So how will history judge President Clinton?

'For all the talk of "Clinton fatigue," he has cast a long shadow over politics that won't fade'
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The Independent Online

This week in Los Angeles, Bill Clinton gave his last convention speech as President to the party he led out of the wilderness; in January, he will reluctantly say goodbye to the country and move out of the White House. Yet for all the talk of "Clinton fatigue", the President has cast a long shadow over politics and the presidency, and it won't fade soon.

This week in Los Angeles, Bill Clinton gave his last convention speech as President to the party he led out of the wilderness; in January, he will reluctantly say goodbye to the country and move out of the White House. Yet for all the talk of "Clinton fatigue", the President has cast a long shadow over politics and the presidency, and it won't fade soon.

You can't escape him. Bush and Gore are fighting on Mr Clinton's turf. Everyone talks about how much the President changed the Democrats, but he also forced the Republicans to reform. How? By becoming a balanced-budget Democrat and co-opting GOP policies with a racial tinge - chiefly crime and welfare. The road to "compassionate conservatism" began in Little Rock and wound through Mr Clinton's confrontation with the Gingrich Congress. And the President's obsession with policy details has raised the bar, too: specificity is now a permanent character issue. While viewers liked Bush's Philadelphia speech, focus groups also showed that voters wanted more details about what he would actually do.

Mr Clinton also changed the style of political combat. Eight years ago we ushered in the age of war-room politics - the art of responding to political threats instantly and without mercy. This year the Bush high command is explicitly running against the model James Carville conceived in Little Rock; we set the "tone" that they are trying to "change". It's risky, though: ask John McCain if people ultimately respond to meta-campaigns against negative campaigning. Meanwhile, the Vice-President has so far campaigned as if the war-room ethos is still viable. The problem for Al Gore is that his counterpunches often seem mean. Mr Clinton may have been uniquely qualified to pull off this political style. While we worked in the shadows, he summoned the sunshine.

Mr Clinton redefined bully pulpit, too. Before the Monica soap opera made the President the entertainer in chief, he was becoming a kind of uber- anchorman, speaking out more often than any president ever had. Early in his presidency, we thought this was a huge problem. Tony Lake worried that Mr Clinton was becoming cultural wallpaper. Walking through airports, Lake noticed that no one would stop to watch Mr Clinton when he appeared on the televisions. But the President realized that cutting through the clutter required becoming one with it. Mr Clinton saw that he could take advantage of the media's short attention span by making policy points off breaking news (promoting gun laws after school shootings, for example) or by just signaling his sympathy to victims of natural disasters.

As my former colleague, Michael Waldman, notes in his book, Potus Speaks, in a multimedia world "the White House is not just the object of news coverage, in effect it has itself become a 24-hour news channel expected to produce programming".

Of course, if words were Mr Clinton's best friend, they were also his worst enemy. His most memorable lines may be the legalisms and lies of the Monica scandal. All of the articles of impeachment flowed from his attempt to talk his way out of a self-created mess. And there is some reaction to it: not only Mr McCain and Jesse Ventura's "straight talk" but George W Bush's formal speeches mark a return to a crisper, more self-consciously eloquent style, rather than Mr Clinton's stream-of-consciousness style of persuasion.

How will history judge Bill Clinton? I think he fits uneasily in a series of what a Yale political scientist, Stephen Skowronek, calls "pre-emptive presidents" - chief executives who upset the established order by challenging their party's orthodoxy and assimilating the strongest arguments of the other side. Such presidents, like John Tyler, Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon, lack stable coalitions, provoke strong partisan reactions and end up targets of impeachment when they make mistakes or overreach.

But Skowronek notes that the line separating these tragic cases from triumphant presidents like James K Polk and Teddy Roosevelt is tissue thin. They are, in short, either towering successes or terrible failures. Or, like Bill Clinton, sometimes one, and sometimes the other.

The writer was press secretary and senior adviser to President Clinton

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