Clinton desperate to leave whitewashed legacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2000, 12:00am

Weighty thoughts of legacy hung heavily about the Shiloh Baptist Church on Washington's 9th Street just after dawn on Sunday.

There, in the heart of one of Washington's grittier neighbourhoods of abandoned tenements, run-down barber shops and seedy clubs, President Bill Clinton was welcomed for probably the last time with a thumping chorus of Amen! and Hallelujah!

Mr Clinton wants to ensure the black community gets out and votes for Vice-President Al Gore in next week's election; the Reverend Wallace Charles Smith wants to give America's 'first black president' a rousing send-off as a 'survivor of an onslaught of hostile forces'.

As Mr Clinton stood proudly beside him, Mr Smith turned to a 1,300-strong black congregation and said: 'I knew he was a great politician, but I didn't know this man could sing. He can really sing.'

Others, however, are concerned that Mr Clinton is singing a rather different tune as he prepares to leave office after eight controversial years in the White House, quietly trying to re-write history amid the vacuum of the campaign. His affair with Monica Lewinsky and the political crisis that followed are barely getting a mention in the campaign, yet they hang over the race at every turn.

Once it is over, political analysts and historians note, all the positive sides to a particularly charismatic leader will be weighed constantly against the scandal and all the political heat that followed.

Even close friends and admirers have acknowledged that any greatness attached to his presidency must be tempered by the fact the scandal effectively scuppered some of his more ambitious policy plans on social welfare and health-care reform.

Mr Clinton is not so sure. After a series of expressions of regret and several prayer breakfasts to publicly address the spiritual side of his mistake, Mr Clinton is now keen to ensure he is remembered as a victim and an underdog.

In two recent - and highly rare - interviews with American magazines, Mr Clinton suggested he was the victim of persecution, even describing his survival despite impeachment as one of the 'great achievements' of his administration.

In the latest, in the gay and lesbian news magazine Advocate, Mr Clinton said homosexuals and blacks stood by him because 'they've been there'. 'They are people who have been targeted, who've been publicly humiliated and abused,' he said.

In his latest run-down of the scandal, he insists it grew out of 'totally unmeritorious' and 'fraudulent' investigations into the Whitewater and Paula Jones affairs.

His Republican enemies, he insisted, finally found 'a vehicle to try to find some last, desperate way to undermine the result of two elections and what I was trying to do for the American people and the fact that I tried to be a president for people who had been left out, left behind, ignored and kicked'.

The Washington Post's editorial page - considered a bastion of liberal American thought - is proving to be less than impressed, accusing President Clinton of attempting to 're-write history'.

'This isn't quite the story as we recall it,' it thundered yesterday. 'The impeachment was not a mere footnote on the Clinton presidency, nor can it simply be made to vanish - much less morph into the good fight - by an act of will.'

The fact that he lied under oath and battled legal authorities to drag America through months of crisis rather than acknowledge any misdeeds 'will play no small role in any honest assessment of his presidency'.

'Mr Clinton escaped removal from office . . . now he is campaigning to rewrite history and so escape its judgment,' the Post noted.

That judgment could be shaped in part by whether Mr Gore beats his Republican rival George W. Bush next Tuesday.

And the black community could prove vital in what is proving to be the closest election in four decades. America's 14 million blacks generally vote for the Democrats by a margin of eight-to-one, but turnout is often low at the polls.

At the Shiloh, as choral singers swayed in unison and belted out Name of the Lord, Mr Clinton was in full campaign form, smiling, singing heartily and swaying, too. But he acknowledged from the pulpit he had left work undone as he urged the flock to vote.

'We still have bridges to cross,' he said. 'The question is, are we going to walk in the right direction? . . . Talk to your friends, talk to neighbours, talk to your family members, talk to your co-workers and make sure nobody takes a pass on November 7.'

Mr Smith sought special help: 'All of us ought to be praying that God will see us through this election and provide His sort of leadership, that not only our people need, but the world needs.'