June 9, 2005


The 'Third Tier' Years (Richard Cohen, June 7, 2005, Washington Post)

Not too long ago I went up to Harlem to see Bill Clinton. Our talk was off the record, so I cannot tell you what he said, but I can say -- can't I? -- that he was smart and encyclopedic and wise and knowledgeable. As always, I was impressed, but then, shortly afterward, I read "The Survivor," John Harris's smoothly readable new book about the Clinton presidency, and I could hear the air going out of a balloon and the soft, weary voice of Peggy Lee singing, "Is that all there is?" In Clinton's case the answer apparently is yes.

It's hard to describe the disconnect, the contrast, between Bill Clinton the man and Bill Clinton's two-term presidency. The charm, the brilliance, the sureness and all the rest somehow produced a presidency that never lived up to its potential. I say that with considerable reluctance, since to give Clinton no better than a grade of C is, somehow, to legitimize his critics. That is more than I intend -- and much more than they deserve.

But Harris has written a brief that is hard to ignore. It does not come this time from either a Clinton partisan or enemy but from a Post reporter who covered his presidency and whose fairness -- he has no dog in the fight about Clinton -- cannot be doubted. His, in fact, is the first book about the Clinton presidency that comes from an objective journalist or historian. As such, it is bound to set the standard for those that follow.

If so, the initial historical ranking of Clinton will be pretty much what Dick Morris said it would be back in 1996. In one of his routine phone calls to the president, Morris said he had been thinking about Clinton's place in history. Of the 40 men who had preceded Clinton, Morris said, only 18 had truly made history and only five of those -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson and FDR -- qualified as "first tier." As for Clinton, Morris had to tell his friend he was "borderline third tier." Nothing that happened in the next four years moved Clinton up.

Wilson? Even Bill Clinton was a much better president than Wilson. Mr, Clinton was our era's Grover Cleveland--a moderate Democrat aberration in the midst of a Republican epoch.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 9, 2005 3:38 PM

I thought of Clinton as the Democratic version of Warren G. Harding. Harding said before his nomination: "America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration ...," which certainly sounds Clintonesque. A Democratic leader, William Gibbs McAdoo, called Harding's speeches "an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea." Harding's administration was riddled with scandal, like Clinton's.

Posted by: jd watson at June 9, 2005 9:00 PM

I thought Clinton was the least president of the Democratic epoch starting.

Posted by: Governor Breck at June 9, 2005 10:05 PM

Wait, let me try again:
I thought Clinton was the last president of the Democratic epoch.

Posted by: Governor Breck at June 9, 2005 10:07 PM


Your first was just as correct. Carter and LBJ may have wreaked havoc on the Republic (and the world), but Clinton merely floated on through his era, leaving the least impression of all.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 9, 2005 10:21 PM

He and Evita are the epitome of 60s boomers, all about me Marxist.

Posted by: Sandy P. at June 9, 2005 11:15 PM


In a few years you'll back and it may well be that even Carter is seen as an aberration in a GOP epoch.

Posted by: oj at June 10, 2005 12:19 AM
« HUTS? (via bboys): | Main | BIOLOGY'S BELLARMINES (via Robert Schwartz): »