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Friday, November 11, 2005

Clinton Recaps 8 Years in About an Hour - New York Times

Clinton Recaps 8 Years in About an Hour - New York TimesNovember 11, 2005
Clinton Recaps 8 Years in About an Hour
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Nov. 10 - Bill Clinton took an early stab yesterday at inscribing his place in the history books, opening a three-day conference about his presidency with a heartfelt speech recounting the highs and lows - mostly the highs - of his eight years in office.

Working from notes and bullet points his aides said he had spent more than a week pulling together, Mr. Clinton spoke for more than an hour at Hofstra University's sports arena before an enthusiastic and near-capacity audience of faculty members, students and others.

Hardly a single development of his presidency escaped discussion: Bosnia, deficit reduction, news media coverage, family leave legislation, the 1994 assault weapons ban, the earned income tax credit, Northern Ireland, after-school programs, and more.

He also challenged criticisms that his impeachment incapacitated the White House during his second term.

"I want to make a confession here. I'm doing this partly because I'm sick and tired of people saying, "If only that impeachment hadn't happened; think of what we haven't done.' " Mr. Clinton reeled off a list of accomplishments from his last year in office, including the preservation of millions of acres of land as federal monuments.

Mr. Clinton began by promising a "little bit of an academic and perhaps disappointing speech," insisting that he "didn't have anything to say about the last four years not on this program."

But it did not take long for the president to circle back to more current events. He cast Democratic victories this week in New Jersey's and Virginia's races for governor - both of which featured intense mudslinging - as a sign that the "politics of personal destruction" might be dissipating because "people voted based on performance, and the election was about their kids and their future."

He also touched briefly on President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, saying that he "could stand up here and make you the current administration speech on that, that Bill Clinton, he wanted to tie America's hands." But the United States' current difficulties there, he said, showed that "it is very difficult to solve conflicts, problems, when we're essentially alone."

"We need to be working to create a world we would like to live in when we are no longer the largest dog on the street," he said.

Overall, the speech was a vintage Clinton performance: Long, leavened with a touch of folksy humor, rich in policy detail, and (slightly) late in coming. More reminiscent of his winding - but generally popular - State of the Union addresses than of a stump speech, Mr. Clinton's remarks for the most part left aside grand themes and soaring language.

Instead, he delivered a blow-by-blow account of his presidency, starting with his decision to jump into the 1992 Democratic primary when "nobody but my wife and my mother thought I had a remote chance," and ending with a long critique of his impeachment and its relative importance to any account of his presidency.

Mr. Clinton emphasized that his "reputation deserved to suffer" for what he called "my misconduct," a reference to his relationship with the White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. But the impeachment itself, he said, was "an egregious abuse of the Constitution and law and history of this country, and I should get credit for standing up to it."

The former president also took stock of failures, including a rare public discussion of the 1993 Waco debacle, when dozens of cult members died after an assault by federal law enforcement officers.

"We should have waited them out," said Mr. Clinton, who noted that his attorney general at the time, Janet Reno, was new to the job and under "enormous pressure from the F.B.I." to enter the compound. "I am responsible for that because I told her, if that's what they want to do, and she thought it was right. "It was a mistake and I'm responsible. And that's not one of those you get A for effort on."

As for health care - the signal failure of his first term - Mr. Clinton said he had fewer regrets. "When it did not pass we were able to do an enormous number of things because we tried," he said, including expanding children's health insurance and financing for medical research.

The conference, which will run through Saturday, is the 11th presidential conference Hofstra has held since 1982. The first focused on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and later ones have covered every president since.

Mr. Clinton also received an honorary degree, presented by Hofstra's president, Stuart Rabinowitz. And with that the former president did what he often does with crowds: He hurried down the steps, stage left, and waded in to begin shaking hands.

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