A consequential legacy

February 4, 2013

Starting this week, Hillary Clinton is a private citizen.

The last time that was the case was 1982, when her husband, Bill Clinton, won back the Arkansas governorship he had punted away two years before out of inexperience, missteps and bad luck. And Clinton was a leading figure on the national stage for 21 years, from the time her spouse launched his first presidential bid. It’s hard to think of any other elected or unelected official, at least in the last 50 years or so, who has so consistently been at the center of the era’s national debates. But now that Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state has expired and she is taking the extended sabbatical she has spoken of longingly in many recent interviews, both Clinton’s ardent supporters and fervent foes will now have to come to come to grips with the fact that, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, we won’t have Hillary Clnton to kick around anymore.

And few would dispute she took her share of kicks during her two decades in the klieg lights, whether it was her perceived insensitivity to stay-at-home mothers and wives during the 1992 presidential campaign, spearheading a hopelessly convoluted healthcare plan in her husband’s first term in the White House that crashed and burned like a legislative Hindenburg, or having to endure the all-too-public revelations of her husband’s extramarital indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. Her 2008 presidential campaign, for which she was long viewed as a shoo-in, was undone by tactical mistakes, her (perhaps) politically expedient support for the Iraq War as a U.S. senator and a smidgen of hubris. Her ascension to the Democratic presidential nomination was long viewed as such a fait accompli that the party’s voters narrowly decided they preferred another, fresher history-making candidate.

But what Clinton has demonstrated is an exceptionally admirable skill at learning from her mistakes, shaking off the dust and doggedly getting back to work. When many lesser political figures would have decided to cash out and cultivate a lucrative life in the private sector, Clinton persevered. Politicians of both genders and from both parties can learn a lesson or two from her.

Whether Clinton will re-emerge in 2016 and claim a Democratic presidential nomination that many believe is hers for the taking remains to be seen. After some time out of the headlines, she might find that it agrees with her. And, particularly if the economy remains unsteady in the next couple of years, she might decide that the likelihood of voters giving Democrats a lease on the White House for a third term is small, no matter whom the nominee is. But these are questions for another day.

What is without question is that, even if she never becomes president, Clinton has crafted a consequential public legacy that will be keeping historians and biographers busy for decades to come.



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