Bill Clinton's Next Life?

What becomes of Bill Clinton? With the shape of the race to succeed him established, this most political of presidents moves to the margin of domestic public discourse. In less than a year, he is a man without a job. Yet Americans, accustomed to thinking of their nation's presidency as the world pinnacle, may be in for a surprise. Clinton's future could outweigh his past.

Eight years ago, a particular generation of Americans projected onto the Man from Hope a long-deferred set of hopes tied to the unfinished business of its youth. The Reagan-Bush years were taken as a last effort to repair an inherited national consensus that had been shredded, but the consensus had proven elusive.

For many, the coming to power of Bill Clinton seemed the fulfillment of an entirely other vision of America's meaning. ''This movement will go on,'' Eugene McCarthy had defined it, while looking out at the chaos of Chicago in 1968, "because it doesn't depend on structure or organization, but just what is in people themselves. It's like striking a hammer on the anvil. It rings forever. It's like infinity.''

Well, no. In celebrating Clinton's arrival, we had to ignore his campaign themes tied more to economic self-interest than generosity; his execution of Ricky Ray Rector; his embarrassment about his own opposition to the Vietnam War; his inauguration itself, a garish display of celebrity worship.

McCarthy's distinction between ''structure or organization'' and ''what is in people'' would come to seem a rebuke as Clinton faced us with the hollowness not so much of his character, as of the structures he erected in support of peace and justice. The slashed safety net, the attachment to a Cold War military ethos, the relative abandonment of nuclear arms reduction, the rhetoric of racial healing against the realities of gun-happy police and run-away prisons: Eight years on, the ringing anvil has fallen silent. Whatever the so-called ''movement'' was, with Clinton it is over.

And yet, no single conclusion about Clinton has ever seemed adequate to his complexity. He retires from the presidency a young man; a summing up of his meaning seems premature. As he withdraws from official responsibility for structure and organization, to use McCarthy's distinction, what is actually in the man becomes central to his future. And that was on full display last week, in his remarkable trip abroad.

First, there is Clinton's extraordinary human presence, the quality that enables him to identify with the condition of others. This is often a matter of compassion for those who suffer, but it can also be the relatively more mundane ability to convey basic understanding of a situation that is very different from his own. The surprisingly positive reception - ''Clinton is right'' is how a New York Times report summed it up - that greeted his televised plea-for-peace to the people of Pakistan last week is a case in point.

A man of feeling, yet he is acutely intelligent. That quality has enabled his successes. For example, where ancient enemies from the Middle East to Ireland see walls, he sees openings. He sees the peace process itself as peace. The inconclusiveness of his meeting Sunday with Syria's President Hafez Assad will only spur Clinton, and diverse negotiators know that his last year is their best hope. But perhaps even more important for his own future, Clinton's intelligence has positioned him at the center of the knowledge revolution, which overturns everything from biology to the literary imagination.

No one fully grasps the meaning of the digital transformation that is occurring not in our machines, but in the human condition itself, yet it is likely that Clinton grasps it better than anyone. That, too, was on display last week as he saluted the software entrepreneurs of Bangalore.

But Clinton was equally at home with India's rural villagers. His extraordinary command of language, including the language of gesture and symbol, enables him, across boundaries, to put words on elusive experiences - sometimes technical, sometimes personal. He is himself a living example of the power of education, and is therefore education's great apostle wherever he goes. The relative inarticulateness of every other contemporary political figure reinforces Clinton's stature in this regard, and makes even his critics realize what a loss to public discourse his retirement will be.

But there is the question: Will he retire? Bill Clinton's next life could completely re-order our sense of possibility for public service. Partly this is a matter of his gifts, his youth, even the tragic shortfall of his achievement up to now, which reinforces his patently unfinished ambition. And partly this is a matter of the shocking freshness of the age, defined by the wired economy, the end of borders, and the loosening of personal identity from national sovereignty.

A world united by the Web offers heretofore unimaginable opportunities for the exercise of leadership, even while rendering traditional structures obsolete. The new reality awaits its prophet, who will not be elected, but recognized.

Nothing is predictable, but Clinton's experience seems perfectly matched to what is coming. Even before the transcendent culture of the information age has quite realized its readiness for one, Bill Clinton can be its first president.

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