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Even with wall-to-wall cable news coverage of every
burp or second thought of anyone who even came near a
voting machine in Florida, the eternal adolescent who
still occupies the Oval Orifice managed to intrude
into the apparently endless process of determining who
will succeed him. Besides squabbling with Congress
over appropriations bills that were theoretically due
to be decided by Oct. 1, Bill Clinton gave a
provocative interview to Rolling Stone, in which he
said he really would have liked to run for a third
term, thinks he could have won one and says history
will exonerate him over being impeached because of a
stained blue dress.
In addition, Clinton is still in full possession of
his executive powers — powers that have been
effectively expanded under his watch, though he is
hardly the first president in modern times to view his
office as an imperial potentate might, and it is
likely that he will use them. There’s the question of
whether to ban oil drilling on the coast of an Alaskan
wildlife refuge; there may be more property to remove
from the possibility of development or private
ownership; there’s a federal prisoner facing the death
penalty he might grant clemency; there are other
federal prisoners who might be granted clemency
(including Leonard Peltier who, despite the
ideological excesses of some of his backers, probably
If Clinton is true to form, however, the biggest
impact he will have on the next administration is
likely to come through appointments, jiggering with
regulations and executive orders that make little news
but have the effect of increasing the power, reach and
ability to act in an arbitrary fashion of the national
government for years to come. As author and journalist
James Bovard argues and documents extensively in his
invaluable recent book,
“Feeling Your Pain: The
Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the
Clinton-Gore Years” (St. Martin’s, 426
pp.), the single most consistent pattern through the Clinton years has been an expansion of government power amounting to a love affair with national government power based on what seems, despite conventional wisdom, to be a deep-seated belief that more government power is the answer to every problem, that the good society is a society so tightly regulated by government at every turn as to hold almost no surprises.
Especially since my book on medical marijuana, “Waiting to Inhale,” is now unlikely to be in bookstores this Christmas, this is the book to give friends and relations seeking to base an assessment of the Clinton legacy on facts and patterns rather than conventional wisdom as promulgated by the courtier press, blue smoke and spin.
What is shaping up as the line on Clinton is that while he had trouble keeping his pants zipped and was a little arrogant, he governed well and promulgated balanced policies. After all, the Clinton years were marked by unprecedented economic growth and technological development. He came into office as a New Democrat, rejecting the liberal fundamentalism that saw a government program and redistribution of wealth as the answer to every real and imagined problem in society, aware of the power and importance of markets and a market economy, and he governed that way, seeking only modest increases in federal power and presiding over a “reinvention” of government to be more responsive and less intrusive. He had sense enough not to inject government into everything lest such activism jeopardize economic growth. His policies were successful, moderate and balanced. The unfortunate impeachment episode that revealed the still-puritanical sex obsession of the American people cannot be forgotten, of course, but history will judge him as a successful and beneficial president.
Not so fast, says Jim Bovard. In his final chapter, after documenting in sometimes exhausting detail a pattern of government growth and unremitting efforts to escape any semblance of accountability across a wide range of issues and controversies, he has a somewhat different perception:
“The principle of government supremacy is Clinton’s clearest legacy.” Writes Bovard. “Clinton did more than any recent president to place the federal government above all laws — above the Constitution — and beyond any effective restraint. Clinton ignored federal and Supreme Court decisions limiting his power and Congress rarely had the gumption to check his abuses. Clinton exploited and expanded the dictatorial potential of the U.S. presidency.
“Clinton was the Nanny State champion incarnate — the person who taught tens of millions of Americans to look to government for relief from every irritation of daily life — from child safety car seats to unpasteurized cider to leaky basements. Clinton’s perennial message was that people should trust political action far more than the voluntary efforts of individuals to improve their own lives. Clinton sought to continually remind people of the greatness of the State and the helplessness of the citizen.”
Bovard starts his book with AmeriCorps, Clinton’s version of Hitler’s old notion of putting “volunteer” youth in the service of the state. That might seem like an odd choice to some, a minor little feel-good program that has little real impact beyond wasting a bit of money. But Bovard shows how it reveals the Clintonian approach to society and governance. More than 93 million Americans work as unpaid volunteers every year. “At best AmeriCorps’ 40,000 members amount to less than one twentieth of 1 percent of all the volunteers in America,” Bovard writes. Yet Clinton treated the group (which is not even really a volunteer outfit) as the Second Coming, with “the chance to embody all the things I ran for President to do,” as “citizenship at its best,” a chance “to prove that this generation of young people, far from being a generation of cynics and slackers, is instead a generation of doers and patriots.”
