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Sunday Morning News

How Will Americans Regard Former-President Clinton?

Aired January 14, 2001 - 9:18 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: These, of course, the waning days of the Clinton presidency, and many Americans talking about his legacy. A "Newsweek" poll conducted last week asked Americans how history will view Mr. Clinton as president. Forty-one percent say he will be remembered as being above average, 34 percent of those polled average, 23 percent say Mr. Clinton will be seen as below average in the presidency column. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Wherever you may fit in that poll questioning, CNN's Garrick Utley takes a look back at a president who was viewed as one of the more popular in history.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARRICK UTLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From the beginning, we knew that Bill Clinton's performance, like his jazz riffs, would surprise us; sometimes move us, and even grate on us. He would be his own kind of president.

JOE KLEIN, AUTHOR, "PRIMARY COLORS": I think Clinton was the first president who consciously understood that the presidency is an incredibly intimate office, because of television, the president lives in your kitchen, he lives in your den, he lives in your living room.

UTLEY: Joe Klein wrote "Primary Colors," a thinly fictionalized portrait of Bill Clinton turned into a movie.

KLEIN: I asked him at one point, whether it was bad that the distance between the president and the public had been abolished -- had been eliminated, had been demolished in his presidency, and he said no, I think that it's a good thing; the public should know that this is just a job.

UTLEY (on camera): A job for a young president shaped by the 1960s, who understood in the 1990s that the era of traditional authority figures had passed; as the first president of the digital era became, Bill Clinton became our first interactive president.

UTLEY: That meant showing his informal, humorous side, as in this gag video. It meant being not only the president of and for the people but with the people, on the television screen. Empathy became policy: reading to children, as well as leading the most powerful nation since the Roman empire. KLEIN: The dirty, little secret of politics, is that most politicians don't like people very much. Bill Clinton loves people. I remember being in New Hampshire in the winter of 1991, and a little old lady started crying about the cost of prescription drugs; and all of the sudden, Clinton was down on his knees, literally, with his arms around the woman, and tears pouring out of his eyes as well, and the thing about Clinton was that, those were all real moments; he always felt what he felt when he felt it.

UTLEY: A president with empathy, as Bill Clinton has learned, is not the same thing as a successful president.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What should we do with this projected surplus? I have a simple, forward answer. Save Social Security first.

UTLEY: But even as the president stood there in 1998, his able to save Social Security, or persuade Congress and the people to support other important programs, was self destructing, destroyed through his own behavior; that image, and these words.

CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

UTLEY: We can leave it to the historians to determine what place Bill Clinton will occupy in the "pantheon of presidents" -- what's remarkable right now, is that for all the scandals and turmoil, he leaves the White House a popular president.

Fifty-eight percent approval his first week in office in 1993, 65 percent, this January 2001. So, as Bill Clinton prepares to move out of the White House, with wife who has a new job, how will he adjust; a governor then a president, who, for 20 years, has lived in public housing and has never had to carry out the garbage.

KLEIN: The bottom line of Bill Clinton is that he's never going to be satisfied until he absolutely convinced that every last one of us loves him, and so, therefore, he's never going to be satisfied.

UTLEY: Even after eight years of peace, general prosperity, and the highest recorded job approval rating of any president leaving office.

Garrick Utley, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, for more about Mr. Clinton's presidency and his place in history, we turn to Doug Brinkley. He's a presidential historian and professor of history at the University of New Orleans, and he joins us from New Orleans this morning.

Great to see you, Doug.

DOUG BRINKLEY, UNIVERSITY OF NEW ORLEANS: Nice to see you, good morning. PHILLIPS: All right, let's talk about this. No matter what Clinton seemed to get into, he remained unscathed and the polls show he's going out to be very popular. Explain this.

BRINKLEY: Well, I think he was scathed. I mean, I think there are many times that he -- he has many scars on him, but he's been the Houdini of American politics. You think you knock him down and he kind of bobs back up and finds different escape routes.

I thought it was an excellent piece that Garrick Utley did in talking to Joe Klein and pointing out that one of his great assets is that empathy and that he really does love people. And it is true, a lot of individuals get into politics for their own selves.

I think Bill Clinton has done it for his own self, too, but he does seem to exude a kind of empathy at crucial moments like the Oklahoma City bombing which really touches the nation. And I think along with the economy, I think it's this feeling that he cares somehow about the people that are his two great legacies, and it's the reason why he stays with really Eisenhower-like numbers in popularity as he's leaving office.

PHILLIPS: So what's going to go done in history, Doug? I mean, will it be policies or personal charm?

BRINKLEY: Well, I think -- of course, the great Achilles heel is the impeachment, and that's always going to go down in history and it's never going to leave him. David Broder recently wrote a piece and said that the economy, of course, is Clinton's great master work, but there are these jagged edges about the Clinton presidency which are always going to bother some people.

But I think he'll be seen as the person who came into office with the gigantic deficit and left -- with the largest deficit in American history -- and left with our greatest surplus. He'll be remembered as a president who, you know, the growth rate of the economy was 4 percent during his eight years. During 12 years of Reagan-Bush, it was only 2.8 percent. You know, crime went down. Unemployment is at at least a reasonable and acceptable level under Bill Clinton's stewardship. So I think those will be a big part of his legacy.

And in the last year, interestingly enough, I think he's earned credentials as a great environmental president. He's not quite Theodore Roosevelt, although he created more national parks than T.R., but he's going down as somebody who really did a lot to save the forests. And that happened after impeachment.

So I think that we can admire that this is a guy who never gives up, never stops, and as Joe Klein so accurately said, he's not going to stop not only until the last dog dies but until the last American loves him.

PHILLIPS: Well, sure, he's going state to state, we see him hanging out with people, shaking hands, playing the sax. It's like a farewell tour of a rock star. Is this unusual? BRINKLEY: Well, you know, Bob Dylan has a thing called the never-ending tour, where Dylan just goes on tours. I think Bill Clinton is on a never-ending tour,both to convince people to love him and to go down in history books as this sort of legendary American figure. So we have not seen the last of him.

And particularly, you know, unlike a Harry Truman who went back to Independence or Jimmy Carter going back to Plains, he's in the vortex of politics and media. Washington, D.C. and New York City are going to be his real bases. He has a wife who's in the U.S. Senate, and he is -- with Al Gore losing, he really represents the Democratic Party today. So he is an extraordinarily strong ex-president.

And if he gets a memoir written and gets that library opened, we're going to be seeing a lot more of Bill Clinton in the years to come in all sorts of different roles.

PHILLIPS: Doug Brinkley, presidential historian, also coming out with a book pretty soon. You let us know when that happens, OK?

BRINKLEY: All right, I will.

PHILLIPS: Thanks for your insight, all right.

BRINKLEY: Take care.

PHILLIPS: All right.

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