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Inside NCR: Clinton presidency more and less than bimbogate

I confess to spending -- and enjoying -- too many hours watching the Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr debacle on television. Something base in me and others enjoys the suspense and, yes, the trail of sleaze.

As this is written, the focus is on President Clinton up close and personal. It’s extraordinary how much attention an entire population can pay to one man yet learn so little. Perhaps because the focus is too narrow: on the president’s grammatical legerdemain, on how the 21-year-old intern got into the White House late at night. But first and last the focus is on sex. Not the media’s finest hour.

If we pull back for a wider focus, perhaps we can put Bill Clinton in context. He was the young man from Hope, son of a troubled family, propelled by a shifty mix of idealism and ambition. He cut corners (the draft and such), fooled around (Gennifer Flowers and such), but became president anyway. Elected by us, the citizens. And despite being hated by the right he remained a popular president.

He wasn’t popular for nothing. Whether by accident or design, the country has been prosperous (balanced budget, etc.). He was down-home and personable as a president can be and even played the saxophone. Behind that, he knew how to articulate the nation’s longings and grumblings, could even get away with saying he felt our pain.

He did more. Carried over some idealism of the 1960s, which then as now, from Kennedy to King, was embodied in vessels of all-too-human clay.

Thus, more than any recent president, he pushed legislation for the benefit of children, the poor, various disadvantaged groups. He brought more women into government, more minorities. His predecessor coined the phrase but Clinton was kinder, gentler.

These sentiments have been expressed -- and also disputed -- already. As media grist they are no match for hanky-panky. Not that we need turn our backs on hanky-panky. But in the end we would all prefer to be judged in the widest, most soft-focus perspective possible.

So we pull back the metaphorical camera further for an even bigger picture of Bill Clinton, back until we are in the picture with him.

The man from Hope came riding a wave of optimism as the Iron Curtain fell, the Cold War ended and the USA became the mightiest power ever to straddle civilization. Clinton had it in his control to make more impact on this old earth than any human who ever lived. The alliance that awkward, tongue-tied George Bush put together for the dubious purpose of pulverizing Iraq was nothing compared to what smooth Bill Clinton could have done in the euphoria of the early 1990s.

Instead, we have almost forgotten what happened, and the media have done little to remind us. There was Haiti, where one of our big ships turned tail and sailed away when a few local thugs started shouting profanities. Whatever happened after that? Few TV cameras have been turned on Haiti. And what about Mogadishu? Remember Mogadishu? And Bosnia?

For a couple of years I filled a folder with clippings on Bosnia. I felt, rightly or wrongly, it would turn out to be a turning point of world history. At first, it was a disaster waiting to happen, then it was a disaster. Offspring of centuries of simmering hate, it could have been a perfect threshold to the bright new peaceful world that would be created and nurtured by the United Nations or otherwise -- whatever way President Clinton and the great USA engineered it.

True, Clinton had his hands full at home, but ultimately he allowed the Bosnia massacre because he had no political interest there. His heart wasn’t in it. And neither was ours. In a typical passage David Rohde writes in End Game: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica: Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II: “With opinion polls showing the vast majority of Americans opposing U.S. intervention in Bosnia, the overriding concern of U.S. policy from 1991 to 1995 was to keep U.S. troops out of the Balkans.”

There has been equally awful slaughter before and after, from Cambodia to Rwanda, but Bosnia was more calculated, cold-blooded. We were at a significant crossroads and the key nations took the low road.

One of my clippings is from July 16, 1995. Writes Roger Cohen in the New York Times: “Many things have died or been seriously compromised in Bosnia. ... But perhaps the death of Western honor has been the most devastating.”

A woman speaking in Zagreb, Dec. 13, 1992: “There was silence. Then the crazy, dirty, stinking Chetniks (Serbs) jumped at the women like animals; they tore off their clothes, pulled their hair, cut their breasts with their knives. ... Those who screamed would be killed on the spot.”

My folder is full of terrible descriptions like the above. But there was no media “feeding frenzy” in Bosnia.

Who are we and what do we stand for and what do we want from Bill Clinton and by what standard should we judge our public servants?

Clinton made a comeback as re-election time approached and engineered the Dayton peace accord, which has had some success. It was a matter of self-interest. His place in history.

Dec. 12, 1992, Leslie Gelb wrote in The New York Times: “The day will soon come when two groups of leaders are charged with crimes against humanity in Bosnia: the Serbs who are killing Muslims and driving them from their homes; and the Western leaders who are doing little to stop this unspeakable brutality.”

Life is infinitely complex, and perhaps being president of the USA is too much for one man. Why did we, who rightly want Clinton to be noble and pure, worry so little about whether he saved Bosnian lives, we who hold our breaths for the next surprise from Kenneth Starr?

Then, just to show how wrong I am, the Stockholm committee nominates Clinton for the Nobel Peace Prize -- for his contribution to solving the Bosnian crisis. What a pity so many had to die first.

Gelb again: “We are speaking here not just of quagmires, but of our souls. For if we allow evil to triumph in ex-Yugoslavia, we will breed a cynicism so pervasive and profound as to corrode the very basis of Western liberty and smash every hope of fashioning a better world.”

The media spotlight is harsh. And the picture is more sobering when we are in it too.

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates is alleged to have said. The flip side of that Greek coin is that we’d better examine our lives.

Some do it better than others, are more reflective and aware, and more articulate in sharing their examined lives with others. We the NCR staff encounter such people all the time. They are fonts of wisdom, beacons of inspiration or just unforgettable characters. Until now we’ve had no journalistic slot to do them justice.

The problem is now solved. On page 11, Editor-at-large Arthur Jones offers the first case of “The Examined Life.” We plan to do one a month. These ought to be popular: The subjects should be, almost by definition, interesting.

We invite readers to suggest possible candidates. Please be patient -- we can’t showcase everyone at once. And prudent -- we’ll know if you’re promoting your pastor or your spouse!

On page 7, we report that Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., refused to allow a play about Jean Donovan to take place on church property because proceeds were going to the McHenry County Family Health Partnership Clinic in Harvard, Ill. The clinic helps patients with birth control. It is also the only spot within a 50-mile radius where poor and uninsured people can get health care and is staffed largely by Catholics animated by the church’s teachings on social justice. That clinic is in the final months of its federal grant and needs support to survive. Those who believe health care for the poor ought to be more important than objections to birth control may send donations for the clinic to 104 W. Brainard, Harvard, IL 60033.