Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reconsidering Bill Clinton and The Third Way

In recent days, PBS aired another installment of its captivating series, "American Experience," exploring the life and presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an evangelical conservative. And according to the unwritten political rules of this worldview --at least according to some -- the very mention of the nation's 42nd president must ignite a firestorm of hatred.
After all, remember the noms de guerre his political enemies pinned on the man from Hope.
Slick Willie.
Bill Clinton was a sinner, as are we all.
And as the only true rules of evangelical conservatism -- the code found in the Bible --remind us, repentance deserves forgiveness. Only God knows the heart of Bill Clinton.
That said, I miss President Clinton.
Don't misunderstand. No one misses deliberate falsehood. No one misses seeing a family's public pain over marital infidelity,or the national nightmare of impeachment. No one misses "It depends on what your definition of is is."
What I miss about Clinton in this nightmare of a political season is the willingness to find a Third Way of governance.
Clinton masterfully steered a middle course between liberal and conservative, leaving the nation with a budget surplus, a precious memory in these days of unsustainable deficits.
An economic boom, unprecedented in the post-war period, created jobs and expanded the middle class. It's an arguable presumption, but given the cyclical nature of economics, policies of previous administrations may have also helped trigger the boom. That, however, is an issue for another time.
And, a Republican House and Senate created a perfect climate for compromise. Statesmen and women in the Congress --like the Kansan Bob Dole --saw the need for compromise. As a result, meaningful change occurred --budgetary responsibility, welfare reform, jobs.
(As one of the unemployed --with two degrees and 25 years of experience in my pocket-- it's little wonder that the mid-90s bring a warm fuzzy feeling).
But what I miss most about Bill Clinton is his compassion for people. Bill Clinton, "The Comeback Kid," is the finest politician of his generation, simply because he cared about people. He had "The Gift," the ability to make individuals from all walks of life feel they were the most important people in the room.
During a Q and A in a country store in New Hampshire in 1992, a woman began to weep as she shared her struggles to pay for  groceries and medicine.
Clinton stepped from the makeshift podium and embraced her, tears in his eyes. Clinton didn't talk. He listened.
In 2005, Clinton and his predecessor and one time political opponent George H.W. Bush, visited Grand Bay, Ala., in the days after Hurricane Katrina. On this day, two men well-acquainted with the power and opulence of the Oval Office, occupied folding chairs and listened as one by one, everyday people told their stories. Millions of similar tragic tales drowned the Gulf Coast from Alabama to New Orleans.
Bush, the elder, had been hardened by war. Clinton softened by battles in a broken home.
Both men asked  simple questions that no one else from the Beltway bothered or cared to ask:
What do you need?
How can we help?
 On that day in Grand Bay, as with the woman in 1992 New Hampshire, there were hugs and tears and heart and listening.
Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush get it.
Barack Obama, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich don't get it. Though because he was there, Gingrich should understand the power of the middle way, but has political amnesia. The current field of candidates possesses a flawed civic religion, empty of heart and deeply in love with the sound of its own voice. There is in the current field a distant arrogance that despite all good intention,doesn't really care about families and children and the elderly. They care about power and pandering to "the base."
The Comeback Kid is white-haired and gaunt these days, busy at doing what former presidents do. This country, sadly, does a disservice to its former chief executives, and its people, by not drawing from the wisdom forged in the world's loneliest office.
We could stand a kind word and a hug, and more than a few ideas from The Comeback Kid.
Kid,come back.
 We need a refresher on the Third Way and how to come back as a people.
A hug and a listening ear wouldn't hurt.


Pete said...

Little doubt that Clinton was one of the top politicians of our time, but. Clinton lied to us and betrayed the trust that is so important in the oval office. And he was caught at the lie, just as Nixon was. His expertise at navigating the world of politics is not offset by the fact that he LIED. He should have been kicked out of office. One man's opinion.

Paul South said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Pete. I agree. Bill Clinton's lying was unacceptable. My point is simply that we need leadership from someone who understands and truly cares about the troubles families like mine wrestle with daily. None in the current field, particularly the current occupant at 1600,care about or understand those challenges.