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Matt Bai is a political reporter and staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, Bai graduated from Tufts in 1990 and received a Masters from the Columbia School of[…]

Clinton defined the future, but may dissatisfy future historians.

Matt Bai: But I . . . I think history . . . This is a very charitable assessment. I think history will record Bill Clinton as the first president of the 21st century – as sort of in that way – and he would like this very much – but in that way the Teddy Roosevelt of his time in that I think he saw the future, and he didn’t get us into the future. And he didn’t achieve nearly what he wanted to. And it’s disappointing, and historians tend to be very disappointed in it in the present day. David Kennedy of Stanford described it to me as the “great squandering”. You know it’s how historians see the Clinton presidency. But I see something a little different, which is he didn’t get us into that future, but he did define it. He created a political lexicon. People didn’t talk about the information age, the new economy, the globalization, the global economy. You know we throw these words around now like they’ve always been here. They weren’t here. And Bill Clinton sat on factory floors, and in airport hangars and said to people, you know, this is not your father’s economy. It’s never going to be again. The world is changing. It’s gonna be painful for you, but it’s also full of promise and we can’t stop it. And he wasn’t the first one to make that argument. I think Gary Hart predated him. There have been some visionary politicians. But he was the most persuasive and the most successful. And what Clinton left us as a legacy – and it may be a paltry legacy by some standards – is a lexicon, and a debate, and a language we can use; a sort of basic understanding in order to have the conversations we really need to have. And I think . . . I think when the history is written, what they’ll say is these conversations are never linear in American life. You had Teddy Roosevelt, and you had Woodrow Wilson, and you had Franklin Roosevelt. But you also had Taft and Hoover thrown in and nobody remembers that. And it was kind of a step backward from the move toward an industrialized society and a centralized government. And I think similarly people will write in 100 years that Bill Clinton was the first president to define the challenges of the 21st century. And that the country then took a real step back from that conversation; that they elected a president in George W. Bush who . . . who you know in a sense believed you could hold back some of that change. And . . . and probably he won’t be the last president we have who . . . who . . . who makes that conversation less productive rather than more, but we’ll get there.

Recorded on: 12/13/07