A Liberal President, at Last

January 19, 2001 • Commentary

The election is over, and at last America has a fighting liberal president.

Not George W. Bush — Bill Clinton.

In the final days of his presidency, Clinton is taking the positions that his friends and enemies always thought he supported. But why did it take him eight years to do it?

Much of Clinton’s frenetic activity of late seems motivated by the desperate desire to shape some sort of legacy other than “Minor, Scandal‐​Ridden Administration in the Era of Bill Gates and Tiger Woods.” Thus the mad dash to make friends with Vietnam, make peace in Israel, lock up Western lands, and issue a flurry of executive orders.

Meanwhile, Clinton is making statements to burnish his credentials as a liberal or a civil libertarian. Consider, since the Nov. 7 election:

  • In an interview with Rolling Stone, Clinton said that small amounts of marijuana should be decriminalized and that mandatory minimum sentences for drugs should be re‐​examined.
  • Also in that interview, he disavowed his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy restricting gays in the military and said, “the Boy Scouts are wrong” to ban gays.
  • He put the District of Columbia’s new “Taxation without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine, declaring his support for D.C. statehood.
  • He hosted a White House screening of a new pro‐​gay documentary, That’s a Family!
  • He pardoned two women who were serving long prison sentences for minor drug crimes.

He seems to be making an effort to appeal to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party — drug reformers, gay rights activists, civil libertarians.

Some of these ideas are better than others. The Founders denied statehood to the federal district for good reason: They didn’t think the government itself should have votes in Congress. But Clinton is in tune with the voters in saying that putting people in jail for marijuana use is absurd.

Again, though, the real question is: Where has he been? Clinton has spent eight years in the White House, giving us “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the anti‐​gay Defense of Marriage Act, and a doubling of marijuana arrests.

Civil libertarians who hoped a former constitutional law professor and child of the 1960s would defend individual rights were disappointed after Clinton’ s election. American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen wrote recently in the book The Rule of Law in the Wake of Clinton that “a single essay cannot do justice to the injustices that the Clinton administration has perpetrated through its far‐​ranging assaults on free speech and privacy.”

Anthony Lewis of the New York Times said, “Bill Clinton has the worst civil liberties record of any president in at least 60 years” — that is, worse than Lewis’s old enemy Richard Nixon. Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice went further, saying that no other American president “has done so much damage to constitutional liberties as Bill Clinton.”

It should be noted that the president has reversed none of the policies that exercise his critics. Gays are still being discharged from the armed services at a record rate. Marijuana users are still being arrested at a record rate. The administration has not stopped trying to censor the Internet and wiretap our e‐​mail. Federal databases contain and exchange more information about us every year. So his recent civil liberties rhetoric is just that — rhetoric.

And so it ends as it began: a presidency driven by politics and the belief that poll‐​tested language can solve any problem. “No previous president,” according to the Washington Post, “read public opinion surveys with the same hypnotic intensity. And no predecessor has integrated his pollster so thoroughly into the policymaking operation of his White House.”

Free at last, free at last: Bill Clinton can finally say what he thinks. A fat lot of good it does the thousands of gays discharged from the armed services, the millions of people arrested for drug crimes, or those of us who want our privacy protected on the Internet.

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