At the end of Bill Clinton's first term an impressive group of president-watchers, led by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., could give the president no better than an "average" grade for his performance thus far. They simply couldn't find Clinton accomplishing very much in either foreign or domestic affairs. And search as they did, they could discover no element of greatness in the Clinton presidency.
Now, with Clinton well launched into his second term, the question inevitably must be asked: Has he done anything to lift himself out of his hole of mediocrity?
The easy answer here is "no." His scrambling to the political right has scored him some dubious victories - his claim of presidential triumphs in balancing the budget, reducing taxes, and putting through welfare reform (actually signed into law near the end of his first term) is one that must be shared with the Republican-led Congress. Historians will note that he really was fulfilling GOP initiatives when he marked up these as his own achievements. His skill in moving toward compromise will indeed be noted: But this is not the stuff of greatness.
Yet I sense a new judgment of Clinton emerging - one that puts him in a better light. As I was surfing the radio channels the otrher morning I landed by chance on a program of an observer who invariably is bashing Clinton. Yet - surprisingly - I heard him comment on how well the economy was faring and then adding that Clinton may end up as being viewed by history as the President who presided over America's "golden years." Could it be possible that just being president may rescue Clinton from a "C" grade and elevate him to the standing of one of our better presidents? I can hear the chorus of Clinton's critics shouting, "No." But we shall see.
Just the other day Jack Valenti, the one-time righthand man of President Lyndon Johnson, gave this assessment of Clinton: "He's the most formidable leader we've had since Lyndon Johnson. He'd like it said that he's like Kennedy. But he's more like Johnson than any president I've known."
Then Valenti provided this prediction of Clinton's place in history: "Twenty-five years from now they will be talking about the Clinton era of prosperity - this unprecedented period of prosperity."
Sure, Valenti is a Democrat who would be expected to look as favorably as he possibly could on a Democratic president, particularly one who has proved a good friend of Hollywood - where Valenti for years has served as its principal spokesman to the world.
But White House officials of previous Democratic administrations (Schlesinger was at President Kennedy's side) have been slow to praise Clinton. They aren't numbered among Clinton's buddies and - the ones I've talked to - are unhappy with the way he has, in their estimation, become the champion of too many GOP-produced initiatives.
This leads us to the final question: Can Clinton become the memorable president he aspires to be? Perhaps.
But I disagree with Valenti when he compares Clinton with Johnson in terms of accomplishment. Johnson put through major civil rights legislation and important programs that lifted the lives of the elderly, poor, and disadvantaged. Where are Clinton's great programs? He tried with a national health insurance program. But we all know that he got nowhere with that.
However, I think that Valenti was right when he predicted that Clinton, at least in time, may become the president of the "Golden Years." But we are talking about becoming a remembered president - not about greatness. In my opinion, Clinton must yet mark up some major accomplishment if he even is going to get a better grade - perhaps a B - from the Schlesinger group when it convenes after he leaves office. Also, at the same time, he must somehow avoid being tarred by all those charges of misconduct that are pointing in his direction.