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Leadership After Clinton

In their most idealistic moments, journalists must wish for peace and prosperity in the world, just like anyone else. But that dream doesn't sell newspapers or newscasts, and it doesn't leave much of an opportunity for reporters to prove their societal worth. We've had almost ten years of relative peace and prosperity, and journalists grew restless and self-loathing.

In the last few weeks, in the shadow of an unthinkable set of terrorist attacks, an entirely new world has emerged, along with a lot of reassessing of our lives. As most Americans have rediscovered a love for their country, journalists have begun a new romance with their profession, a profession which seems most important when the most awful things happen in the world. The new decade has a purpose, resisting terrorism and Islamic extremism, while the last decade was a completely worthless carnival of sex and other sleazy scandals.

A few columnists have hinted at the mood. Richard Cohen dismissed the foolishness of the Clinton impeachment managers keeping diaries, sure they were participating in something historic. "It does not seem so now. The impeachment, the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal, has come and gone and barely left a footprint." Cohen dismissed the whole '90s parade - all the Clinton scandals, O.J. Simpson's fumbled trial for a double murder, and as an honorable mention, the Condit-Chandra Levy story.

The best summation of the media mood came from Newsweek's Anna Quindlen, who remembered what she called the "Monica Lewinsky debacle," and of a reporter friend who said "every time I write a story, I feel like I ought to take a shower afterwards." She enthusiastically waved goodbye to a "catastrophically seamy decade for the press in America, a decade that began with Long Dong Silver, Gennifer Flowers, and the pathetic posturing self-pity of O.J. Simpson and wound up with Gary Condit's self-obfuscatory interview with Connie Chung."

Somewhere in this argument you can hear the echoes of Bill Clinton, the man who always wished for greatness to be thrust upon him, that his terms in office could have contained some disastrous cataclysm full of American deaths like World War II so that he could make the historians' Top Ten list. Instead, he presided over a time of tawdry tranquility, and as his era fades, he's looking about as important as Franklin Pierce. Relentlessly impressed by Clinton's compassionate poses, daring behavior and glib intellectualism, the many journalists with a soft spot for this rogue missed the point. Bill Clinton was a small man for a small time, a panderer and pollster and not a leader, a man who was not up to the challenge of a major war against terrorism.

The first President Bush's greatest achievement was the creation of a worldwide coalition, followed by the most extraordinary (if incomplete) military operation in history to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. One shudders, just shudders to contemplate how Clinton would have handled the crisis. Clinton would have temporized, polled, held national security meetings that went on for days and never reached a conclusion, and ultimately would have dropped a few bombs before rushing out to the next party.

The second President Bush, mocked for so many months on the campaign trail as a simpleton, has demonstrated his father's decisiveness and diplomatic skill in his own military crisis. Isn't it remarkable to witness long-time Democrats like author Gerald Posner admitting in major media outlets that they are glad that Bush, and not their choice, Al Gore, won the office? Posner added: "I must sadly admit that Bill Clinton, for whom I voted twice, could not have delivered that same clear speech last Thursday. His almost compulsive need to please all sides would have prevented him from casting the issues as starkly or as unequivocally."

Polls have shown the same sentiment: a vast majority prefers George W. Bush to Clinton in this crisis. Even Clinton's foreign policy team bluntly apologized for not doing enough against terrorism in their time. Osama bin Laden was only targeted when Clinton needed to change the subject from his Lewinsky testimony. Only Bill Clinton is arguing he did so much more.

All the "haters" who opposed Clinton are vindicated, not shrunken, by this crisis. His self-centered career (loathe the military, but preserve your viability) and lax attitudes toward defense and intelligence (so what if the Chinese gain all our missile secrets?) were something America could only tolerate in a time of peace and crumbling vigilance. Without the willingness of brave politicians to insist on the rule of law against so much heat from the media "mainstream" after the November elections, would we have President Bush to lead this battle for us?