For whatever reason, remembering specific dates comes naturally to me. Accordingly, I can recall without effort that the day I met President Clinton and shook his hand was June 28, 2018. We had the chance to talk for about a minute or two. I explained to him that I’m a presidential historian and that I’d been within a few feet of four other presidents – and had nonverbal communication with two of them – but never had I actually shaken a president’s hand. Ever warm and personable, Clinton, still gripping my hand, gave it an extra shake for effect, and replied: “well, it’s high time!”
Appropriately then, considering that many historians suggest waiting 20 years until a president has left office to evaluate him with the requisite dispassionate approach, it is high time to assess the Clinton presidency, which ended 20 years and four months ago.
Clinton served two terms and presided over favorable levels of peace and prosperity, achieved a federal budget surplus, was impeached for lying under oath and, though not convicted, was stripped of his license to practice law, and nonetheless left office with high enough approval ratings to have remained the presumptive favorite to win a third term if a constitutional amendment hadn’t prevented him from trying (only former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell polled higher at the time).
Given Clinton’s lengthy and complex presidency, a worthy evaluation of it would span a book, not merely a single weekly column. Accordingly, I won’t use this column’s space this week to provide a thumbnail sketch of how good or bad a job Clinton did in the White House. Instead, I’ll make the case that my colleagues in the presidential history biz have a point when they say waiting 20 years before passing judgment is the way to go.
When asked “who is the worst president ever?” many Americans nowadays will be quick to say Donald Trump. Many others will say Barack Obama, or Joe Biden. Fewer, but still many, may say George W. Bush. But a lot fewer would identify the senior (George H.W.) Bush, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, William Howard Taft, Rutherford B. Hayes, or many others, including Clinton, as the worst of them all. And what do all those presidents who appear on the ‘worst’ radar have in common? They’ve all been out of office for at least 20 years.
Bill Clinton in his day was hated by many. The Republican right seethed when he wrested the presidency from George H.W. Bush, and when Clinton and Al Gore easily coasted to reelection against one of the party’s stalwarts, Sen. (KS) Bob Dole, and his brilliant and indefatigable running mate, Jack Kemp, who had been everything from a football star to a congressman to secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Clinton was also beloved by many more. While in office, Clinton was called “the worst” president but also “the best” – as are many if not most incumbents during their tenure – but not so much nowadays.
History has a way of tempering extreme emotional reactions. Much like teenagers who proclaim “the greatest concert ever” was the one from which they just emerged, Americans as a whole tend to exaggerate their presidents’ assets and liabilities.
A combination of premise, spin, and a desire to commit to a particular point of view rather than complicate things by finding flaws in it results in whether we revere or denounce our presidents.
Let’s take our current chief executive, Joe Biden. He’s only been in office a few months, but so far it is a tale of two diametrically opposed narratives. The Biden-bashers will tell you that he’ll destroy our country (destroy being the preeminent choice word of all [dis]loyal opposition lingo), not necessarily because he wants to or is even aware, but because he’s powerless to stop the Marxist totalitarian radicals who have hijacked the otherwise dimwitted but generally patriotic traditional tax-and-spend Democratic Party.
By that standard, Biden could very well be the worst president ever; that is, until we hear from the Biden supporters. While few would contend that Biden was their first choice, they’re downright giddy that they no longer have to suffer as marionettes in Trump’s psychodrama, and so they gleefully embrace Biden’s eminent anti-Trump persona.
They find Biden to be delightfully boring, off-kilter, aw-shucks apologetic, and sensible. Biden is as bland and safe an unbuttered, unsalted, boiled potato as they come, but that’s manna from heaven compared to Trump, a piece of steak his supporters may find mouth-watering, but whose detractors swear is laden with Mad Cow Disease.
The point is that 20 years from now, there will be new heroes and demons, and Trump and Biden will be names that escape the new generation.
Harry Truman holds the modern-day record for the president with the lowest approval ratings since such data was formally recorded, yet one would be hard-pressed to find many Americans who can even hazard a guess as to why. The aforementioned President Ford was vilified for pardoning his predecessor, Richard Nixon, to prevent the latter from being subjected to criminal prosecution even after he made the ultimate sacrifice of abdicating the presidency. It was only after Ford’s death in 2006 that those who excoriated him for the Nixon pardon – not least of all Democratic pit bull Sen. (MA) Ted Kennedy – acknowledged in hindsight that Ford’s decision was indeed the best course of action to help heal a wounded nation.
Arguably the most poignant example of why we ought to wait a good long while before evaluating presidents is that the most despised president during his time in office is also the one most presidential historians rank at the very top of the heap: Abraham Lincoln. And for those who quip that: “yeah, but Trump (or Biden) really is the worst president ever, and all the waiting in the world isn’t going to change that,” all I can say is: read a little history, because we’ve all heard that one before.