Bill Clinton has often joked about his obsession with history. He once told a black-tie dinner in Washington about his "Posterity War Room" at the White House, where, in defense of his place in presidential history, he would strategize about going "negative on James Buchanan and Warren Harding." But now that he's into his last 100 days, it's no laughing matter. Clinton is vigorously pursuing a campaign to win the ex-presidency--and history. "All kinds of Presidents had significant accomplishments who never get any credit in history because they couldn't control the story line," Clinton said at the start of his second term in 1997, recounts speechwriter Michael Waldman in his new book, POTUS Speaks. Controlling the story line, therefore, is at the top of Clinton's agenda. The pursuit has been manic and ambitious in the past months: the China trade bill, the Camp David summit, eight foreign trips to 14 countries, a year-end legislative showdown with Congress, strategizing his wife's senatorial campaign, planning a historic visit to Vietnam. Says Douglas Brinkley, a historian and biographer of Jimmy Carter: "He's treating every day like it's his last day in a Herculean struggle with history, to prove he was on the job and to prove he was a good President."

Clinton has largely come to terms with his misbehavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair and still tries to fit in a weekly session with at least one of his three spiritual counselors. However, there's more than a residue of anger and bitterness toward the enemies who exploited it and who pilloried him over Whitewater and other alleged misdeeds. He told Esquire magazine that the G.O.P. Congress still owes the country an apology for the spectacle of impeachment. "What's personal he takes responsibility for. What's political, he doesn't" is how one friend puts it. He still complains that as the newly elected President, he didn't get a single Republican vote for his first budget back in 1993, and he regularly rails against Whitewater and other investigations into his Administration as "bogus" and fraudulent. Earlier this year he declared, "A whole bunch of this stuff was just garbage, and we had totally innocent people prosecuted." Indeed, apart from confronting the 1995-96 government shutdowns, he believes surviving impeachment will be seen as his greatest achievement.

But survival is not vindication, and according to an associate who talks to him regularly, Clinton believes "the people who opposed his presidency will oppose the interpretation of his presidency." In private, Clinton follows scandal news assiduously. He touts books that defend his case, like Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy, and cites obscure articles that make his points. He complained in a New Yorker interview about billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife's funding of investigations against him, "going on 15 wild-goose chases to try to run somebody down." Occasionally in private, or in late-night calls, he will erupt into a rant against some foe, and in public he can still seem self-pitying. Blacks and gays stood by him, he told the Advocate, a gay magazine, in a recent interview, because "they've been there. The people who've been targeted, who've been publicly humiliated and abused, I think identified with what was going on."

But virtually everyone who knows Clinton says the outbursts, like summer storms, quickly pass, and he's no Nixon, nursing deep hatreds. "Bill Clinton does not believe that impeachment will be in the first paragraph of his obituary," says his friend Hollywood producer Linda Bloodworth Thomason. "It will be for some of his enemies, because that's the most significant thing in their lives. I don't think Bill Clinton believes that impeachment will be the most significant thing in his life." Payback is not part of the postpresidential agenda. Friends say Clinton, a great rationalizer about his own actions, tries in his own mind not to stay angry at others. "That guy can't help it; he was born that way" is a common Clinton put-down of a critic. Some aides think he's too forgiving. One recalls hearing him say of a congressional opponent, "He's got a tough district. If I'd been him, I might have voted to impeach me too." Still, as Skip Rutherford, a longtime Arkansas friend, points out, "if you look back, a lot of people who went after him politically are now on the sidelines, and he's still standing."

Friends and aides reject the notion that Clinton is primarily on a mission for atonement and redemption. Even the long-planned trip to Vietnam, the first ever by a U.S. President to the unified country and the capstone of his steady and little-noticed effort to normalize relations, has less to do with personal redemption than generational healing, say friends. "He feels the baby boomers never quite closed the circle, and he can do that," says one. Clinton himself, asked if he's somehow using his frenetic schedule to try to wash away his mistakes, answers both no and yes. No, because "the only thing that can cleanse a mistake is an apology and an atonement," he told the Washington Post recently. But yes, he said, "to the extent that the promise I made to the American people to work like crazy for them every day I was President is a part of that."

Friends say, even absent scandal, his eighth year was never going to be a casual victory stroll. The guy loves being President, they say. "He was always going to do lots of Democratic fund raisers and push an aggressive legislative agenda, and he's always said that after Hillary had supported his career all these years, it was going to be her turn," says a former staff member. "Would he have done so many money events without Monica? Is he somehow working extra hard for Hillary? Who knows?"

Clinton will certainly not be leaving the job of spinning history to others. He will tell his side of the story in a memoir. (It could fetch $8 million to $10 million, publishing experts say, if he gets into the personal side of the Monica crisis and its effect on Hillary and Chelsea.) He will also have legal arenas to address--or redress--his legacy: disbarment proceedings in the Arkansas courts stemming from his alleged perjury in the Paula Jones deposition, and a possible federal indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the Lewinsky investigation. Clinton will do some speeches, at perhaps $100,000 a pop in the U.S. and for more overseas. He will need the funds to help pay his legal bills, though those close to him say making money will remain a low priority.

The President's friend Skip Rutherford is currently directing the physical effort to embody Clinton's legacy: the $150 million presidential library, a combination archive, museum, policy center and graduate school, to be built on 28 acres along the banks of the Arkansas River. The Clinton Center will house the largest collection of presidential materials ever because its subject is not only the most investigated President in history but also the most photographed, most recorded and most documented. The building is being designed by one of America's leading architects, James Polshek, who did the new, award-winning Hayden Planetarium in New York City. The exhibits that will tell the story of Clinton's life and times are being curated by Ralph Appelbaum, who worked on the planetarium as well as the distinguished U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Clinton is, not surprisingly, "one of the most attentive clients we've ever had," Polshek says. The President has decreed that the design be "elegant but not pompous." And yes, there will be some architectural allusion to that bridge to the 21st century.

The White House has already got a jump on the historians. By next month, each Cabinet department and major agency must produce a 1,000-page history, so that the incumbents can put their institutional stamp on what went on during the Clinton years. Nothing like it has been ordered up since L.B.J. prepared to leave office and impress his Great Society upon posterity. The museum's themes will, predictably enough, revolve around the economy, globalization, the information age and foreign affairs. What about Monica and impeachment? Rutherford replies only by reading from a letter of advice that Clinton got from David Eisenhower, Ike's grandson: "I would not duck impeachment. I would include it under the heading of politics."

"I think about today and tomorrow," Clinton told Esquire magazine, "and I expect I will until my last day on earth." He added, "To the people and the commentators ... that write about me, I might be just as good as dead the day I leave office. But that's not the way I look at my life." And so, following Jimmy Carter's strategy of countering bad memories with good works, Clinton will open a second front in his war for posterity. All Presidents, says historian Brinkley, "try to improve their reputation after they leave office. Andrew Johnson was elected Senator after he was impeached, and Herbert Hoover traveled the world as a humanitarian and wrote more than two dozen books." The Clinton Center, which will offer a master's degree in public service through the University of Arkansas, will wrestle not only with international issues but also with racial reconciliation, the information revolution and economic development. Clinton has vowed not to get in the way of his successors, as Teddy Roosevelt and, to a degree, Carter did. Still, his enormous popularity with foreign leaders and his formidable fund-raising skills almost guarantee that he will be called upon by either his country or his party. Brinkley predicts, "We're going to be dealing with Bill Clinton for a long time to come." Says Rutherford: "He'll be the youngest ex-President since Teddy Roosevelt. He figures at age 54, there's a lot more history to be made."


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Cover Date: November 20, 2000

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