Clinton Presidential Library

In observance of the Fall of the House of Clinton, a reprint of a blog post from ten years ago, recording my visit to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Looks like there will never be a complementary museum for Hillary.

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The building is neat, and occupies rehabilitated industrial space on the banks of the Arkansas River. It sticks out over the river, supposedly representing Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the twenty-first century,” although of course it doesn’t get to the other side and as a friend said it looks like a trailer, a fitting monument to Arkansas and Clinton himself.

Heavens, what am I saying? Why am I indulging in such cheap partisanship now that the man is out of office?

Because I’m afraid that the Clinton Presidential Library put me into the spirit.

It’s not because the thing takes a positive view of Clinton’s presidency – of course it’s going to do that. Carter’s did that, and I’m sure that every other NARA-sponsored presidential library and museum does the same thing (a colleague of mine has visited Gerald Ford’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan and says that it can’t shut up about the Mayagüez Incident).

No, it’s because it’s either too soon for the Clinton Library to have anything on display, or the man is really trying too hard. The main hall is designed after the Long Room of the library of Trinity College, Dublin:

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Each of the columns in the Clinton library contains boxes full of actual documents relating to the presidency that you can look at if you need to – although they represent less than one percent of the holdings and contain, as a staff member told me, trivial stuff like domestic staff schedules and restaurant checks. Down the middle of the room, a series of panels with a time line of national, international, and presidential events from 1993 to 2000. In between the columns on either side of the room, a number of alcoves each dealing with an aspect of Clinton’s presidency, like “Putting People First,” “Learning Across a Lifetime,”* or “Protecting the Earth.” As those titles may suggest many of the alcoves are saturated with the oleaginous feel-your-painism that Clinton was so famous for:

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Fine, Bill’s gotta be Bill, although the museum’s practice of highlighting key phrases in each caption made the whole thing feel like some manic fundraising letter. (The constantly running Times-Square style news ticker of “presidential achievements” that greets you as you walk in also seems a little too striving.)

The alcove “The Fight for Power,” however, left a particularly bad taste. I had heard, at the time of the Library’s opening, that it was not going to “shy away” from some of the more “controversial” aspects of the presidency. But this alcove might better be called “Bill Clinton’s Self-Pity Corner.” It started with the 1994 midterm elections, when the Republicans under Newt Gingrich took control of the House for the first time in forty years, then dealt with their incessant opposition to Clinton, their use of the special prosecutor to investigate his Whitewater dealings, and their drive to remove him from office for perjury and obstruction of justice over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The whole theme was “I didn’t do nuthin’, and the Republicans were out to get me because I cared and they didn’t” – in other words, he is still fighting a partisan battle! On the glass in front of the alcove:

A NEW CULTURE OF CONFRONTATION

“I think one of the great problems in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” Newt Gingrich, 10/95

New culture? As though Washington was some sort of a gentleman’s club prior to 1994? And what’s with the cherry-picked quotation from Gingrich, hoping to make him and his party look bad? Classless! Some other choice captions from the exhibit. The highlighting has been rendered by italics.

Whitewater

In the 1970s, Bill and Hilary Clinton invested in a failed Arkansas real estate venture. That investment, in which the Clintons lost money, was used by President Clinton’s political opponents to launch an eight-year investigation costing the American public over $70 million. No evidence of wrongdoing was ever found.

Well, if they didn’t find anything, then I guess the Clintons did nothing wrong. QED! As for the “cost” – let us remember that the White House absolutely refused to cooperate with Starr, ignoring all requests for documents, and causing the investigation to drag on far longer than it needed to. I remember a political cartoon with Ken Starr knocking on a door. Behind the door Clinton has piled up all the furniture so that it can’t open, while he tells the reader, in reference to Starr, “I wish he’d hurry up!” This sort of behavior may account for at least some of the $70 million, but to insinuate that it was all Starr’s doing is self-righteousness at its most revolting.

Maybe there was a “new” culture of confrontation, but it took two to tango.

In 1978, Congress passed the Independent Counsel Statute in response to the investigation of the Watergate break-in during the Nixon administration. The new law created a mechanism for investigations of the executive branch by an outside, or independent, prosecutor. Over the next 20 years, however, even many advocates of the law came to see it as deeply flawed. Prosecutors had virtually unlimited discretion to investigate whatever they wanted. Inquiries stretched on for years – costing millions, destroying reputations, and achieving little good. The law became a potent political tool.

