How historians size up Clinton: 'Not too bad'

President gets high marks for booming economy, low for personal control.

Done not badly.

With seven years down and one to go, that in short is how presidential historians and scholars size up Bill Clinton.

They don't put the young commander in chief in the category of presidential greats, or even near-greats - even though the United States is about to enter the record books as enjoying its longest economic expansion ever.

It's hard, say the professional White House assessors, to get a full picture when your subject is standing right in front of your nose.

We need more time for the Clinton outlines to emerge, they add - and not just the president's remaining year in which anything could happen, but in future decades that could give contours to things past.

Still, pulling back as far as they could, they tried to put the first two-term Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in some context. Some snapshots:

*"We've had in Clinton one of the most gifted politicians in American presidential history, who threw away much of his opportunity with an inability ... to control himself personally." - Henry Graff, author of "The Presidents: A Reference History."

*"All the people who worried about the deficit in 1991 have been put out of their misery. The most important thing Clinton did was to decide ... to reduce the budget deficit and get it out of national life." - Richard Neustadt, a Harvard University professor who taught Vice President Al Gore.

*"He's done well on the basics. The country's at peace ... and where would you rather be in a fiscal sense? Clinton's been a wonderful riff." - Richard Pious, of Barnard College in New York.

* "I think, given the fact he's been a prisoner of the Republican Congress since 1994, he's done not badly ... but I wish he were a fighter on some issues." - Arthur Schlesinger Jr., two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former aide to President Kennedy.

Hands down, the historians see the nation's unprecedented prosperity as Clinton's top achievement - though not his alone.

Still, Mr. Neustadt says the new president's tough decision to raise taxes on the well-to-do, coupled with a convincing message to Wall Street and global investors that he was sincere about deficit reduction, set the nation on a course to today's historic back-to-back budget surpluses.

But does a humming economy a legacy make?

Neustadt believes that the Clinton fiscal order is now so solid that, if debt reduction is carried on by the next administration, it can have a lasting impact on future social policy, which will otherwise be "imprisoned" for lack of funds.

But others see America's prosperity more as a present condition than something that can be passed on to future generations.

"It doesn't endure the way a landmark piece of legislation endures - the way civil rights legislation endured. The economy won't allow Clinton to rise to the level of a great or even a near great president," says Robert Dallek, biographer of President Johnson.

The new law with the most significant, lasting consequences, say these surveyors, is welfare reform - though, Mr. Schlesinger, for one, is less enthusiastic about it.

And he's not alone. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley severely criticized it in a New Hampshire debate Wednesday, pointing out that it deprived a million children of health insurance. Still, 7 million fewer people are on welfare today as a result of the 1996 law.

George Edwards, editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly points to another Clinton achievement - moving Democrats to the political center.

Like the economy, however, it's unclear how lasting this development is, he says.

Otherwise, he sees Clinton as a steward who presided over good times, and who governed by taking incremental steps. "Clinton can take some credit for the good times. He's done no harm - and that's important."

No harm to the economy, that is. The pundits agreed that history would never forget that Clinton was the first elected president to be impeached - even if the populace might no longer care.

Because of impeachment, says Neustadt, the president lost a good year of work.

And having fanned the fury of Congress to a searing heat, he also lost his chance to accomplish anything close to the stature of welfare reform.

"He blew it," says Neustadt.

Historian Graff, however, is already expressing some nostalgia for this president, whom he describes as "perhaps the most articulate man we've ever had in the White House."

"I've talked to a lot of presidents," says this professor emeritus of Columbia University in New York.

"When you talk to Clinton, he makes you feel like you're not only the most important person in the room, but on the planet. We're going to miss that ease of tongue."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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