Clio And The Clintons

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On a busy Wednesday morning last August, President and Mrs. Clinton found an hour to speak with me in the Oval Office of the White House. Defense Secretary William Perry and Attorney General Janet Reno were preparing for a live noontime conference in the West Wing press room to announce new legal policy regarding Cuban refugees; the taken-for-dead crime bill would finally pass the fol- lowing day; the tumult over the future of the President’s health-care proposals was still very much in the air. We discussed none of these things, however, instead talking about history, its lessons and comforts, and what it has meant to the first couple.

 

When the editors at American Heritage magazine and I were talking and thinking about this article, we decided we wanted to look at the forces of history that may have influenced both of you, that may nourish you now, that may provide support and a sense of direction and perhaps a sense of comfort in difficult times. So, particularly this complicated week, the first question I might ask you is, have you looked to other Presidents who have had difficulty getting legislation through Congress, Presidents like Woodrow Wilson, for example, with his particular dream for the League of Nations?

Yes, of course. Wilson didn’t actually live to see his dream fulfilled, because we mismanaged our affairs after World War I. Sometimes you can be too far ahead of your time. But after World War II we did have the United Nations. And for all its limitations and all its problems, it’s played a major role, I think, in making the world a more peaceful and more human place.

I think the period in modern American history most comparable to this is probably the one right after World War II. At the end of any era, people are called upon to look to the future, and yet there’s a tendency to look inward, to relax, to just be thankful that the old order is gone away without thinking about what the new world must look like.

At the end of World War I, we made the wrong choice. You know, we wound up with all kinds of problems, not only the Depression and World War II and all of that, but we gave in to some of our darker impulses. So we had the first big Red Scare, and the Ku Klux Klan was doing well.

And at the end of World War II, Truman took a terrible beating and didn’t get everything done he tried to do. He never did pass health care, for example, for all Americans. But he did lay the foundations for economic recovery at home and for a commitment to more racial equality and for the institutions that led to the recovery of Europe and Japan and the system that ultimately permitted us to win the Cold War.

But when you’re challenging people to make changes, changes that have a long-term future benefit against entrenched forces, you have to expect to be stoutly opposed, often misunderstood, and sometimes defeated. You just have to accept that. That’s a part of history. And you have to govern in the times in which you live and deal with it the best you can.

So for inspiration you look to Truman and what he went through?

Yes. Because I’m from Arkansas and Truman was from Missouri, and because a lot of the political people of my youth were big Truman supporters—you know our state voted for him in 1948, when a lot of the South abandoned him—I’ve always had an awareness of Truman’s legacy. And he’s always been one of my four or five favorite Presidents.

But I think that I must say I was never so aware of the similarities in our situation until I actually became President and realized that the sort of deep ambivalence the American people have now—wanting us to take charge and move forward into the future but still easily diverted because of their deep-seated suspicions about government and whether anybody in Washington can do anything right.

Is there a way to redirect history? Or do you think there are just cycles? There’s a theory that the American people go through general historical cycles in their response to change.

Yes, they do, but leaders and people can make a difference, and not just the President but the other great institutions of society. What kinds of leaders are in Congress? What do they do and say? What is the role of the American press? What does it do and say? Does it feed on the fears and cynicisms of the American people? Or does it basically proceed in challenging us to do better?

History proceeds in cycles to some extent, but also every time is different, and the outcome is not foreordained. I mean, it really does make a difference who’s there and what they do.

“I have always been, from childhood, captivated by the figure of Lincoln”
 

We mentioned Wilson earlier. One reason he lost his fight for the League of Nations was that he would not accept any compromises whatsoever.

The trick is to be firm on your principles and direction and flexible in dealing with people who have the power either to help you further that direction or to derail it. I mean, it’s interesting. Compromise is very often given a bad name in popular circles today. And yet our system was set up to mandate compromise in ways that most governmental democracies weren’t.