Bill Clinton is about to mark the 25th anniversary of his inauguration as the 42nd US president. Until the night of November 8 2016, millions of voters and experts assumed that he would be celebrating that milestone as the First Gentleman in a second Clinton administration, and that when he returned, he would be welcomed by the party and country both.
On both fronts, they were wrong. Instead, Clinton’s quarter-century anniversary on January 20, 2017 is also Donald Trump’s first – and while once beloved of his country, Clinton’s star has apparently started to fall.
For years, Clinton was a popular figure both nationally and within the Democratic Party. His 2012 speech to the Democratic convention, backing Barack Obama’s reelection bid, was enthusiastically received both inside and outside the hall; Politico wrote that he “stated the case for the 44th president’s reelection in language that was crisper and more compelling than the case Obama so far has made for himself”.
But lately, Clinton’s scent seems to be turning fetid. For the first time since he left office in 2001, more Americans view Clinton unfavourably than do favourably. After peaking at 69% in 2013, Clinton’s favourability rating has slumped to 45%. This trend is unusual among retired presidents. Most can count on nostalgia to sanctify even the most benighted tenure; even the once heinously unpopular George W. Bush enjoyed favourability ratings of 59% as of late 2016.
Two major events kickstarted this unflattering reassessment. First came the 2016 presidential campaign, during which both the Democratic primary and the general election saw his legacy picked over without mercy. The Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders duel put Bill Clinton’s policies on welfare, financial regulation, and criminal justice reform under the microscope. Meanwhile, Donald Trump lambasted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed by Clinton in 1994, as the “worst trade deal ever made”.
More recently, the #MeToo movement has prompted a reassessment of Clinton’s personal history, particularly longstanding, unresolved and unproven allegations against him of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and even rape. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a onetime protégé of Hillary Clinton, recently suggested that it would have been “appropriate” for Clinton to have resigned the presidency over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
These are the political and personal fissures that still cleave Clinton’s legacy 25 years after he took office, and they can seem impossible to close. Was he a pseudo-liberal who enacted watered-down Republicanism or the saviour who brought the Democrats out of the wilderness? A roguish lothario or a sexual predator?
A different kind of president
Clinton was an anomaly from the off. His election marked a transition between generations. He was the first Baby Boomer president and the first not to have served in World War II. He was also a profoundly unlikely president.
1992 was not supposed to be a Democratic year. The incumbent Republican president, George H.W. Bush, was still surfing a wave of popularity following the first Gulf War. Better-known Democratic contenders declined to run, leaving an opening for an obscure Arkansas governor to win the party’s presidential nomination.
Clinton ran as a representative of the New Democrat movement, a faction that emerged in response to the party’s continued political misfortunes. The Democratic candidate had lost in every presidential election since 1976, and the New Democrats blamed the party’s leftward shift, which they claimed alienated Middle Americans. They sought to move the party to the centre by embracing market solutions and limited government, rejecting “identity politics”, and avoiding the appearance of dovishness in foreign policy.
Clinton pursued a New Democrat agenda in the White House, out of both choice and necessity (he had to contend with a Republican-controlled Congress after the 1994 midterms). This makes his legislative legacy a curious hybrid of liberal and conservative measures.
In his first year, Clinton signed a major gun control law, mandating background checks on most firearm purchases, and pushed unsuccessfully to enact sweeping healthcare reform. He also oversaw the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the law that kept commercial and investment banking separate, and signed the Defence of Marriage Act, prohibiting the federal government from recognising same-sex marriages.
But the Clinton presidency will always be defined by its most dramatic confrontation: the impeachment trial that resulted from the revelation that Clinton had conducted an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Though the conflict was ferocious, Clinton not only survived, but emerged politically strengthened. His approval ratings peaked at 73% in December 1998, at the end of the impeachment trial. Though dismissed by many at the time as an irrelevant foible, Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky, and the abuse of power that it entailed, are being reevaluated.
If Bill Clinton faces a personal reckoning, what about “Clintonism”? A comparison between Bill Clinton’s two presidential campaigns and that of Hillary Clinton in 2016 reveals a Democratic Party that has been moving leftwards since the 1990s, on both economic and social issues. Though still centrist in tone, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 platform was – to quote none other than Bernie Sanders himself – the “most progressive platform in party history”.
At one time, it seemed Bill Clinton represented the future of centre-left politics; the “Third Way” philosophy he pioneered was taken up by other leaders, most notably Tony Blair and New Labour. But now his first inauguration shares an anniversary not with his wife’s, but with Donald Trump’s – and even the party he once led seems to be turning away from his legacy.
The rise of Bob Hawke to the prime ministership now seems to have been so unstoppable, so inevitable, that it is hard to imagine Australian political history might have unfolded differently.
But what if, instead of entering the House of Representatives at the 1980 election, Hawke had retired from his leadership of the union movement into, say, a business career? What if he’d not had willpower to give up the booze? What if he’d lacked the inclination to tone down his image as a larrikin union leader?
