Can Clinton Leave Legacy As Nation's 'First Brother'?


Thomas Jefferson once called being president "a splendid misery." Woodrow Wilson likened it to being "a superior kind of slave."

Throughout the history of the American presidency, just about every occupant of the office has uttered something of the sort. By 1980, after a series of unsuccessful presidencies, political observers wondered if the job had grown too big for any one person. The imperial presidency had given way to the imperiled presidency.

President Reagan put those fears to rest. He showed that a chief executive can carry out an agenda, communicate effectively, and "still go horseback riding on Wednesday afternoons," says Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president in 1988.

Now, as the nation embarks on another four years under President Clinton, the Democrats have their opportunity to show that they too can govern successfully in the modern era. But after an inconclusive first term, can Clinton distinguish himself in a second, especially with a Republican Congress? Has Clinton already made his mark on the office?

A series of interviews with leading thinkers and political figures reveals a paradoxical picture of the American presidency - an office both enhanced and diminished by the end of the cold war and a current occupant who is at once ordinary and extraordinary.

One scene has become a defining moment of Clinton's political life. In April 1994, he appeared on an MTV-sponsored youth forum. One young woman asks what kind of underwear he prefers. Clinton answers, unflinching, eager to please.

Both ends of the exchange are extraordinary - first, that someone would even ask a presidential candidate such a personal question, and second, that the candidate would answer. But this is the 1990s, when we know more about our leaders in "real time" than ever before, and the tabloidization of the mainstream media has lowered the boundaries of good taste.

"Bill Clinton has made the office more personal than it was before," says David Mason, a presidential observer at the Heritage Foundation, who notes that the personalization of the presidency has been developing for decades. "A lot of it has to do with American culture and television and people's desire for immediacy."

Of course, answering the underwear question isn't the end of the world, Mr. Mason adds, "but it changes the nature of people's understanding of the office, and frankly, not in a good way."

Benjamin Barber, a cultural scholar at Rutgers University and informal consultant to the White House, sees the positive as well as the negative in a president who has made personal confession a hallmark. "In a good sense, he has allowed us to see his ordinariness," says Mr. Barber. "The presidency has been de-heroized. But to some degree, the office has also been demeaned."

Barber theorizes that Clinton is, in some ways, our first "brother president." If our preceding leaders have been somewhat distant father figures, then Clinton is more the protective older brother. Part of it has to do with Clinton's youth and informality, but his election in the first place also reflects how society has become increasingly democratic.

In the post-cold-war world, where the threat of nuclear annihilation is greatly diminished, the need for a "proud, dignified patriarch" is also reduced - thus, the public's rejection of George Bush and Bob Dole, Barber suggests.

Still, many observers note, the end of the cold war has made the president's stewardship of foreign policy more complicated, and has enhanced the president's role in the world as the leader of the only remaining superpower.

"If there was one thing about the cold war, whether you liked it or not, life was reasonably simple," says John Lewis Gaddis, a historian of the cold war at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Former President Gerald Ford notes that in the cold-war era, and in the years leading to its end, "the president was the focal point of negotiations vis vis the Soviet Union.... Now the president doesn't get as intimately involved in foreign policy."

Clinton's focus on domestic policy is likely to continue in his second term. In a major speech last month, he identified balancing the budget, improving education, and "bringing the underclass into the American mainstream" as top priorities of his second term.

But if history is any guide, he may well enhance his focus on foreign affairs, as second-term presidents have done before him. One variation on the second-term foreign-policy theme may be to expand Vice President Gore's role in international relations, as a way to enhance Gore's stature on his way to the 2000 election.

Clinton clearly sees a President Gore as part of his legacy. But, even as Clinton stands knee-deep in ethical troubles, he has also voiced the hope that he will hold a place in history on a par with Theodore Roosevelt. That's a tall order, but an array of distinguished observers offer suggestions on how to make a mark:

William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency: First, NATO expansion. "The greatest strategic alignment in European history ... was the reunification of Germany within NATO." The "unfinished piece" is the consolidation of central European states. Second, develop a coherent contingency plan for political collapse in North Korea and for Korean reunification.

Ford: Stick with middle-of-the-road policies while working toward solutions for Social Security and Medicare.

Barber: Help Americans address the growing globalization of the economy.

Mason: Radical tax reform.

Dukakis: Address the insecurity of working Americans. "If people can say, four years from now, 'I'm feeling a lot better about my life, I'm feeling a lot better about my country, I'm feeling a lot better about my community,' then Clinton will have made his mark."

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