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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton as Great Gatsby




There's a scene near the end of "The Great Gatsby'' where the lavish parties are all over and the hero is sitting alone in his vast mansion in West Egg, trying to explain himself and his strange, self-invented life.


More than any of the U.S. presidents, Bill Clinton is Jay Gatsby. He embodies the same aspiration for the "green light'' of success and acceptance, the same will to create a life under the spotlight, the same terrible flaws of character, and the same radiant smile, which, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's words, "faced - or seemed to face - the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.''


Clinton is now rattling around the big house of his presidency, seeking out the Nick Carraways who might help tell his story. I'm told that when he drops by a Wizards basketball game, he's practically the last to leave - asking Michael Jordan if maybe he'd like to come back to the house for a nightcap. When he dines with friends, he polls the table asking what people think he should do next. He's still "becoming," still aspiring, still seeking validation for what he's done and who he is.


That's the image of Clinton I took away from an interview with him last Thursday. He had just given a self-celebrating speech in Philadelphia, taking credit for the role his policies played in helping create the New Economy. Following the speech, his advisers arranged for him to talk to three columnists who write about economics; the theme seemed to be, "That's enough of me talking about my economic achievements. What do you think of my economic achievements?''


And I have to admit, I find Clinton's economic record impressive. This Gatsby didn't just wear nice suits; he passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993 and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997! He presided over the longest economic expansion in our history, the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years and an explosion of new wealth and creativity in technology. Anyone who thinks those achievements are unrelated to Clinton's presidency is nuts.


Clinton cannot resist the usual laundry list of accomplishments: the budget acts and the Telecom Act and the Financial Modernization Act. But in my view, the real secret of his economic success is what he didn't do. Clinton stayed out of the way. He picked good advisers such as Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury secretaries Bob Rubin and Larry Summers and listened to their counsel. Along the way, he encountered a screwball right-wing revolution that culminated in a drive for his impeachment, and he basically gave Newt Gingrich and company enough rope to hang themselves.


I asked Clinton whether it wasn't a paradox of his presidency that it had been a time of great dynamism in business, but of torpor and gridlock in government. And he only half-denied it. He bragged that the number of public employees is the smallest now since 1960, and that this recovery has had the highest percentage of private-sector jobs of any in the 20th century.


"The role of government is different'' now, he said. "I don't think it's weaker, it's just different. And it should be different. And I think most of the growth should be in the private sector.''


Clinton noted that some fellow Democrats have denounced him for "Coolidge economics,'' but he seems to take pleasure in having destroyed the liberal-conservative boundaries in economic policy. "Even the Democrats, at least most of our crowd, have supported ... partnerships with the private sector to move people from welfare to work,'' he said.


How to keep this amazing economy going? That's the legacy question that seems most on Clinton's mind. How to pay down the public debt, so that fiscal policy will work better when a future recession comes? How to craft an e-commerce taxation scheme that will allow the Internet economy to keep growing, without starving state governments for tax money? Ever the policy wonk, Clinton discusses these issues with an astonishing (if sometimes fatiguing) precision.


Clinton even proposed a post-presidential job for himself: in figuring out the Internet taxation issue. He favors a permanent ban on Internet access taxes. As for e-commerce sales taxes, he sees two choices: The first is a system in which all retail transactions will be subject to sales tax, "so that states can continue to finance the schools ... and so that retailers who don't sell on the Internet are not unfairly disadvantaged.'' The second alternative, he said, is to "get rid of the sales tax and go to a new system of revenue raising.''


And our underemployed, soon-to-be-former president is ready to help. "When I'm out of here and have more time, if anybody wants me to get involved ... I'd be happy to think about it.''


There's more. He has new ideas about how to ease the "digital divide'' between blacks and whites, rich and poor, new schemes for debt reduction, and trade expansion and education uplifting. The proposals pour out of his mouth, even as the curtain begins to close.


Clinton isn't Calvin Coolidge - no man was ever less given to silence. He's Jay Gatsby, and he has embodied this new Jazz Age in ways that will take years to appreciate. He was president in a time of peace and prosperity, a time of overnight fortunes and wild, incendiary wealth. We remember him for his sorry flings with the Daisy Buchanans, and we see him now in that big, empty house - wondering where all the guests who ate his food and drank his wine have disappeared to.


David Ignatius writes for The Washington Post, where this comment originally appeared.