Four More Years?

July 11 1996 3:30 AM

Four More Years?

What history tells us about presidents' second terms.

(Continued from Page 1)

Another issue for a second Clinton term is one that is always important in understanding this president--his psychological and emotional frame of mind. There is no reason to expect that the pattern of self-discipline alternating with grandiosity threading his political career has ended. Before his first election as governor in 1978, Clinton was brilliantly successful in dispelling Arkansans' worries about his youth and Georgetown-Oxford-Yale education, his McGovern experience, and his liberal friends. As we now know from legend, once elected governor, Clinton quickly managed to anger the people of his state with the impression that he considered himself a president-in-waiting, too large a political figure to stay long in such a backwater.


The same syndrome was writ large over 1993. After winning only 43 percent of the vote--less than Michael Dukakis--Clinton seemed to ignore the election results, which suggested that a vast number of voters had serious doubts about him and that he was something of a provisional president. Instead, he conducted his first few months in office with the imperial presumption (no earlier president invited premature historical comparisons by having events staged for himself at Monticello, the Kennedy grave, the Lincoln Memorial, and the FDR Library, all within a few weeks of his inauguration) and hefty legislative ambitions of a landslide president like the FDR he had studied and dreamed about since he was a teen-ager. Might Clinton indulge himself on an even grander scale once he knows he need never confront a national electorate again?

Clinton would be fully in tune with history if he followed those re-elected presidents who have overreached. It was in the fifth year of their respective presidencies that FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court, Nixon orchestrated the most sordid parts of the Watergate coverup, and Reagan's men schemed in Iran-Contra. This summer's FBI-file revelations may prove a useful inoculation against any fierce desire that may lurk within Clinton, his wife, or his close circle to use the re-elected president's power to avenge the personal and political humiliations of the past two years.

A more inspiring possibility for a second-term Clinton is that we might see a new willingness to ignore the polls. When advisers to Clinton's hero John F. Kennedy proposed daring initiatives such as withdrawing from Vietnam or endorsing "Red" Chinese admission to the United Nations, their president often replied, "Wait until 1965!" JFK was suggesting that once free of the need to be re-elected and with a stronger Democratic majority in Congress, he would be more able to take courageous stands than he could as a first-term president, elected by a hairbreadth and with a potent Southern Democrat-Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.

Whether, when that big moment arrived, Kennedy actually would have thrown his extreme political self-protectiveness to the winds is questionable. Eager to elect his brother Robert and other Kennedys to high public office, he may not have been so blithely willing to spend his popularity. As far as we know, Clinton has no presidential ambitions for his brother Roger or other relatives. Any Hillary boomlet that once existed now is extinguished. A second-term Clinton might be far more willing than JFK would ever have been to take the heat for risky, unpopular decisions. As one of the most voracious readers to occupy the Oval Office, Clinton knows that in the arena of history, that is how presidents swing for the fences.

Illustration by Philip Burke



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.