Clinton’s Legacy

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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.

During Coolidge’s administration, the peacetime army shriveled away, far more than under Clinton’s. He did nothing to police the runaway stock market or to redress the grievances of organized labor, largely demolished by big business soon after World War I. His Justice Department took no real action against the bold new crime syndicates that flourished under Prohibition. Again and again, Coolidge made clear his view that government had little place in most fields of human endeavor. Facing a wrenching nationwide farm depression that had persisted since the end of World War I, he only asked rhetorically, “When a man can’t make any money in a business, what does he do?”

WHAT DO CLINTON AND COOLIDGE HAVE IN COMMON? THE ANSWER LIES MOSTLY IN THE FIT BETWEEN THE MEN AND THEIR TIMES.

His approach to foreign relations was nearly as callous, letting his Secretary of State conclude a meaningless pact that “outlawed” war while doing little to help Europe through its postwar shambles or to confront Japan’s expansionist impulses in the Far East.

Yet Coolidge maintained a real idealism about the modern industrial world. He meant it when he told the Society of American Newspaper Editors, “The chief business of the American people is business,” and when he proclaimed, “The man who builds a factory, builds a temple. And the man who works there worships there.” There is in such statements a sort of rapture that dovetails with nothing so much as Bill Clinton’s eager reveries about building his “bridge to the twenty-first century.” And much as Clinton’s opponents may scoff, he seems to have meant it, too, when he announced, “The era of big government is over.”

It is doubtful that Calvin Coolidge would consider our government to be small. But it is Clinton, after all, who has run a sort of modern equivalent of a limited federal government—balancing the budget, ending the welfare state, and letting dreams of national health care expire—though entitlements alone preclude shrinkage to anything like the scale of things in Coolidge’s day.

As for foreign policy, Clinton has hardly been as cynically isolationist as Coolidge was. Indeed, his concerted pursuit of peace in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere has won support all over the globe. Still, he can be seen as at times having subordinated principles to narrower trade objectives, as in his abandoning his campaign promises to make civil liberties and the environment part of major trade agreements.

And it is Clinton who has reversed a trend of some 70 years by overseeing a transfer of power from the nation’s political capital, Washington, to its financial capital, New York. Wall Street has not held such a position of ascendancy in our country since, well, Calvin Coolidge. Perhaps the seismic proportions of this shift alone will induce historians to bump old Bill up a notch or two on some future classroom Web site. Or maybe not. Within months of Coolidge’s retirement from public life, after all, the Depression had altered forever the future that he thought business alone would take care of.

What had seemed like prudent, limited government just a couple of years earlier looked like simply passing the buck. In the years ahead, America would sorely want for a social safety net and effective law enforcement, a better balance of power between labor and management, and a reasonable military deterrent.