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Presidential Afterthoughts: Clinton's True Legacy

January 15, 2001 [ Printer-friendly version ]

"We don't have a moment to lose."

So wrote the author of an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times whose tagline read simply "William Jefferson Clinton is the 42nd president." He used the space to put forth "a concrete set of challenges and recommendations" that he's sending to Congress -- what he called the "unfinished business of building One America." Well, why start so soon when you've got a whole five days left?

The president has clearly decided to spend his final days in office paying homage to all the things he did nothing about when he had the power to do almost anything.

Let's start with his call to "immediately reduce the disparity between crack and powder-cocaine sentences." That's a great idea -- maybe Clinton can just erase his own signature from the 1995 legislation that blocked the U.S. Sentencing Commission's proposal to implement this very reduction in crack and powder-cocaine disparities. As for his recognition that "we need to instill trust in our criminal justice system," did he feel this need before or after the prison population doubled to 2 million on his watch?

Both in the op-ed and at Democratic fund-raisers last week, Clinton has been questioning the outcome of the election. "By the time it was over," he said Thursday in Chicago, "our candidate had won the popular vote, and the only way they could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida."

Now, if he had chosen to speak out during the 36 days when the presidency hung in the balance, he might actually have had an impact. He could have used his bully pulpit passionately, daily, nightly, to drum up support for a hand recount across the state. Or he could have led a rally of citizens protesting the disenfranchisement of African Americans in Florida. But instead he was off in England, having tea with the queen.

When it mattered, he maintained an imperial silence. Now that it doesn't, he's Captain Courageous. Look at his exhaustive interview in November's Rolling Stone, where he poured his heart out about the failures of our drug policies as though he were just an innocent bystander. "There are tons of people in prison who are nonviolent offenders who have drug-related charges ... and too many of them are getting out ... without treatment, without education, without skills, without serious effort at job placement." How horrible -- someone should tell the president.

And in his last major foreign policy address, delivered in between farewell fetes in Great Britain, he opined: "With the Cold War over, no overriding struggle diverts us from aiding the survival of the hundreds of millions of people in the developing world struggling just to get by from day to day." When exactly did he notice that the Cold War was over? Because during his presidency, as he himself acknowledged, "inequality ... has increased in many nations." And he went further, insisting that "in a global information age, we can longer have the excuse of ignorance." Then what was his problem? Not enough access to power? Couldn't get the media's attention? Or was he just too busy attending fund-raising dinners?

The president even dared to wax compassionate about the victims of what must surely be one of the most immoral policy decisions of his administration: siding with the pharmaceutical industry as the AIDS epidemic ravaged sub-Saharan Africa. "But we must not also forget," he solemnly intoned, "that the number one health crisis in the world today remains AIDS in Africa. We must do more in prevention, care, medications and the earliest possible development of an affordable vaccine." Noble sentiments. My only question is: Where was he when his vice president was spearheading what a 1999 State Department report to Congress described as "an assiduous, concerted campaign" to stop South Africa from making low-cost AIDS drugs available to its millions of infected victims?

He then went on to say that "the difference in what the world provides and what the world needs for treatment and prevention of AIDS, malaria and TB is $6 billion a year. Now that may seem like a great deal of money, but think about this: take America's fair share of closing that gap, $1.5 billion. That is about the same as our government spends every year on office supplies." Then how come this year's federal budget included just $150 million to help fight AIDS and other infectious diseases in Africa? Maybe we overspent on paper clips and toner and fell $1.35 billion short of our "fair share."

Over the last eight years, the President has let the good times roll, tailoring his priorities to the polls and hoarding his political capital as if he thinks it's redeemable for something when he leaves office. Now, in the sobering light of the morning after, he's taking stock of the suffering that was left unattended. It's as if while packing up the Oval Office he discovered a trove of his idealistic campaign speeches. Unfortunately, there seems to be a massive disconnect between the crises he bemoans and his role in allowing or even promoting them.

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