Bill Clinton’s Kaleidoscopic Political Legacy | A Story of Professional Success and Personal Failure

President William Jefferson Clinton greets the crowd at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, May 5. The president toured several bases in Europe to thank the troops (not shown) for their support of Operations Allied Force and Shining Hope.

I was disgusted with myself for doing it… I told her that it was wrong for me, wrong for my family, and wrong for her, and I couldn’t do it anymore… What I had done with Monica Lewinsky was immoral and foolish. I was deeply ashamed of it and I didn’t want it to come out. In the deposition, I was trying to protect my family and myself from my selfish stupidity.

My Life by Bill Clinton

Politicians are constantly contending with a multitude of crises that loom large at the door. A crisis never happens suddenly, despite how it may appear. It was, highly likely, ballooning away for sometime before it reached its tipping point. Stretched out, worn out and thinned out; the balloon burst–its contents scattered on the ground and around the globe for everyone to see, to ogle, and to judge as though they were the jury that could pass a verdict.

The media had an absolute field day with the political circus that ensued in the wake of The Lewinsky Scandal. We all sat by, glued to our screens, watching the sleazy and saucy details of the debaucherous debacle play out as though it were all theatre at its most brutal and at its most entertaining.

Why did Bill’s affair garner so much public attention? Was it because he was an average Joe? If he was, I highly doubt the news story would have grabbed headlines and grasped the public’s curiosity for such a long time.

Bill would never have been awarded the courtesy of such strong scrutiny if he was just ‘an average person’ who had made a mistake. It was precisely because he was no ordinary human being that we held him up to such unimaginable standards and did not permit him the flaws, the mistakes, and the foibles that made people human.

And let’s not forget the stark and difficult truth at the heart of the matter. There were people–many people who profited from the pain and humiliation of his family’s private matters. Many who added insult to injury and kept rubbing salt in a raw wound.

Is it justifiable to use an individual’s private life to discredit or dismiss their professional achievements?

That is the question I found myself grappling with as I did research on The Lewinsky Scandal that took place in 1998. Bill Clinton was still Bill Clinton–a brilliant politician, strategist and economist. Despite the very public desecration that had appeared to have taken place centre stage, Clinton left the White House with the highest approval rating of any US president in the post-World War II era.

Personal scandals do sometimes carry the potential to destroy a politician’s career. But that does not mean that they have to or that they should. There is no standard or set criteria for making assessments regarding what constitutes a competent president. When the Lewinsky affair became public, the key issue became one of assessing the degree to which the public considered the implications of the scandal to be ‘job-related’. To Clinton’s ‘enemies’, the assumption was that his job approval rating would fall.

Even as the scandal came to light, there were many reasons to predict that Clinton’s job approval rating would remain high. Firstly, the American public was unusually buoyant in its ratings of the economy and of the overall satisfaction with the way things were going in the country.

While the American public did acknowledge Clinton’s behaviour as dishonest, misleading and even downright sleazy; they continued to give him positive ratings on his handling of the economy. Even in the midst and heat of his impeachment trial, Clinton’s job approval ratings remained high, because Clinton had been successful in doing the job for which he had been elected.

It was economic growth–and not interpersonal relations–that drove the approval rating and the Lewinsky Scandal did little to mitigate this powerful relationship. It was a definitive verdict from the public that the scandal was not in any way related to Clinton’s competency as president.

Bill Clinton, The Human Being

We all know who Bill Clinton is as a leader, but I highly doubt anyone reading this actually knows him as a fellow human being. But are we, the public, even meant to? Perhaps not.

But if the same were to be said of those nearest and dearest to him–that they never knew him as a person–would he ever have had a personal life; let alone one that brought him joy and fulfilment?

Since 1991 I had been called a liar about everything under the sun, when in fact I had been honest in my public life and financial affairs, as all the investigations would show. Now I was misleading everyone about my personal failings.

I was embarrassed and wanted to keep it from my wife and daughter… I didn’t want the American people to know I’d let them down. It was like living in a nightmare. I was back to my parallel lives with a vengeance.”

My Life by Bill Clinton

On the home front, behind closed doors, the details of his life will always remain somewhat hidden, regardless of what has been said in the media. In his autobiography, Clinton admits to having spent many nights on the couch and has described seeing a marriage counsellor as ‘one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do’. This, once again, is despite the fact that he possibly once had one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

A politician’s legacy, or any person’s life legacy, is always kaleidoscopic. It is a multicoloured mixture of professional and personal successes and failures. If you had to make a choice between your professional and personal life, what would you choose?

For Clinton, in particular, the two could not have been divorced or severed that cleanly or easily, for both Hillary and Bill are in the same profession. In light of that, was it possible for the Clintons to separate their private lives from their public lives the way so many of us do? Could they compartmentalise their personal and public lives into different boxes?

Seeing Hillary defend me made me even more ashamed about what I had done. Hillary’s difficult interview and my mixed reaction to it clearly exemplified the bind I had put myself in: As a husband, I had done something wrong that I needed to apologise and atone for; as a President, I was in a legal and political struggle with forces who had abused the criminal and civil laws and severely damaged innocent people in their attempt to destroy my residency and cripple my ability to serve.

Finally, after years of dry holes, I had given them something to work with. I had hurt the presidency and the people by my misconduct. That was no one’s fault but my own.

My Life by Bill Clinton

Admitting and owning up to one’s personal failings is never easy–especially when they relate to such delicate and intricate personal matters. It is not a trifle or trite matter for the one who has to withstand and go through that trial by fire.

Suddenly, your private matters are on the world stage, for everyone to see, judge and even ridicule. It then ceases to be a personal failing that’s hidden away in the attic; and instead becomes a dark mark that sticks to your professional legacy without necessarily damaging it.

