Presidents on the Links

NEWS of what happened when President Clinton played a friendly round of golf with former Presidents Bush and Ford this week seems like a story Bob Hope would conjure up on the way to a punch line. But it was a real event, and complete with its own drama. Despite a warning to spectators from Mr. Ford to ''stay behind us,'' both he and Mr. Bush plunked people in the gallery. Mr. Clinton, for his part, played ''political golf'' by keeping all his shots down the middle.

The good-natured playfulness of the three presidents at the charity golf tournament gave the nation a bit of ''comity relief'' from the perpetual political backbiting in Washington. There, Clinton is in his usual crisis mode: defending his nominee for surgeon general, threatening a veto or two, and trying to shake the idea that, like his golfing partners, he will prove to be a one-term president.

A recent poll showed most Americans don't want Clinton to run for reelection. Some critics argue that because of his many mistakes, both personal and public, he has lost and can never reclaim the kind of moral authority a president needs. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana summed up Clinton this week as a man of ''towering strengths, but also such appalling faults.''

Americans seem to want their presidents to bear their burdens with a smile. And the president does seem to have abandoned complaining about his critics. He at least appears as though he's enjoying the job.

He expresses admiration for President Truman, who managed to be effective despite a Congress controlled by the opposing party. But if Clinton pauses to reflect on his office this Presidents' Day weekend, he might take some comfort from the trials of an even earlier president. Early in his political career, when he opposed the 1848 war with Mexico, he was labeled unpatriotic and ''a second Benedict Arnold.'' He won only 40 percent of the presidential vote in a four-way race, hardly a mandate. Privately, he held out little hope that he could ever be reelected. He was accused of ''waffling'' on the great social issue of the day, slavery, ''adapting his emphasis to place, moment, and occasion,'' according to scholar Andrew Delbanco. Critics called him ''an incompetent oaf'' and a ''gorilla.''

That president was, of course, Abraham Lincoln.

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