In that event, we might perhaps recall Hawke as a gifted union leader – probably a bit of a “character” – but one who had lacked the personal discipline to fulfil his potential. Perhaps we would remember him as epitomising those olden days when mighty trade unions imagined they were a kind of fifth estate, and when their big bosses were giants whose power rivalled, and sometimes eclipsed, that of leading politicians and capitalists. Hawke might have justly been recalled as a symbol of the pride before the fall.
Instead, Hawke is recalled as one of our greatest prime ministers and certainly among the most influential. It is a strength of the ABC’s upcoming two-part documentary, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader, narrated by Richard Roxburgh, that it evokes the industrial world that gave Hawke both a long and rich apprenticeship in public life and a remarkable celebrity status. Some of the 1960s and 1970s footage is marvellous. You can almost smell the beer and Brylcreem.
But we are also reminded of the personal transformation that was needed before Hawke could be seriously considered for national political leadership. As the pollster Rod Cameron comments in the program, the public might have been willing to tolerate, while frowning on, a womanising prime minister, but they would not take a drunkard.
The larrikin side of the Hawke personality is now a popular favourite at events, where the octogenarian acquiesces to the urgings of an adoring public by sculling a beer – a reprise of his record-breaking student effort at Oxford. But the beer-swilling larrikin, who would still be there at closing time in the bar of Melbourne’s John Curtin Hotel, had to be placed in the shade in the 1980s.
The reformed larrikin, of course, is a familiar type in Australian culture, most famously embodied in Bill, the protagonist of C.J. Dennis’s The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. Bill gives up stoushing to become a properly domesticated husband and father, “Livin’ an’ lovin”. Hawke did a lot of both. The program’s discussion of his philandering is more coy than its handling of his drinking, but the expression on Hawke government minister Susan Ryan’s face when discussing Hawke’s relationship with women paints a thousand words.
The treatment of Hawke in this series is rather generous. Hawke was himself interviewed and all the talking heads clearly admire him to a greater or lesser extent – mainly greater. There are occasional hints of a darker side. Graham Richardson says he did some pretty appalling things under the influence of drink, but will not tell us what; only that Hawke would not have made it to the prime ministership in the age of the internet and the mobile phone.
Hawke’s 1971 Victorian Father of the Year award is treated ironically. The news footage has Hawke looking decidedly sheepish; the long-suffering Hazel privately wondered whether the judges had been on opium. Neal Blewett, a minister in Hawke’s government but a Bill Hayden supporter, thought Hawke and the party’s brutal treatment of Hayden on the eve of the 1983 election did long-term damage to the Labor Party’s morality.
The documentary does bring together many of the threads that help explain Hawke’s success as a politician. There was the sense of destiny, instilled in this Congregational minister’s son from childhood. His mother claimed that her Bible was forever marvellously opening at Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder”.
We are reminded of Hawke’s love affair with the Australian people, the “almost mystical bond” with voters. During that golden period of about 18 months after the 1983 election – as the drought broke, the recession ended and Australia II triumphed in the America’s Cup – Hawke was lucky, but he also knew how to exploit the brightening national mood to the full. Hawke did not just ride the wave of national pride and optimism during what Jim Davidson has aptly called the “Age of the Winged Keel”. He embodied it.
For a time at least. The 1984 election, in which Labor lost ground, took off much of the shine. Then there was the “banana republic” crisis of 1986, but the documentary does not pause long over economic policy. It does recognise that Hawke was immensely lucky in the depth and breadth of talent in his ministries, but that he was also skilled in bringing out the best in those he worked with. His ego was colossal, but he had the wisdom to share power.
There would be more election victories – in 1987 and 1990 – but things were never the same once his relationship with his younger treasurer and natural successor, Paul Keating, degenerated into acrimony. Yet, to the very end, as his approval rating plunged during “the recession we had to have”, Hawke clung to the idea that his relationship with voters was special. Like so many others, he failed to grasp the opportunity to leave office on his own terms.
Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader moves along rather breezily. The episodes in Hawke’s career that reveal his attachment to high moral principle, such as his hostility to racism, or those achievements that rhyme with the present preoccupations of progressive politics – environmental protection and Medicare – receive loving attention. Hawke’s failures are not ignored, but get more superficial treatment. An exception is the abandonment of national Aboriginal land rights legislation and the proposal for a treaty, which figures in a melancholy few minutes towards the end of the second episode. But Hawke always has good intentions.
This is a nostalgic program that begins by noting that Australians today “have never been so distrusting of politicians. But there was a time when things were different”. So, how did we get from there to here? On this question, Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader is silent.
But it may be that for all of Hawke’s achievements, the era’s narrowing of political possibilities – the equation of economic efficiency with good government, and of national productivity and competitiveness with national achievement – planted the seeds of both later economic success and political decay.
The link below is to an article examing the archaeological work being done on the Assyrian city of Tushan, which is soon to be lost to a dam in Turkey.