Clinton Faces The Curse
Of Peace And Prosperity
By Hugh Sidey/TIME
WASHINGTON (Jan. 14) -- The perils of second terms for presidents have been chronicled and Bill Clinton has been their student. But there is something more now awaiting the 50-year-old Arkansan and that too has him concerned. It is the curse of prosperity, well-being and peace, both at home and abroad. Our democracy seems to function better in times of adversity. More important, perhaps, to a president who has been a student of history and wishes to climb to the stars, the evidence suggests it is very hard to walk among the greats if there is no war or depression or other major calamity.
Indeed, the correlation of disappointment of presidents to lead the nation and sometimes the world in those times is even more alarming than the challenges which come from hanging around the Oval Office for a second term and appearing like a house guest who has overstayed his welcome. (We've studied his haircuts, know how his wife dresses and heard his jokes.)
By some calculations, there have been only two other times in our history when we have enjoyed such general tranquility and prosperity. The presidents of those eras were Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929). Both men have been largely dismissed by historians and put in the lower ranks of competence. And both have become the butt of jokes of hundreds of Washington toastmasters and humorists over the years. When Will Rogers went to a White House reception he gripped the proferred hand of Coolidge and said, "I didn't catch the name."
Only one president, Theodore Roosevelt, who came at a time of general well-being and peace, seemed to avoid the curse. By sheer dint of his muscular personality and intellect he defined the time (1901-1905) when America became a mover and shaker in the world. Clinton has his eye on TR in these hours before his inauguration and sees great parallels: the nation getting ready for a new century, changing its economy (TR: from agriculture to industry. Clinton: from industry to information), and searching for a cultural renewal based on enduring values.
But to gain the national attention and hold the interest with such subjects as Social Security and welfare and education will take a new language of engagement and inspiration.
Theodore Roosevelt admitted that in his time the U.S. was in an "heroic mood" and wanted what he had to offer. Rutherford B. Hayes was not so lucky 20 years earlier. He was a remarkable man. A Harvard lawyer, he rose from major to general in the Civil War, and had an excellent record as a congressman, governor and senator from Ohio. He had an enlightened outlook on race, criminal justice, native Americans, the new industrial economy and women's rights. But modern historians, says Richard Norton Smith, a biographer of George Washington, like crisis response and management and presidential swashbuckling. Hayes had no call for any of it. And history looked elsewhere for its White House heroes.
It is Bill Clinton's turn with the bittersweet understanding that around the White House right now things are so good they are bad.
Hugh Sidey, Washington Contributing Editor for TIME, has written about the American presidency for 40 years. Bill Clinton is the ninth president Sidey has known.