In other words, it was great when the Democrats could use it. But when the Republicans could use it, it was a Bad Thing.

Expanding Investigations

The shift in control of Congress gave the President’s opponents power to step up their investigations. Numerous committees and subcommittees, now chaired by Republicans, convened hearings to investigate the executive branch. Countless subpoenas were issued to individuals whose only transgression was working for the administration. Many were forced to run up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend themselves in fruitless hearing and depositions.

Oh the pain! You sure their only transgression was working for the administration? Any chance then that the administration could cover their fees? Methinks this unintentionally reveals something about the Clinton White House.

Impeachment.

In November 1998, midterm voters sent Republicans a message to stop their impeachment drive by increasing the number of Democrats in the House, the first time the President’s party had gained House seats in the sixth year of a presidency since 1822. When Speaker Gingrich was asked why Republicans were proceeding anyway instead of finding another remedy such as censure or reprimand, the Speaker replied, “Because we can.” Despite the fact that hundreds of historians and legal scholars publicly stated there was no constitutional or legal basis for impeachment, the house Judiciary Committee voted along strict party lines on December 12 and 13, 1998, to approve four articles of impeachment. On December 19, the House passed two of the four articles. One article charging the President with perjury passed 228 to 206, while an obstruction of justice charge passed more narrowly, 232 to 212. The remaining two articles failed to pass.

Funny – they didn’t bill the 1994 midterm elections as a “message” to the Clinton administration (it was all a result of misunderstanding about the provisions of the Brady Bill and concerted lobbying by the AMA, apparently). And I’m sure that Speaker Gingrich said a lot more about the reasons for impeachment than this flippancy, but you won’t find out about them at the Clinton Library.

As I said, it’s not bad that the library should trumpet Clinton’s achievements. But for it to accuse other people of what Clinton himself was guilty of, and to quote political opponents only in order to make them look bad… this is lowdown, shitty behavior, and even less defensible now that the guy is no longer in office. As if all that weren’t enough, the next alcove was entitled “Preparing for New Threats,” and talked about the Clinton administration’s fight against foreign terrorism! Such an exhibit is so obviously a response to current events that its value as a testament to what his administration was actually doing approaches nil.

To top it all off, you can purchase this bumper sticker at the store:

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There was even a T-shirt on the wall bearing the same message and signed by Al Franken. Now, it’s conceivable that people really do miss Bill in the abstract, as they might miss Reagan, Kennedy, or Eisenhower. But in this context it comes across clearly as a pointed jab at the current administration, something rather unseemly.

I hereby propose a ten-year waiting period between a president’s leaving of office and the opening of his presidential library, in order to ensure a proper critical distance.

I will grant that the man was a political genius. He seemed to have the ability to make you feel as though you were the only person in the room. (He also managed to insinuate himself into or merely associate himself with positive things he really had nothing to do with. One photo showed him marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with Jesse Jackson, et al., in a recreation of the Civil Rights march of 1965. There was no indication that he was there at the time, however, when he was 18 and would actually have been risking something. I think he would like you to believe that he was personally responsible for the fall of Apartheid as well.) One of the alcoves dealt with his “personal relationships” with other heads of state, and had fawning tributes from Nelson Mandela, et al., about how good a man he was. Now you could say that in politics, style is substance, but it seems that he was much more style than substance – what did he do with his “I care” image, with all the foreign good will that he generated? It seemed he just loved to talk and talk… and bask in the warm glow of adulation (including the imagined adulation of any women who caught his fancy), and get really petulant and self-righteous when he encountered any opposition. Contrast this with GWB, who has no time for such antics and wants to get down to brass tacks right away, thereby pissing off everyone and actually making it difficult for him to accomplish anything.**

If only we could have a president who could generate good will and then put it to genuinely constructive use…

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* This one dealt with increased funding for education, and even had a small sample of Clinton’s personal book collection. On the acoustiguide he talked about some of his favorites. To my great chagrin Leaves of Grass was not on display… whoops, I’m being partisan again.

** I seem to remember a quote from Bono about how Clinton said all the right things about alleviating poverty in Africa, but that Bush has actually committed more resources to it.