How will history rate Clinton?

It is no secret in Washington that President Clinton, an inveterate poll-watcher, was jolted back in late 1996 when a group of 32 historians, assembled by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., rated his performance thus far as worthy of only a "low-average" rating. He's been hopeful of bumping up his numbers in his second term. But has he done it?

Assessing the poll at that time Dr. Schlesinger, an eminent historian who once served at the side of President Kennedy, showed an acute understanding of the president when he wrote in The New York Times Magazine of the poll's findings:

"Clinton," wrote Schlesinger, "brings to the bar of history a rare combination of talents and infirmities. He is a man of penetrating intelligence. He has impressive technical mastery of complicated issues. He has genuine intellectual curiosity and listens as well as talks. He is a skilled and resilient politician. When the spirit moves him, he is capable of real eloquence, and the spirit moves him most of all when he confronts the supreme American problem - race relations. Racial justice appears to be his most authentic concern."

That sounds like a president of Lincolnesque stature - and, incidentally, these scholars rated Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt as the only "great" presidents. As "near-great" they chose Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman.

"On the other hand," Schlesinger wrote, "[Clinton] lacks self-discipline. His judgment of people is erratic. His political resilience strikes many as flagrant opportunism. His reactions are instinctively placatory. He rushes to propitiate the audience before him, often at his own expense. His scandals and cover-ups are ripe for exploitation by a vindictive opposition."

And then Schlesinger provided a forecast that was impressively perceptive: "Who can tell how this combination of talents and infirmities will play out. Clinton's second term offers at once the potential of greatness and the potential of humiliation."

No one has to be reminded of how much Mr. Clinton has humiliated himself and the presidency during the first half of his second term. So the question remains: Has he nonetheless taken actions that have earned him a higher rating in history?

Schlesinger also observed in his essay that for Clinton "to make a mark on history" he must "liberate himself from polls and focus groups." Well, we know that Clinton has continued to turn to his pollsters for almost every move. He leaned on Richard Morris during his Lewinsky travail; and he still seems to be listening to his pollsters.

Did Schlesinger back then have some advice for Clinton? Yes. "Historians tend to look down on isolationists," he wrote, "and in the absence of war Clinton may have his best opportunities for making a mark by making peace."

Did those words nudge Clinton when he read them? He certainly has worked hard for peace abroad and taken what many regard as helpful actions in Ireland and the Mideast.

Indeed, Clinton's intervention in Kosovo is one that comes under the heading of "making peace" abroad - although it's far away from attaining that result at this point. Clinton doubtless thought the bombings alone would quickly stop Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in his tracks and bring about a peaceful solution.

Maybe he was listening to his pollsters.

If Clinton can somehow win the day for peace in Kosovo - including the return of the refugees and the suppression of Milosevic - that would be quite an achievement, one that could move his rating up a bit.

Late in the year 2000 Schlesinger and his team will doubtless grade Clinton again. I'll be watching this assessment with great interest. And I will be expecting perceptive observations from Schlesinger like the following (from his Dec. 15, 1996, presidential poll-related article): "There will be storms ahead. Whitewater, Kenneth Starr, Paula Jones and the Indonesian philanthropists lie in wait. When harried, Clinton must throttle his impulse to dissemble. Otherwise Congressional squalls may throw him off course, drive his craft to the rocks and make his second term a voyage into misery."

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