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Published: Saturday, 1/20/2001

Love him or hate him, Clinton's an original

DETROIT - Bill Clinton was the first Democrat to carry Michigan twice since Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was about the least surprising thing about his presidency.

Because, whatever else you think, there has never been one anything like it.

Eight years ago, not even William Jefferson Clinton's closest supporters would have imagined that when he left office, the huge federal deficits we'd gotten used to would have been wiped out and replaced by surpluses as far as the eye can see.

They wouldn't have dared to dream inflation would be barely 2 percent and unemployment no more than 4 percent, after eight years in which the nation would have gone without a recession or any significant war.

Nobody could have predicted that in the only major U.S. military involvement in Mr. Clinton's presidency, the 1999 war in Kosovo, not only was the United States successful, not a single American soldier would die in battle.

Yet all that came to pass.

But it is equally true that eight years ago, when Mr. Clinton first took the oath, not even his most scathing critics could have imagined that he would end up being impeached over a tacky, sordid affair with an intern.

Nor could anyone have dreamed that the most intimate details of their sexual encounters would end up being broadcast to the entire nation and printed in the pages of virtually every newspaper. Nor that two other women would accuse him of gross sexual harassment, and still another, of rape.

Nor that he would lie to the American people about it for months. Get caught lying about it. And survive it all.

Eight years ago, not even Newt Gingrich foresaw that Mr. Clinton's first two years would be so politically disastrous that, in 1994, both houses of Congress would be taken over by the Republicans.

Yet that happened, too.

And to top that, after both those disasters, each of which would have destroyed virtually any other politician in American history, Bill Clinton bounced back stronger than ever. Two years after losing the Congress and utterly failing at health-care reform, he was easily re-elected.

Less than two years after barely surviving impeachment he was more popular than ever, while former speaker of the House Gingrich was politically destroyed and gone.

Polls showed a majority of the American people were angered and embarrassed by his personal failings. Polls also showed it quite likely, had Bill Clinton been able to run for a third term, those same voters would have re-elected him.

When they did vote last November in what was, in large measure, a referendum on the Clinton years, the result was, pretty much, a national tie.

Without any doubt, Bill Clinton leaves the White House with an incredibly split legacy. Historians, journalists, and citizens are bound to be arguing over the meaning and the true record of his presidency for many years to come.

Yet whatever the verdict, the office is like none other in the world. Any president is a combination of prime minister and monarch; father of our country and a sort of First Rock Star. Mr. Clinton got high grades on the “first celebrity” category. He did significantly less well in convincing people that he had sufficient dignity for the job.

Yet as his presidency ends, the people who elected him twice seem as split about the meaning of his legacy as anyone else. If the last election were a referendum on the Clinton years, the public was as evenly split as it could be.

What no one could have imagined eight years ago was that when he left office, his successor would be the son of the man he defeated, George Bush.

Even less imaginable was that while he was still in the White House, his wife would run - and easily win - a U.S. Senate seat from New York.

For eight years, he has been larger than life; love him or hate him (and most of us did some of both). Mr. Clinton has been America's First Personality, dominating the political and cultural scene as no president for many years.

What he will do now is a mystery. We have not had an ex-president this young since Teddy Roosevelt. The only safe bet seems to be that we haven't heard the last of Bill Clinton. Whenever a major character in a soap opera disappears, they are seldom gone for good. There has been no bigger star in the national “Days of Our Lives” than Mr. Clinton. Somehow, it is hard to believe we are really finished with him.

Or that he is really finished with us.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.



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