Issue: 2.01 1/1/2001
by: Marlene Adler Marks
The Clinton Years

Nostalgia for Bill Clinton? Even before George W. Bush officially takes office, the Jewish community is weeping sentimental tears for the almost lethally charismatic president who in the words of the Forward newspaper, "had come to embody the hopes of Jewish liberals in America and Israel during the 1990s." Clinton, who is no stranger to schmaltz, had policy wonks and foreign affairs careerists alike publicly weeping when he chose the Israel Policy Institute as the site of his last address last week, hinting that yet one more attempt at an Arab-Israeli solution was still in the works.

It will take time to assess the Clinton years, to understand how the Man from Hope changed the Jewish world. But here's a first cast at what might stay in the heart and mind long after Clinton is gone.

*Israel. Starting from ground zero, Bill Clinton's growing love for Israel was a thing to behold. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was, for him, like a death in the family. Observers said it was like Clinton had lost his own father. Like much of the American Jewish community, a grieving Clinton went to bat for Shimon Peres, an uncharacteristic loss of political objectivity with disastrous consequences when Peres lost to Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Clinton years have changed the face of Israel, as the Oslo accords brought an end to the Arab boycott. I personally witnessed the remarkable turnaround in Israel's economic relationships as trade began with such stalwart pro-Arab nations as Japan and India. I'll never forget a Tokyo trade minister's glow as he praised the special qualities of oranges imported from Haifa. An economic miracle that even the prophets would enjoy has occurred; Israel has become a normal citizen of the world.

*Madeleine Albright. Clinton may not have knowingly named a child of Holocaust survivors as Secretary of State, but the appointment of Madeleine Albright has been an extraordinary turning point for world Jewry, a real-life corollary to the cathartic release of the film "Schindler's List." Through Albright, Jews have been able to look into their own family secrets, to acknowledge the ghosts, defeats and self-deceptions that still weigh so heavily on us about the Shoah.

As we look ahead to the Bush II, with an administration apparently to be dominated by oil interests, the valor of the Albright years, with its high-minded if imperfect commitment to fighting tyranny abroad, will become more sharply lit. Historians, in fact, may see Madeleine Albright's years as a book end to the career of Henry Kissinger, the first Jewish secretary of state whose own talented demons, influenced by German experience, powerfully shaped American foreign policy.

*The Jewish/urban connection. In a miracle of personal transformation, Bill Clinton, the former governor from Arkansas, has strangely connected to the nation's sophisticates and elites, of which the American Jewish community is one key part. Robert E. Rubin and Alan Greenspan will get the credit for steering the U.S. economy through its greatest period of economic prosperity. Clinton was their boss.

Right from the start, Jews voted for Clinton in big numbers, and counted largely among those who stayed in the Lincoln bedroom. The Clinton-Barbra Streisand magnetism will, in memory, symbolize the high-charged bravado that both the President and the Jewish community have at times experienced over the past 8 years. We have never felt as comfortable in our own skin, and may never again.

The political terrain changed dramatically, even within the Jewish world, thanks in good measure to Clinton. Neo-Conservativism, that movement to revive the Republican party led by Jewish intellectuals like William Kristol during Bush I, lost steam, thanks to Clinton's success in moving the Democrats to the middle. In the Weekly Standard last week, conservative writers attempted to prove that the nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General was not the Paleolithic step backwards that liberals claim. But whether Bush II repeats Reagan or Eisenhower, it seems committed to burning the bridge to the 21st Century.

Of course Clinton was a phenomenal personal disappointment. Notorious lies and cover-ups sacrificed his policies if not only his reputation. What began as a man who didn't inhale ended with a man who didn't trust. He didn't trust Americans to have grown up with him, to understand how the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution confused us all. His early waffling on gays in the military, the failure to defend or comprehend the issues facing contemporary women starting with political appointments of ZoŽ Baird and Lani Guinier were later to deteriorate into his extraordinary bad judgment with Monica Lewinsky. It's hard not to shake the head at the shameful waste.

Yet Clinton's intellectual sophistication was a wonder. Those coffees with the President may have turned into a political nightmare during the second Clinton Administration, but having been at one I will always remember his love of ideas, and an antenna for what matters to people. Even as Bush II begins, we feel the difference.

© 2001 Marlene Adler Marks. You can contact Marlene directly at
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