Ironically, what may yet enhance Clinton’s stature as a leader is something he has always believed in the most: the future. When Clinton was an undergraduate at Georgetown University, a rather eccentric professor, Carroll Quigley, who taught a mandatory course on Western civilization, heavily influenced him. The highlight of the course was Quigley’s lecture on “future preference,” in which he argued that progress has depended on people’s willingness to sacrifice today in order to secure a better life tomorrow. “Future preference. Don’t ever forget that.” As biographer David Maraniss points out, Clinton rarely delivered a speech thereafter that did not draw upon Quigley’s lecture. He has always believed that if one works hard every day, as he has, the future will be brighter than today.
And so it may be for his reputation. Clinton’s star dimmed as he was leaving office, partly because of Gore’s close loss in the election, mostly because of his own mistakes. Yet it could wax again if the Democrats recapture control of Congress and the White House in the next few years, especially if the New Democrats are the driving force behind the revival. Before Clinton’s victory in 1992, Democrats had lost five of the past six presidential elections; if they win in 2004, they can claim two of the past three, and Clinton could argue that he helped his party defy history…
Indeed, Clinton’s greatest contribution may not be what he accomplished in the 1990s but how well he prepared the country for the decades that follow. That “bridge to the twenty-first century” may turn out to be pretty sturdy after all. Economic fundamentals are strong today, social conditions are improving, the world is at relative peace, and the country is poised on the edge of new scientific and technological revolutions. Who would have thought a decade ago the country would be in superb shape? While Bill Clinton will never escape opprobrium for his own past, perhaps one day he will receive generous credit for improving our future.