Defining the Presidency Down

By Brinkley, Alan | Newsweek, August 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

Defining the Presidency Down


Brinkley, Alan, Newsweek


Clinton longs to loom large. But his temperament and the peculiarities of the times are undercutting his bid for the history books.

The president," wrote the political scientist Clinton Rossiter in 1956, in his influential study "The American Presidency," is "a kind of magnificent lion, who can roam freely and do great deeds." That magisterial description sounds quaint in today's tawdry public culture; presidents are now more likely to be found consulting lawyers than conquering new worlds.

There is an air of tragedy around Bill Clinton. A son of the South, he grew up at the high-water mark of the federal government's effectiveness and popularity: the GI Bill, the construction of the interstate highways, the abolition of Jim Crow. By the time he got to Washington in the early 1990s, however, the great conflicts of the age had given way to partisan squabbling about domestic-spending caps. Gone was what FDR called "bold, persistent experimentation." Peace and prosperity are wonderful things--unless you're a president who longs to loom large in the historical imagination. More than most presidents, Clinton is acutely conscious of his potential place in history, which must make it particularly painful to him that his legacy will likely be undistinguished. At times the president must wonder how we have moved so quickly from Rossiter's imperial view of the White House--expressed just 40 years ago--to the sordidness of the present moment.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Clinton himself is the architect of much of his own, and our, misfortune. His apparently reckless personal behavior--and his evasiveness--has provided his critics with countless opportunities to discredit him and has eroded the respect, if not yet much of the affection, with which even many of his admirers view him.

But the responsibility also lies with our diminished time; these days, public life resembles a soap opera more than an epic. Whatever Clinton's personal or moral failings may be, they are almost surely no worse than those of many of his predecessors. He pays a higher price for them, however, because the traditional deference public figures once received has almost entirely disappeared. What the media once ignored, they now trumpet. What politicians once tolerated in one another, they now exploit. Much of the blame for Clinton's current dilemma has been correctly attributed to unprecedentedly zealous investigations. But the probes themselves are, at least in part, the product of a time in which public figures have become fodder for an adversarial political culture: the independent-counsel law, after all, was the fruit of Watergate, which, with Vietnam, helped destroy the genial postwar consensus in Washington. …

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