This was supposed to be a day for history, not politics. Specifically, it was supposed to be a day to ruminate on the legacy of a certain former president who has managed to still be rather much in the news.
The president was the man who used to be known as Bill Clinton, though in his ex-presidency this familiar name often gets waxed and buffed to "William Jefferson Clinton." That is what he was being called Thursday, the opening day of a three-day symposium at Hofstra University devoted to the 42nd president's two terms. The idea was that the hot controversies of his tenure now could be considered in the cool repose of time.
Clinton himself suggested this was his aim. He warned that he might be "disappointing" to some in the crowd who hoped he would fire shots at President Bush, because "I don't have anything to say about the last four years -- not at this program."
But Clinton did not disappoint his partisans. Nor did many of the long roster of former top Clinton officials who gathered at this Long Island campus. That is because plenty of their remarks were implicitly -- and on many occasions expressly -- about highlighting contrasts between the 42nd president and the 43rd. Like so many conversations these days, the ones here became an argument about George W. Bush.
When he was president, Clinton said, "I believed we needed a network of global cooperation," before adding: "As we see in Iraq, it's very difficult to solve complex problems when we are essentially alone."
Former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright talked about how satisfying it was to work for a president who was so knowledgeable and so hardworking, and said she and her colleagues made foreign policy recommendations to him "through consensus, not cabals." Judging by applause and laughter, the audience caught the reference to a recent speech by a former Bush official complaining that Iraq policy is dictated by a "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal."
Former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, in his phlegmatic style, joined in. Noting that sometimes people criticized Clinton for switching course and seeing too many shades of gray, Rubin said that was because Clinton understood complexity and risk, and did not believe in "absolutes that you stick with through thick and thin. . . . I was going to say that leads to some interesting comparisons, but I'm not going to."
Hofstra has made a tradition of sponsoring conferences on the legacies of modern ex-presidents. The last one was for George H.W. Bush, in 1997, and presumably his son will someday have his day here.
In Clinton's case, the event has served much like the dedication of his presidential library in Little Rock a year ago: a de facto reunion of his top aides, along with journalists who covered his administration. Former chiefs of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, Leon E. Panetta, and John D. Podesta are here. So are political aides including writer Sidney Blumenthal, communications director Donald Baer, speechwriter Michael Waldman, economics aide Gene Sperling, pollster Stanley Greenberg and consultant Paul Begala. Former defense secretary William J. Perry will give a keynote address Friday.
Clinton talked at length about his legacy, making the case for his policies on balanced budgets, global peacemaking and even health care -- saying recent history has shown he was right to push for reform even if he made mistakes in the effort. He acknowledged failures, including not intervening to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
And he talked at length -- and with passion -- about how much he regretted agreeing to a special prosecutor to investigate Whitewater, saying he was "a naive person who believed in the rule of law." He called impeachment "an egregious abuse of the Constitution" orchestrated by former speaker Newt Gingrich, who did not mind "being a hypocrite."
But even Clinton's excursion into this bitter past was linked to contemporary politics. He said this week's election of Democratic governors in Virginia and New Jersey may show that conservative brand of personal attack "does not work anymore."
Harris is serving as a panelist on academic and journalist panels at the Hofstra University symposium on the Clinton legacy.