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An Expert's View of the Career of Former President Clinton

MR. MALONE: This is VOA's National Correspondent Jim Malone in Washington. Joining us from the Brookings Institution is Thomas Mann, a well-renowned expert on U.S. politics.

Thomas Mann, thank you for joining us. We appreciate your appearance today. I'd like to ask you, first of all, in terms of Bill Clinton, as we look back on his life and career, how did an obscure Southern governor rise to the heights to become the first Democrat to be reelected to the presidency since Franklin Roosevelt?

MR. MANN: Well, that's a good question. I suppose we start with the extraordinary ambition that Bill Clinton had to keep him going through thick and thin. He's clearly a very intelligent, knowledgeable and motivated individual, who, early in life, decided he wanted to make his mark in the world of politics, and dedicated himself to doing just that.

MR. MALONE: As you look back on Bill Clinton's career, what stands out in terms of his top domestic and foreign policy accomplishments?

MR. MANN: I'd say, on the domestic front, Bill Clinton ran for office with the proposal to get the economy moving again, to cut taxes, to have some stimulative spending. But, once in office, realized, or at least came to believe, that deficits were a major impediment to sustained economic growth. So his initial economic package, which had some spending cuts and tax increases, set the stage for the longest economic expansion in American history. I would say that is his signature domestic accomplishment.

On the foreign policy front, I would say the somewhat delayed but eventual response to the killing in Bosnia, and then the intervention in Kosovo as well, demonstrated the U.S. was prepared to lead its allies in behalf of humanitarian military intervention.

I would say turning deficits into surpluses and unleashing a period of sustained economic growth and humanitarian military intervention are the signature achievements of the Clinton administration.

MR. MALONE: Certainly no discussion of his legacy would be complete without talking about the fact that he's only the second President impeached and, of course, the Monica Lewinksy affair. Where do you see all of that fitting in as we try to look back on his life and times?

MR. MANN: Well, it reminds us that Bill Clinton is a complicated human being and political figure. As you said earlier, he was the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to be elected to and serve two full terms. At the same time, he presided over the Republican victory in Congress in 1994, which ended a 40-year Democratic reign in the majority and was never able to see his party regain majority control while in office. Nor was Clinton successful, in spite of this extraordinary economic success, in seeing his Vice President succeed him in office.

Had Al Gore won -- and absent Monica Lewinksy, that's very likely to have happened -- he would have been in office on 9/11. He would have been the commander-in-chief in the war against terrorism. And Democratic Party prospects would have been much, much brighter. The course of history would have been different.

So Bill Clinton's personal shortcomings certainly compromised his ability to realize the sort of broader, more enduring political gains. I think it also frustrated a more ambitious substantive agenda in his second term. Now, mind you, the country was very unhappy with Bill Clinton's performance, but even unhappier with the Republicans for impeaching him. They thought that punishment was way out of line with the injury that Clinton committed. So, in the end, he left office very highly regarded by the American people.

MR. MALONE: And switching subjects briefly, I don't know if you have been briefed on this, but a colleague of ours is working on a story on the '65 Voting Rights Act, which is coming up on an anniversary later this year. Could we just ask you in general terms what your feeling is about the significance of that Act and if you are comfortable enough to comment on the role that Lyndon Johnson played in that, his pivotal role, and sort of that moment in American history?

MR. MANN: The 1965 Voting Rights Act was extraordinarily important, both in a legal and a political sense. Legally, it finally overcame the many barriers to political participation by African Americans, whose rights had been denied in the decades after the Civil War. Since then, we've seen an extraordinary increase in the number of black elected officials at all levels of government and in the voting participation of black citizens.

In a political sense, it was probably also the beginning of the end of the dominant Democratic political coalition. Lyndon Johnson recognized that. Because the party at that point had kept together racial minorities and somewhat racists white Southerners, whites. That all began to change after the Voting Rights Act. It led to a sorting of conservatives into the Republican Party [and] of liberals into the Democratic Party. It turned a solid Democratic South into a pretty solid Republican South, and set the stage for Republican electoral successes in the years since then.

MR. MALONE: Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, many thanks for joining us today.

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