January 18, 2001
The Clinton Years
Nostalgia for Bill Clinton? Don't say I didn't warn you. Even as George W. Bush takes office, the Jewish community is weeping sentimental tears for the almost lethally charismatic president who, in the words of The Forward, "had come to embody the hopes of Jewish liberals in America and Israel during the 1990s." Clinton, who is no stranger to schmaltz, had policy wonks and foreign affairs careerists alike publicly weeping when he chose the Israel Policy Institute as the site of his last address last week, hinting that yet one more attempt at an Arab-Israeli solution was still in the works.
It will take time to assess the Clinton years, to understand how the Man from Hope changed the Jewish world. But here's a first cast at what might stay in the heart and mind long after Clinton is gone.
Starting from ground zero, Clinton's growing love for Israel was a thing to behold. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was, for him, like a death in the family. Observers said it was as if Clinton had lost his own father. Like much of the American Jewish community, a grieving Clinton went to bat for Shimon Peres, an uncharacteristic loss of political objectivity with disastrous consequences when Peres lost to Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Clinton years changed the face of Israel, as the Oslo accords brought an end to the Arab boycott. I personally witnessed the remarkable turnaround in Israel's economic relationships as trade began with such stalwart pro-Arab nations as Japan and India. I'll never forget a Tokyo trade minister's glow as he praised the special qualities of oranges imported from Haifa. An economic miracle that even the prophets would enjoy has occurred; Israel has become a normal citizen of the world.
Clinton may not have known that Madeleine Albright was a child of Holocaust survivors when he named her as secretary of state, but her appointment has been an extra-ordinary turning point for world Jewry. Through Albright, Jews have been able to look into their own family secrets about the Shoah, to acknowledge the ghosts, defeats and self-deceptions that still weigh so heavily on us.
As we look ahead to Bush II, with an administration apparently to be dominated by oil interests, the valor of the Albright years, with its high-minded -- if imperfect -- commitment to fighting tyranny abroad, will become more sharply lit. Historians, in fact, may see Albright's years as a bookend to the career of Henry Kissinger, the first Jewish secretary of state, whose own talented demons, influenced by German experience, powerfully shaped American foreign policy.
The Jewish-Urban Connection
In a miracle of personal transformation, Clinton, the former governor from Arkansas, has strangely connected with the nation's sophisticates and elites, of which the American Jewish community is one key part. Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan will get the credit for steering the U.S. economy through its greatest period of economic prosperity. Clinton was their boss. Right from the start, Jews voted for Clinton in big numbers and were frequent guests in the Lincoln bedroom. We have never felt as comfortable in our own skin, and may never again.
Locally, the Washington-Los Angeles axis was transformed. During the Clinton years, L.A. County was still digging out of a budget shortfall that threatened local services, especially the public health system. Time and again, Clinton bailed out Los Angeles County when it was on the brink of insolvency over Medicaid. Close ties between Clinton and L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky helped our community through the aftermath of natural and political disasters, including the 1992 riots and the Northridge earthquake. One wonders what's in store for Los Angeles under George W. Bush, who lost California in the recent close-call election, and whose campaign visits to our area were limited to Burbank and Orange County.
Of course, Clinton was a phenomenal personal disappointment. Notorious lies and cover-ups sacrificed not only his reputation but his policies. What began as a man who didn't inhale ended with a man who didn't trust. He didn't trust Americans to have grown up with him, to understand how the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution confused us all. His early waffling on gays in the military, the failure to defend or comprehend the issues facing contemporary women, starting with political appointments of Zoe Baird, Lani Guinier and Kimba Wood, were later to deteriorate into his extraordinary bad judgment with Monica Lewinsky. It's hard not to shake the head at the shameful waste.
Yet Clinton's intellectual sophistication was a wonder. Those coffees with the president may have turned into a political nightmare during the second Clinton Administration, but having been at one I will always remember his love of ideas and his antenna for what matters to people. Even as Bush II begins, we feel the difference.