Will Clinton go down in history  or down in flames?

Presidential historian Robert Dallek sounds a resounding "Who knows?"


Lori Leibovich
November 21, 1996 4:28PM (UTC)

the next four years will determine Bill Clinton's place in presidential history. Will he be ranked with Washington, Lincoln, and FDR? Or
will he end up consigned to the Millard
Fillmore/James Polk bin?

Salon asked Robert Dallek, presidential scholar and professor of history
at Boston University, to evaluate Clinton's strengths, weaknesses and
prospects as he enters his second term. In his book "Hail to The Chief: The
Making and Unmaking of American Presidents," recently published by Hyperion,
Dallek claims that a great president must have five qualities: vision, pragmatism, ability to achieve consensus, charisma and trustworthiness.

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Bill Clinton seems to be concerned about his place in history. What
do you think that place will be? What would it have been if he had
only been elected to one term?

If he had been only elected for one term I think he would be remembered as
nothing more than an average president. He'd join the crowd of faceless,
nameless men who served in that office like Chester Arthur, Benjamin
Harrison, and so on. What you need to remember is
that of the 41 men who have served in the office, only 14, and now Bill
Clinton makes 15, have been elected to a second term. Only 11 of
them have served two full terms. So Clinton will be in pretty heady company.

Clinton told the New York Times last summer that he hoped he'd be seen
as a Theodore Roosevelt kind of president. I think his aim is to do big
things in his second term. That is why I think he will turn more and more
to foreign policy, because in foreign affairs he'll have more running room.
Presidents are remembered for doing something that resonates Social
Security or Medicare, civil rights or a major immigration statute.

How does President Clinton rate on the "vision thing?"

Bill Clinton has been pretty weak on this count. He has been a
good, strong, pragmatic president, but he has not been a keen visionary. He
does small things. He tried to overhaul the health care system and that
fell on its face because he did not have a clear strategy.The presidents
who have been the most successful visionaries have had something a slogan
or a phrase that is understandable to the public. With Teddy Roosevelt it
was the "Square Deal," with Wilson the "New Freedom," with Kennedy the "New Frontier," with LBJ the "Great Society," and with Reagan the "Reagan
Revolution." It's very useful to have a catch phrase.

And "building a bridge to the 21st Century" just doesn't cut it?

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It sure doesn't.

It seems Clinton has been successful at articulating a vision of racial
healing, for example in his speeches after the church burnings.

I met Clinton's principal speech writer last March and he asked me how I
thought the administration was doing in terms of articulating a message. I
said, "Well, you guys gave him a terrific speech in Austin about the
Million Man March where you used the phrase 'One America.' There was the
catch phrase." But they didn't carry it off; they didn't sustain it.

Is the president pragmatic enough to be considered a great leader?

Every great president has been a great pragmatist, or a great
opportunist a man who responded to the changing political/economic/social
realities of his time. FDR was brilliant at this. Herbert Hoover called him
a chameleon on plaid. It is a good description for how these fellows shift
and maneuver.

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Lyndon Johnson was a great pragmatist. Here's an anecdote: In 1958, when
he was vice president, Richard Nixon went to Latin America. He was spat on
and almost killed, and then he came home to a hero's welcome at
Andrews Air Force base. Johnson, who was the majority leader, met his plane
and embraced him on the tarmac. A couple of days later, a reporter caught
up with Johnson on Capitol Hill. He said, "Senator, I saw you out there at
the airport the other day, embracing Vice President Nixon. I thought you
told me a few weeks ago that this guy was nothing but chickenshit."
Johnson said, "Son, what you've got to understand is that in politics,
overnight, chickenshit can turn into chicken salad."

What is also important to note is that when you have no vision and you
are the consummate pragmatist, you are known as "Slick Willy." Clinton is
seen as an opportunist. This is destructive to your hold on the public
imagination. If you have keen vision, or a larger purpose or design, the
country is very forgiving of your opportunism. They see it as pragmatic.
Because you're doing it in the service of that larger goal. So, the two are
bound together.

I think Clinton has been pretty good as a pragmatist. We see that with
the way he responded to the Republican victory and the Republican Congress
in 1994-1996. I'd give him high marks as a pragmatist and failing marks as
a visionary.

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What about the ability to achieve consensus, another characteristic you describe as essential to presidential greatness?

Clinton's failure is that he had no clear vision of what to do even though he did
have a consensus for health care reform. The public, according to the polls, did want the
system changed. Clinton couldn't find a way to turn his proposal into something concrete.
But even though he failed on health care, Clinton generally has been mindful of
the need for consensus.

Some people were very disappointed with Clinton at the beginning of
his first term because of the liberal-leaning policies he tried to
implement. Do you think that his proclivity for consensus is genuine, or is
he a closet liberal waiting to emerge?

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I think he probably is more liberal and progressive than he lets on,
especially on things like civil rights and affirmative action. But he's
also the consummate politician.

You also discuss charisma, or the power of a president's
personality.

This is absolutely especially in this age of modern media an essential
requirement of effective leadership. Theodore Roosevelt, the first of our
modern presidents, had the bully pulpit. Woodrow Wilson gave speeches that
people said were so lyrical you could have danced to them. FDR had fireside
chats. You've got to be connected to the public, but you also need to stand
on people's shoulders; you need to have a kind of aura.

Johnson was tremendously grandiose and offensive. When the German chancellor
visited him at his ranch, he said to him, "Mr. President, I
understand you were born in a log cabin?" Johnson said, "No, you have me
confused with Abe Lincoln. I was born in a manger." Reagan, on the other hand,
was much loved. After the assassination attempt, the reporters wrote stories
telling how he said to Mrs. Reagan, "Honey, I forgot to duck." That
endeared him to people. He became the Teflon president.

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Bill Clinton is very good on this count. He is a narcissistic
personality. When he speaks to people, he gets into their skin. He responds
to them as if they are the only person on the earth.

What about trust and credibility? This is an area where almost
everyone agrees Clinton is lacking.

Trust is very much tied to charisma, to the whole issue of character.
What I say in the book is that a president who really loses the trust of
the public can't govern. The day Richard Nixon had to tell the country "I
am not a crook" was the day his presidency failed.

FDR enjoyed the trust of the public. Reagan had a kind of trust. Bill Clinton has not done particularly well on this count.
On the other hand, I think he's been served by the fact that people in this
country in general are so antagonistic towards politicians
that this issue has become sort of muted.

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Which president do you think Clinton resembles the most?

As a one-term president, I don't know, maybe Grover Cleveland?
Cleveland was sort of a conservative Democrat, a solid citizen, but not a
great performer.

How about personality-wise?

Depending on how the second term pans out he might rival a Woodrow
Wilson, a Theodore Roosevelt or a John Kennedy; I think he does spec-up with
the most effective of our presidents on that count. But it is not enough.
To really be seen as a truly great or effective president, all five
components have to come together.

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Quote of the day

Stallone's makeover diet

"Every day for breakfast, I eat five or six hotcakes, an order of French
toast, a bowl of oatmeal, two bagels with peanut butter, and ten eggs, two
yolks."

Former hardbody and wouldbe taken-seriously actor Sylvester
Stallone, describing for Susan Faludi the regimen he undertook to play a
flabby role in the forthcoming film "Copland." (From "The Masculine Mystique" in the December 1996 Esquire.)


Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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