Four More Years?

articles
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.

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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

Michael R. Beschloss is a historian and the author of The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963, and other books on the Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Bush presidencies. He is also a regular commentator on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer.

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