Since 1960 we have had only two politically successful presidents -- reaffirmed and reelected, dominating their decades: Reagan and Clinton. (Except for Kennedy, whose presidency was cut short, the others -- Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush 41 -- were repudiated.) Clinton's autobiography, appearing as it does in such close conjunction to the national remembrance of Reagan, invites the inevitable comparison.
The contrast is obvious. Reagan was the hedgehog who knew -- and did -- a few very large things: fighting and winning the Cold War, reviving the economy, and beginning a fundamental restructuring of the welfare state.
Clinton was the fox. He knew -- and accomplished -- small things. His autobiography is a perfect reflection of that -- a wild mishmash of remembrance, anecdote, appointment calendar and political payback. This themeless pudding of a million small things is just what you would expect from a president who once gave a Saturday radio address on school uniforms.
Small, but not always unimportant. Clinton did conclude NAFTA and did sign welfare reform. His greatest achievement was an act of brilliant passivity: He got out of the way of one of the largest peacetime economic expansions in American history. And though he takes personal credit for all the jobs created -- a ridiculous assertion to make about the decade of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates -- he does deserve credit for not screwing things up. Presidents often do. He easily could have.
His great failing was foreign policy. Viewing the world through the narrow legalist lens of liberal internationalism, he spent most of his presidency drafting and signing treaty after useless treaty on such things as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. All this in a world where the biggest problem comes from terrorists and rogue states for whom treaties are meaningless.
Like the 1920s, the 1990s were a golden age permeated by a postwar euphoria of apparently endless peace and prosperity. Both eras ended abruptly, undermined ultimately by threats that were ignored as they grew and burrowed underground. Clinton let a decade of unprecedented American prosperity and power go without doing anything about al Qaeda, Afghanistan or Iraq (where his weakness allowed France and Russia to almost totally undermine the post-Gulf War sanctions). And although al Qaeda declared war on America in 1996 and, as we now know, hatched the Sept. 11 plot that same year, it continued to flourish throughout the decade.
Looking the other way was largely a function of the age -- our holiday from history, our retreat from seriousness, our Seinfeld decade of obsessive ordinariness. Clinton never could have been elected during the Cold War. The 1990s produced a president perfectly suited to the time -- a time of domesticity, triviality and self-absorption.
Its essence is captured perfectly, and inadvertently, in one sentence, Clinton's own account of his response to al Qaeda's most spectacular and murderous pre-Sept. 11 outrage: the African embassy bombings of Aug. 7, 1998. Ten days afterward, Clinton made his televised confession of having lied to the nation for seven months about the Monica Lewinsky affair. He then retired to a chilly vacation on Martha's Vineyard with his wife and daughter. Two days later, he emerged by helicopter on the White House lawn, gave a snappy salute and marched into the Oval Office to announce the bombing of an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and a chemical factory in Sudan.
Clinton writes: "I spent the first couple of days [after the confession] alternating between begging for forgiveness and planning the strikes on al Qaeda."
Or, as he told Oprah this week, "I'm bombing Osama bin Laden's training camp and sleeping on the couch. It was a strange time."
That produced a strange man. His associates called this compartmentalization. I call it trivialization.
One is inevitably reminded of the quite unbelievable image of the president of the United States on the phone with a congressman discussing Bosnia while being simultaneously serviced by Monica Lewinsky.
What was always staggering to me about this scene was not what it says about Clinton's sexual practices -- I couldn't care less one way or another -- but about his unseriousness.
I never hated Clinton. On the contrary, I often expressed admiration for his charm and for the roguish cynicism that allowed him to navigate so many crises. Nor was I scandalized by his escapades. What appalled me then, a feeling that returns as Clinton has gone national revisiting his own presidency, is the smallness of a man who granted equal valence to his own indulgences on the one hand and to the fate of nations on the other. It is the smallness that disturbs. It is that smallness that history will remember.