ONE WAY to think about the complexity of the Clinton presidency is to think about presidents. In our history, there has been little progress without great progressive presidents. Democracy has not advanced in a vacuum, a fable of natural unfolding, blessed by Providence. Nor has democracy grown as a simple response to popular pressure against the interests, the gloss of the progressive-era historians whose interpretation has transmuted into fragmentary identity politics and deconstructive cultural studies.
From the beginning, progressive politicians have struggled to gain the executive, to infuse it not only with energy but with previously untapped strengths, in order to galvanise the federal government to remake the nation and give it a new sense of itself. Only the president represents the whole nation; only the president can claim to speak for it. There would be no nation without the presidency. And this has been accomplished only through enormous struggles assumed by those who became the progressive presidents.
In each case the pattern has been similar. The rise to the office or its tenure provoked clashes raising the spectre of civil war or, at the least, profound constitutional crisis. The progressive presidents all allied themselves with the cultural and economic outsiders, especially immigrants. Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Jackson were slave-holders, divided figures therefore, but they ardently believed that diversity added to the dynamism of the country. For them, this was not merely a moral statement. It was a political one against those who would repress aliens and dissenters. They set themselves against a conservative temper, those fearful of difference and change, uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, defenders of special privilege, construing the nation in their own narrow image. In reaction to those who have sought to reanimate the federal government through capture of the presidency, conservative opposition has frequently crossed beyond conventional partisanship.
The United States did not appear out of thin air. It …