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WHICH PRESIDENT WILL HISTORY COMPARE HIM MOST CLOSELY TO?
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
As he counts down the last days of his second term, we can be assured that President Clinton is now focusing his thoughts exclusively on the one subject that has preoccupied him since he first took the oath of office: his place in history. Apparently, even back in his first term, Clinton asked his Faustian media adviser Dick Morris, “Where do I fit in?”
The story has it that Morris, displaying the same chutzpah that keeps him politically alive today, told the President, “Borderline third tier.”
Clinton glumly agreed.
What Morris had in mind was no doubt those rankings of the Presidents, based originally on Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.’s pollings of his fellow historians in the 1950s, that used to adorn American history classrooms.
Those framed charts were always diamond-shaped, with pictures of Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt up in the “Great” category; Truman, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and maybe a few others in the “Near Greats”; a whole bunch in the middle, “Average” group; and finally, all the way down, a grimfaced Grant and Harding at the sad “Failure” level.
The more recent Presidents would not be ranked, as scrupulous historians decreed that not enough time had passed for a fair, impartial judgment to be made.
Fortunately most journalists have no such scruples. No doubt you’ve already happened on several assessments of Bill Clinton’s ranking in the presidential pantheon, all likely determined by the commentators’ own politics. Since about the beginning of his first Inaugural Address, Republicans have been repeating, in truly admirable near-unison, that the Clinton administration is the “most corrupt in history.”
Sorry. But barring any new revelations—always a possibility—the Clinton administration does not even qualify as the most scandalous Presidency of the past 30 years.
If it’s a matter of subverting the Constitution to political ends, no scandal in American history quite sinks to the depths of Watergate, with Richard Nixon using the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation and suggesting that his aides burgle the Brookings Institution.
Even when it comes to personal peccadilloes, Clinton doesn’t hold a candle to Warren Harding, who during the 1920 campaign juggled not one but two mistresses, one of whom supposedly became the target of a piano stool launched by Mrs. Harding.
So if he dodges the “Failure” level, whom should Clinton be compared to? The yardstick for most Presidents in the second half of this century has become Franklin Roosevelt, or maybe Harry Truman, the reigning exemplar of courage in office. Here, too, Clinton falls short. Political careers must always be in part a matter of circumstances, and to reach the “Great” or “Near Great” level of Presidents, it’s imperative to lead the nation through a war, a depression, or some similar crisis. FDR had the good fortune to serve during the most grueling depression and bloodiest war in human history. The Clinton administration just has not been blessed with the sort of catastrophes necessary to showcase real leadership.
So which President does compare most closely to Bill Clinton? I would opt for what might seem a most unlikely choice: Calvin Coolidge.
On a personal level, of course, few men could be more different. Coolidge was the quintessential New Englander, legendary for his taciturn, careful nature, the product of a stolid farm family. Where Clinton was a political Wunderkind , first winning election to the Arkansas statehouse at the age of 32, Coolidge worked his way up the political ladder painstakingly, winning an election every year or two for some two decades. He attained the Presidency only on the untimely death of Harding and had become Vice President in the first place only because he was mistakenly lavished with praise for his role in a Boston police strike that he actually bungled as governor of Massachusetts. Moreover, Coolidge seems to have been a devoted, if domineering, husband, a man who insisted on monitoring his wife’s whereabouts at all times and who, shortly after they were married, presented her with a bag containing 52 pairs of socks that needed mending. (Try that with Hillary sometime.)
So what, then, do Clinton and Coolidge have in common? The answer lies mostly in the fit between the men and their times. More than any other Presidents of this century, both embraced a diminished role for the governments they ran, remaining largely content to celebrate the private energies and ambitions that coursed through America in their eras.
And there are some striking similarities between the Americas of Bill Clinton and Calvin Coolidge. The 1920s were a period of tremendous technological advancements that fundamentally altered the way most people lived. Coolidge’s main reaction to them, like Clinton’s to the wonders of the age of the Internet, was mostly to marvel at what science and business had wrought and get out of the way of future progress. Like Clinton, Coolidge took office on the heels of a government that had consciously repudiated years of progressive reforms and made a point of passing massive tax cuts for the wealthy. Also like Clinton, he was even more faithful to this legacy than its progenitors, keeping the federal budget nearly flat and greatly reducing the national debt.