So how does AmeriCorps promote Bill Clinton’s eccentric notion of what self-reliance means in the brave new world? By beating the bushes to increase the number of Americans on welfare programs of various kinds. By assigning tax-paid members to work on various leftist causes, all of which point toward the enhancement of State power. By propagandizing for more money for various government programs like rent control and subsidized housing. By promoting low-flush toilets(!). By sending illiterate students into classrooms to pretend to be tutors to other students. By having a 50 percent dropout rate. But most importantly, by actually crowding out private, genuinely private charitable and philanthropic activity and promoting the idea that the only way anything gets improved in this world is for government to take peoples’ money from them and use it to fund a bureaucratic program that is more likely to perpetuate and worsen the problem than to solve it.
Bovard takes us through the Clinton record on a variety of issues. Clinton was in office when massive abuse by the IRS was documented in Congress. He promised to fix it and instead instituted programs that increased its power and reduced its accountability. He beefed up every agency of federal law enforcement, defended every agent from every attempt to make him or her accountable for abuses of power from Ruby Ridge to unjustified asset seizures and promoted more arbitrary use of power. He promised to “mend not end” affirmative action and did neither, instead resorting to race-baiting at every turn. He expanded the war on drugs more than any president including Nixon or Reagan. He sought to expand government power to search and seize without the kind of probable cause of actual law violation the Fourth Amendment says is sacrosanct to a free people. He harassed not only Microsoft but dozens of high-tech companies in am aggressive but only partially successful effort to impose government control on the most innovative and dynamic sector of the economy.
Clinton said that “the era of big government is over,” but every State of the Union address was a laundry list of new programs and almost every day saw the announcement of a new federal initiative. He didn’t start any major, large-scale programs (although he certainly tried, as with health care) but he began literally hundreds of small-scale programs that cannot help but grow in years to come. His instinct, unless thwarted by Congress or public opinion, was to expand government power in every area of American life. And he often did so by executive order, after discovering that Congress or the courts would never approve some particular expansion of government power. And he bombed aspirin factories and got us into several unnecessary and open-ended military conflicts overseas.
Almost none of this is currently recognized, in part because of the extraordinary, virtually sociopathic Clintonian ability to lie and in part because of the incuriosity of the courtier press. Clinton claimed, for example, that “we now have the smallest government we’ve had since 1963,” and this claim played a big role in the political campaign still unresolved. But, as Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light noted, this claim counts only formal civil servants. If you include government contractors and employees hired to carry out federal mandates, “the true size of government expands to nearly 17 million, or more than eight times the standard headcount of 1.9 million used by Congress and the President to declare the era of big government over.” As Bovard also points out, “the number of people in federal prisons has increased more than 500 percent since 1963; more than 700 new crimes have been added to the federal statute book; the length of the Code of Federal Regulations has quintupled; and the number of federal regulators has increased eightfold. The number of levers and thumbscrews available to federal agents pursuing private citizens is far greater now than it was then.”
As Bovard writes, “The lies that Clinton got away with were far more important than the ones on which he was caught. The discovery of a stained blue dress obliterated Clinton’s defense in the Lewinsky scandal. But for most lies, there was nothing as concrete and indisputable that the public and the media was forced to recognize and accept. The vast majority of Clinton’s lies and misrepresentations succeeded in sanctifying the expansion of federal power.”
I still believe that the game of ever-expanding federal power over which Clinton and other recent presidents have presided is about to tumble like a house of cards as people recognize the stupidity of using political means to handle economic and social problems. But if that is to happen it is important to recognize the extent of the damage done by the expansion of unaccountable government power. Jim Bovard is one of the few journalists in Washington (or elsewhere) to show much interest in government abuse of power beyond the occasional sexy scandal. In “Feeling Your Pain” he has made a commendable start on assembling the information necessary to assess the Clinton era intelligently.