Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough. -Noah Cross in Chinatown
During his presidency, Bill Clinton was seen largely as a punch line. He was the self-absorbed, knavish, shameless “Slick Willie” of Troopergate, Whitewater, FBI file thefts, and siccing the IRS on his opponents. He never made a memorable speech. His most famous utterances were this lie and his lawyerly dissembling on the meaning of the word “is,” a Diet Coke at his side. His handlers told us on talk show after talk show that oral sex wasn’t really sex. Anything to keep the guy in office.
He was impeached. He still stuck around. No way he was going anywhere. On his last day in office he stayed up all night and lingered to the very end. Within a few years after leaving office he was very wealthy, ground he no doubt prepared carefully while in office. He was forever accusing his enemies of “cynicism.” His paranoia about the deviousness of his opponents made him the embodiment of the old saying that a fox smells its own hole.
The Starr Report. Paula Jones. Kathleen Willey. Safe, legal, and rare. Joe Sobran summed Clinton up best with a collection of 1990s essays entitled Hustler. It’s trustworthy contemporary accounts like Sobran’s that tell you more than the history books (c.f. John Flynn on Franklin Roosevelt).
Now, however, Bill Clinton is seen as a lodestar of fiscal responsibility in contrast to the “big spender” Obama. Unlike Obama (my opinion of whom is unchanged), Clinton supposedly balanced the budget.
This narrative overlooks inconvenient facts which are also inconvenient for Congressional Republicans of the time. First, the Clinton era coincided with huge productivity growth thanks to the rise of the web, which was accompanied by a massive Fed-induced boom that finally popped at the end of Clinton’s second term. Second, there never was a balanced budget if you include off-budget costs like unfunded entitlement liabilities. The government was simply spending money that it was supposed to save, a practice that continues today. Clinton had plenty of grandiose schemes. Clintonian spending was restrained compared to the ensuing George W. Bush years because Clinton shot himself in the foot too many times to ever gather the momentum to accomplish anything (something we can be thankful for).
Conservatives trumpeting Responsible Bill vs. Irresponsible Barack are just doing it for the need of the moment. Clinton is not a candidate and not a threat. Obama is. Romney needs the undecided lunkheads, so whatever you have to say to appeal to them, say it. After all, as we hear every four years, “it’s the most important election of our lifetime.”
Perhaps the needs of the election cycle will be the last barrier to Clinton being taken seriously, which is something that eluded him throughout his presidency. Richard Nixon was remembered in later years as a statesman. It looks like William J. Clinton’s time for respectability has come.