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The Comeback Kid Needs an Encore

March 04, 2001|Bruce J. Schulman | Bruce J. Schulman, who teaches history and American studies at Boston University, is the author of "The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Politics and Society."

BOSTON — Retirement has not been kind to Bill Clinton. For eight years, the president's political skills and job-approval ratings sustained him through repeated crises. The American public set aside doubts about his conduct and character, forgiving all as the president adroitly managed the economy and outmaneuvered extremists in the Republican Congress and within his own party.

But Clinton can no longer woo the press and people with his accomplishments. He cannot distract attention from his troubles by ordering airstrikes, undercut his opponents by signing a welfare reform bill or put his enemies on the defensive with a State of the Union address pledging to "save Social Security first." The public opinion polls that protected him through repeated scandals and merciless attacks from bitter enemies no longer matter now that he lacks a public role. Stripped of the power and perquisites of high office, he stands naked, disgraced, almost friendless.

Clinton's fall underscores the bifurcated nature of his presidency, the remarkable ways that public achievements repeatedly saved the man from ruin. The transition to private life has blown all that apart. Many steadfast supporters, even those who defended him passionately during the impeachment imbroglio, have deserted their former leader in the wake of his controversial pardons.

In this respect, Clinton marks a notable departure in U.S. political history. To be sure, Americans have long distinguished between the political performance and personal character of their chief executives, and the current age--in which presidents have become celebrities, questioned about their underwear preferences like a movie star promoting a new film--has only exacerbated this trend. But Clinton is unprecedented in the way respect for the public man has deflected disdain for the private one. Indeed, throughout U.S. history, it has normally been the other way around.

Clinton was not the first president to leave office under the cloud of scandal. Ulysses S. Grant, the great Union war hero, departed Washington amid similar feelings of disappointment and outrage. Grant entered the White House a national hero (at least outside the Southern states whose dreams of secession he had so effectively extinguished). Revered by African Americans and cheered by Northern Republicans who believed he would prosecute their ambitious plans for Reconstruction, Grant's administration quickly became mired in charges of corruption and incompetence. The freed slaves received little succor, the Confederate elite reclaimed political power in the South, and the president's own party fractured. The Republicans split in 1872 when a disgruntled faction joined with opposition Democrats in an effort to deny Grant reelection.

The constant criticism stung Grant, a man who shared Clinton's strong need to be loved. Two months after leaving the White House, Grant and his wife sailed for England. The Grants traveled the world for two years, receiving a hero's welcome from the crowned heads of Europe and the working men of the world. They toured the fjords of Scandinavia, the ruins of Pompeii, the pyramids of Egypt and the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Along the way, reporters described their epic travels to an adulatory audience back home. Eventually, the accounts became a book, "Around the World with General Grant," a lavishly illustrated two-volume work that filled fine drawing rooms and modest parlors across the United States.

Wherever Grant traveled, he appeared as the model of honest American virtue: free of pomp and ceremony, plain speaking, forthright. Grant refused a formal carriage when he visited Otto von Bismarck, Germany's iron chancellor, and, according to one newspaper account, "sauntered in a nonchalant way into the courtyard" of the palace, tossing aside "a half-smoked cigar" to acknowledge the salute of the guards. These displays of unaffected simplicity delighted American readers; indeed, Americans so cherished Grant the man--as opposed to Grant the president--that he entertained hopes of returning to Washington and winning a third term.

Herbert Hoover left office in even greater disgrace than Grant. No one questioned his morals; he remained a model of discipline, consistency and upright character. But Hoover carried the blame for the Great Depression, the nation's worst economic catastrophe, and seemed entirely unfit to cope with the crisis or to comfort his suffering people. Homeless families crowded in makeshift camps known as "Hoovervilles," and the old newspapers they used for warmth were derisively called "Hoover blankets." The nation gratefully and emphatically sent Hoover packing in 1932.

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