When Leaders Change History

Article excerpt

Byline: Sean Wilentz

Time and again, presidents have redefined themselves with dramatic action.

In the early spring of 1995, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was riding high, and President Bill Clinton was in deep political trouble. Gingrich's Republican troops on Capitol Hill were busy enacting their "Contract With America," and Clinton looked pathetic, begging even to be heard. "The Constitution gives me relevance," he informed a press conference on April 18.

The next day, Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the arc of Clinton's presidency changed utterly. The fevers of right-wing politics suddenly broke; Clinton seized the opportunity to become the emblem of national reconciliation; a president on the ropes took command of his presidency and set off for reelection.

The killing of Osama bin Laden is certainly a dramatic moment. And repeatedly in the past, sudden events of equal or greater importance have helped transform presidencies that looked either beleaguered or distracted, much as the raid in Abbottabad may reinvigorate President Obama's flagging administration.

Abraham Lincoln had been planning in mid-1862 to issue an order emancipating Southern slaves but lacked the public support in the North that only a Union victory could bring. Then, on Sept. 17, Union and Confederate forces met at Antietam Creek. Gen. Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland had been thwarted, and it was victory enough for Lincoln to release his preliminary emancipation proclamation five days later, thereby transforming his presidency and the Union's stated war aims. …