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1999 In Review: Clinton's Year Marked By Trial, Prosperity

  • Frank Csongos



Bill Clinton in 1999 became the only elected American president to be tried by the Senate. He also continued to preside over one of the longest periods of economic expansion in his nation's history. RFE/RL Correspondent Frank Csongos assesses Clinton's legacy as he enters the final year of his presidency.

Washington, 22 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The year 1999 began with Washington engulfed in preparations for a Senate trial to determine whether Bill Clinton would be removed from office.

The voice of the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, presiding over the Senate after the trial got underway.

It was all triggered by allegations of an affair with a White House intern and then escalated into Clinton's public denial of the relationship. The House brought impeachment charges against Clinton in late 1998, alleging he lied under oath and tried to obstruct justice. The Senate then sat in judgment early this year with the chief justice of the United States presiding over the historic trial.

Under the U.S. Constitution, a president can only be convicted by a minimum two-thirds vote in the full Senate. The Senate vote fell far short of that margin. Clinton survived.

Still, Clinton ended up as the first elected president to be impeached, with his legacy and reputation tarnished.

In comments immediately following the vote, Clinton maintained that the impeachment charges were pressed largely by his Republican Party opponents. But he also acknowledged personal mistakes.

"Now that the Senate has fulfilled its constitutional responsibility, bringing this process to a conclusion, I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people."

Throughout, Clinton's popularity ratings with the public remained high. And by year's end he could continue to claim credit for a surging U.S. economy.

During his two-term presidency -- the first Democratic Party president to get elected to serve eight years since Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- Clinton presided over an unprecedented peacetime economic boom. Unemployment dropped to a 30-year low. Inflation was negligible. The stock market soared. The federal government's annual spending deficit declined, then disappeared. The U.S. economy -- fueled by the growth of the high technology sector -- became the envy of the whole world.

Independent experts interviewed by RFE/RL at year's end give a mixed rating to Clinton. Marshall Whitmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation finds fault with the U.S. president for failing to chart a clear course in foreign policy.

"A mixed legacy. More than anything else it's going to be viewed as a missed opportunity. He clearly ran into problems with his own personal failings. But perhaps most importantly, he missed the opportunity of shaping a very clear and coherent American doctrine for the post Cold War world."

James Gibney, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, gives Clinton better marks.

"One of the legacies he leaves behind is one that applies to both the domestic and international spheres and that's the economy. A lot of people don't remember that back in 1992 the United States faced a lot of criticism from its allies for being a drag on the international economic system. And now I think our overall economic strength is an enormous advantage, not just for the United States but for the rest of the world."

John Tierney of the Institute of World Politics says Clinton could have made a larger impact on foreign policy.

"My major interpretation of the Clinton legacy is that it hasn't really taken advantage of nearly a decade of magnificent American power in order to chart a future course for the country in the world for the early part of the next century."

Clinton tried to be a peacemaker in some of the world's most notorious trouble areas. He pushed for a comprehensive Middle East settlement. During his term, Israelis and Palestinians have achieved considerable progress toward a final peace accord. He also helped broker the resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations. He sent his envoy on a mission to seek reconciliation between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland. He sought to isolate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and frustrate Baghdad's efforts to rebuild its weapons of mass destruction.

But Clinton appeared to have limited options to influence Russian military action in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. And he had to resort to NATO bombing of Yugoslavia to stop the cleansing of ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo. The policy ultimately resulted in a NATO-led force occupying Kosovo.

Tierney of the Institute of World Politics says that while Clinton pursued a number of foreign policy initiatives, he appeared to lack a coherent strategy.

"He was busy throughout the world, to be sure, but I can't see where it was motivated by any clear sense of purpose or history."

David Broder, a widely respected reporter and political columnist for The Washington Post, says in a recent article that when historians write of Clinton's presidency, they may stop with the personal scandal that led to his impeachment. But if they go beyond that, Broder says he believes they will focus on two topics: taxes and trade.

Broder argues the best claim that can be made for Clinton as a significant, positive force for America lies in his willingness to fight opposition Republicans on taxes and his own Democratic Party on trade. He said on both issues, Clinton defied the odds and, to a large extent, succeeded.

That's because in 1993 Clinton pushed through Congress a budget that raised taxes on upper-income Americans, widened tax relief for the working poor and, most important, began to cut a huge budget deficit he had inherited from previous U.S. administrations.

Also in 1993, Clinton lobbied successfully for congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an accord that promoted a free flow of trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico. In doing so, Clinton was successful in overcoming opposition from the leaders and most members of his own party in the U.S. Congress.

Broder says those two acts contributed greatly to promoting prosperity in America. Many economists say they also made it possible for the world to cope with economic challenges in Asia, Russia, Mexico and elsewhere that, if unchecked, might have triggered a widespread international financial crisis.

(RFE/RL's Brent McCann contributed to this report.)

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