December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
WHICH PRESIDENT WILL HISTORY COMPARE HIM MOST CLOSELY TO?
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.
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?”
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.
It may be that the bridge to the twentyfirst century will also require some rapid and bewildering adjustments, that building a global economy will take more than a few free-trade agreements, that we will face wars in which significant casualties are a real possibility, and that preserving human rights and liberties will require a concerted effort by the people, deciding their destiny through their elected representatives, not just the marketplace or the Internet. Of course, if Clinton too finds that the new era is not what he anticipated, don’t expect him to admit it. These days the first thing former Presidents do is sit down in their presidential libraries, write their memoirs, and make their own cases. But what history suggests Bill Clinton will do with his life after the Oval Office is a subject we’ll take up next time.