When all is said and done and the media and the public has had its fill; it is not our imperfections, fallings and foibles that matter–but how we persevere in the face of temporary failure. For Clinton, it was an internal challenge that finally brought him to the psychologist’s couch.

Was it worth it, I wonder–what he did?

In hindsight, the answer is obviously no. At the time that he did it, the answer was no as well. But perhaps he didn’t realise or contemplate the full scale and gravity of what would happen when he finally got caught. Would he do it again? That depends on whether he was forced to pay a big enough price for his mistakes. But punishing an individual is not enough to rectify the problem or the mistake.

The real inner healing comes when you understand why you made the mistake you made and the repercussions it had on your family and your conscience. Until that understanding and healing takes place; you simply cannot be free from making that same mistake over and over again, no matter how many times people hit you over the head with a stick.

When I was exhausted, angry, or feeling isolated and alone, I was more vulnerable to making selfish and self-destructive personal mistakes about which I would later be ashamed. The current controversy was the latest casualty of my lifelong effort to lead parallel lives, to wall off my anger and grief and get on with my outer life, which I loved and lived well.

During the government shutdowns I was engaged in two titanic struggles: a public one with Congress over the future of our country, and a private one to hold the old demons at bay. I had won the public fight and lost the private one. In doing so, I had hurt more than my family and my administration. It was also damaging to the presidency and the American people. No matter how much pressure I was under, I should have been stronger and behaved better. There was no excuse for what I did, but trying to come to grips with why I did it gave me at least a chance to finally unify my parallel lives.

My Life by Bill Clinton
President William Jefferson Clinton greets the crowd at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, May 5. The president toured several bases in Europe to thank the troops (not shown) for their support of Operations Allied Force and Shining Hope.

Wild Women

Why did she stay? It a question often asked of women whose partners cheat on them or abuse them. In the event that there is an economic dependency, the answer is obvious; albeit stark. But in the event that the woman is economically independent, what’s the real reason?

What if we were to turn this question around? What if, instead of incessantly asking women, “Why did you stay?” or “Why did you choose such a man?”; why not ask, “Why didn’t he leave?”

Why doesn’t anyone ask men why won’t they just leave?

In my experience, married men, on average, don’t leave their wives and kids. They’ll stray, play the field and take unnecessary risks that jeopardise everything they’ve created and built; but at the end of the day, they’ll come crawling home. In some scenarios, they return with empty apologies and crocodile tears. In other situations, they are genuinely sorry for the way they behaved and look to make amends so that they may repair the relationship.

Once again, the real question is not, “Why didn’t she leave?” but “Why didn’t he leave?”

Clinton could have broken his marriage vows. After all, he didn’t stand by them to begin with. He could have chosen to permanently leave his wife for ‘the other woman’. He could have even abandoned his child and never looked back. Yes, there are men who do these things; but there are also a lot of men who don’t.

So, why didn’t he leave?

Was he ever going to leave his wife, an intelligent professional, for an intern? Rhetorical question, I know–especially since we already know the answer. Hillary and Bill have stayed married for over four decades. A simple sexual scandal was neither going to rip apart their marriage nor their political legacy.

If I were to be completely candid, I’d say I’m bored of scandals. They’re downright boring, cliche and trite. While the media always goes wild, a scandal is only ever about two things: money or sex. That’s it. So, Bill Clinton is just another guy who slept with a younger woman. How unoriginal. He could have, at the very least, picked someone more qualified and capable than Hillary Clinton. But that’s not what happened, now, is it? So, it’s a cliche story with a cliche ending.

If Bill wasn’t Bill, I’m not sure Lewinsky would have been interested in him. We can talk about the power imbalance as much as we want, but some women are attracted to men in power. Lewinsky knew he was married. She even knew who his wife was. I’m not blaming Lewinsky cause it takes two to tango, but it’s wise to stay far far away from married men. Nothing good can ever come out of it.

It takes two people to create a marriage and only one person to break it. It’s one of the unfair realities of life. But by the looks of things, the Clintons weathered the scandal. Hillary has even said that staying with Bill is the ‘gutsiest’ thing she ever did. Does she mean it? Your guess is as good as mine.

As far as Clinton’s personal life is concerned, I still don’t think we, as the public, are entirely privy to what goes on behind closed doors; and nor do we have the right to be. Perhaps Hillary still holds it against him, but perhaps she’s moved on; as should we.

I’d like to say I empathise and understand why he did what he did. But it doesn’t really matter why he did it. It was wrong. He already knows it. And so do the rest of us–no matter how much he tried to hide it or conceal it. When the truth emerged, it stared him in the eye till he had no choice but to face the unwelcome shadow that he had allowed to follow him around.

Even after everything came to light, the shadow would continue to follow him for the rest of his life. But at the very least, it would no longer be hidden away; and he was finally free–free from living that parallel life–the one that took from him; and never gave him anything back.

Clinton had attempted to fix the situation by putting a bandaid on a scratch, but it itched so much that it became a full-fledged wound. A bandaid simply wasn’t going to suffice. When all is said and done, the person he hurt most is not the American people or his family. It was himself. It is a heavy burden to live with and carry.

He was an excellent president. No one would dare to deny that, not even his detractors; for his record speaks for himself.

Where Clinton failed was as a husband and as a father. That was the real impeachment that he was tried for. But in our modern society, we don’t impeach people for that now, do we?

As far as the Lewinsky scandal goes, the only people that Clinton has to answer to are: his wife, his daughter and himself. And that, is a personal matter, that is well and truly, his own private business.

By Dipa Sanatani

CEO at Sanatanco | The Leading Global Publication and Communications Consultancy for Writers, Readers and Thinkers

1 comment

  1. Great analysis. It’s true, humans are complex. Perspective, the lens which we use to view things, is what is important.

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