AUSTIN, Texas -- The time has come to bid farewell to President William Jefferson Clinton. Been a lot of wasted time and wasted talent these eight years. The politics of personal destruction. A level of vituperation so intense and so stupid that it shut down the federal government twice.

And through it all came the Unsinkable Clinton, ever bobbing up again cheerfully in a fashion that maddened his enemies.

Years ago, an Arkansas senator told me that Clinton's greatest strength is that he's like one of those round-bottomed children's toys -- you tump him over and he pops back up, you tump him over again and he pops back up again. As near as I can tell after eight years, the man gets up every single day in a state of cheerful anticipation, ready to set about whatever's on the plate.

We have never once seen him in a temper or a sulk or being vindictive or holding a grudge. Closest we ever saw to an upset Bill Clinton was right after we had watched him discussing the most intimate details of his private life for four hours on national television, and to this good day I have no idea what public purpose was served by that exercise in humiliation.

But I continue to be amazed by the man's good manners.

When Clinton arrived in Washington, there were two untouchable lobbies: the National Rifle Association and the tobacco industry. They are not untouchable today. This is not the result of inevitable social change; it is the result of real political leadership by Clinton and many others.

Clinton is a master incrementalist -- he gets a little bit done, then a little bit more, then a little bit more. Because he knows and cares about the details of policy, he has often gone back and fixed or improved things that were initially passed in unsatisfactory form.

The two great failures of his administration are the domestic wealth gap and Russia.

We are now facing a destabilized nuclear power many times more dangerous than the former Soviet Union. Life expectancy in Russia is crashing, 75 percent of the people live in poverty, health care is a disaster, and the country is being run by gangsters pretending to be capitalists.

There will eventually be a terrible price for all this misery -- and the country still has thousands of deteriorating nuclear weapons. Its early warning system is in such disarray that last summer the Russians came within a hair of nuking a Swedish weather balloon.

The first thing that George W. Bush might usefully do is spend a few billion rebuilding the Russian DEW line. By expanding NATO, bombing Serbia and horsing around with the oil pipeline on Russia's southern border, we have managed to hit every paranoid button that the Russians possess -- and if there is one clear strain in the Russian worldview over the centuries, it is paranoia. Further talk of putting the Baltic republics in NATO is frankly nuts.

In this country, we still have trickle-down economics, but mighty little is trickling down. Although it is not Clinton's fault, Congress becomes ever more the tool of corporate special interests. Because Clinton is such an enthusiastic free-trader, the tendency toward gigantism continues -- mammoth, international corporations with more wealth than most governments and subject to only one imperative: higher profits.

Meanwhile, I don't think you can argue that we are better off today than we were eight years ago, despite the long boom. Even after wages in the lowest quartile finally, finally started to go up, it wasn't enough in constant dollars even to get people back to their standard of living 30 years ago.

The Wall Street Journal headlined last week: "Raw Deals -- Companies Quietly Use Mergers and Spinoffs to Cut Worker Benefits." Duh.

The wealth gap is worse than ever, and the mechanisms slowly and painfully created to check capitalism -- government regulation, lawsuits and unions -- have all been eaten away.

I grant you, it would have been worse without Clinton, especially his expansion of the earned income tax credit. Goodness only knows what Newt Gingrich and his merry crew would have done without Clinton there to outplay them at every turn. That was a masterly political performance and a real joy to watch -- too bad the media missed it because they were so focused on Monicagate.

As for Clinton's private life, even though it's none of my business, I think we had a right to expect him to keep it zipped for eight years. Shame on him.

But having to listen to the likes of Henry Hyde, Bob Barr and Newt Gingrich lecture Clinton on personal morality took shamelessness to new heights. What a bizarre hypocrisy festival that was. I wound up preferring Clinton to his enemies.

The Clinton haters have been an odd and troubling part of these past eight years. In "The Hunting of the President," Gene Lyons and Joe Conason traced most of it back to a sorry posse of old enemies in Arkansas.

The distressing part was how so much of that baloney got picked up by Establishment media and taken seriously. We wasted years on Whitewater. Some of it, I believe, has nothing to do with the Clintons but is simply a reflection of the viciousness of their enemies.

Clinton probably has as much sheer political talent as any player I've ever watched. But he got dealt a very odd hand as president, perhaps aptly compared to that of Andrew Johnson.

At least he never whined in public. It is commonplace to say that the Clintons led others into trouble and then left them to hang; actually, it can be argued that they were singularly ill-served themselves by those who had cause to be loyal to them.

It seems to me that most of the media have a very odd take on the Clintons. You look at all those "scandals," and there is no there there. It's nonsense.

Even the worst of it, the money-raising in '96, was so patently the problem of both parties. Shall we ever forget Haley Barbour explaining that sitting on the deck of a junk in the Hong Kong harbor with a Chinese businessman caused him to have not the slightest apprehension about accepting foreign money?

Clinton was smart, able, articulate, graceful and humorous, and he busted his tail for a Middle Eastern peace and a lot of other important things, some of which he didn't get. Life will be duller once Elvis has left the building.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.