New Year, Old Legacies

Peter W. Schramm

January 1, 2002

The advent of a new year demands that the following (somehow) unsurprising news be considered.

On December 20th, Bill Clinton had a well-publicized meeting with some of his former staffers. According to The New York Times, the purpose of the meeting was “to devise ways to remind the public of his accomplishments and defend his legacy.” A campaign has started “to refurbish his image” and to set an “issue agenda for the Democrats.”

According to the Times story most of the discussion had to do with “how to raise his profile.” And, just to make it all perfectly clear, Bill Richardson (Clinton’ Secretary of Energy), who was at the meeting, said: “I’m pleased that the president will be more active in ensuring his legacy.”

We are reminded of his “perpetual campaign” and the “war room” mentality of his staffers both during his campaigns, as well as in his White House tenure. We are reminded that he always liked being on the political offensive, was attentive to polls like no other president, and was an expert at the ancient Machiavellian art of political calculation. We are reminded that this was the most self-absorbed president ever.

That dogged selfishness and self-absorption—and moral obtuseness—will be his legacy. It really doesn’t matter how he or his friends will try to affect this reality; their perception will lose.

Adults are now in charge, and the games that children play seem terribly out of place. There are real war rooms now, with a real president, and there are mature, civilized and highly intelligent adults running the departments and the real wars. Not one of them is self-absorbed and petty, not one of them seems worried about what their legacy will be. They have hard work to do and they are focused.

The historian Michael Beschloss has recently said of President Bush: “When Bush talks you feel he is talking from his gut; you don’t hear the sound of pollsters and consultants hovering in the background.”

And it is not just Bush’s talk that has focused our attention. He is forthright and decisive in his actions. It is not surprising that a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll (on December 26th) found that 39% of the people asked to name the living man they admired most chose George W. Bush. In the year 2000 President Clinton and Pope John Paul II tied for first place with 6%. No other living president has ever scored this high since the poll began in 1948.

This is a huge vote of confidence from the people. They are glad that the decade of childish games and self-justification and spin has ended. The people are glad that when American steel has been shown across the globe our leaders are honest in the assessment of the upcoming difficulties. The president—while arguing that justice will be done—makes clear that it will be a long and hard struggle and that there will be American blood spilled. This will not be an antiseptic war. But he assures us that we are on a roll, and we believe him. We have no reason not to. Trust between the people and their leaders has been re-established. This is no small thing.

As we see our warriors on horseback and four wheelers and B-1 bombers—in distant ramparts—we are reminded that hard actions are being taken and a price is being paid for freedom. We are willing to pay it in large measure because of the confidence we have placed in President Bush and capable subalterns.

We should be reminded on this New Year’s Day how things have changed and why this president will not have to have meetings with former staffers years after he is out office in which they spend their time worrying about what their legacy should have been.

Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.