August 15, 2001
| BILL CLINTON: Now I
feel like I'm home. Thank you very much. Thank you.
KWAME HOLMAN: For former President Bill Clinton, it was a coming out party in New York City on 125th Street in Harlem at the official opening of his new presidential office.
MAN SINGING: President Clinton! Stand by me...
KWAME HOLMAN: And last weekend, former Vice President Al Gore, returning from vacation and sporting a beard, made his first major public appearance since last year's election.
AL GORE: I'm hoping that I'll get inspired to be involved in the democratic process.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gore hosted workshops for young political activists in his home state of Tennessee and was asked about his own political plans.
AL GORE: I think that it's safe to say that everybody in the room there is going to be involved in the 2002 elections for their respective candidates and parties, me included.
KWAME HOLMAN: For their supporters, the returns were eagerly awaited. For Misters Clinton and Gore themselves, they marked a new beginning. The former President's departure from the White House was overshadowed by his last-minute pardon of financier Marc Rich. That and other pardons led to congressional inquiries into whether political contributions influenced the ex-President's decisions. For months, Mr. Clinton largely avoided public appearances. He spent much of his time traveling and giving speeches-- more than 40 paid talks so far this year for fees reportedly as high as $125,000 in this country and $250,000 overseas.
BILL CLINTON: Thank you very much.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last week he sold the rights to his presidential memoirs, reportedly for more than $10 million; the largest such advance in publishing history. Mr. Gore and his wife Tipper also are working on a book about families and communities. Gore has taught courses at universities in New York and Tennessee and also has given many paid speeches. But Gore's reemergence after months of silence has reignited speculation about his future political plans. The former Vice President has not said what he will do, but there are political tea leaves. He plans to launch a Political Action Committee and will campaign for Democrats running in gubernatorial races this fall. And Gore's next stop will be in Iowa at the state's high-profile democratic dinner next month. And as for the comeback kid himself, Bill Clinton has said he would like to model his post-Presidency in part after that of another southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, while focusing on two favorite issues: Race relations and combating AIDS.
GWEN IFILL: What can history teach Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and others
about how to successfully reclaim the national stage? For answers, we
turn to NewsHour regulars who study such things for a living: Presidential
historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and journalist and author Haynes Johnson.
With them tonight is historian Richard Norton Smith, newly appointed
director of the Robert Dole Institute of Public Policy at the University
of Kansas. Hi, everybody.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think the idea of focus is probably the most important thing for a comeback. Look at Richard Nixon in 1962. When he lost that Gubernatorial race in California, he said anyone would be off their rocker to imagine that he could come back into political life in '66, '68, or '70. And yet what happened is he had that desire so strong within him that he did what Gore is evidently doing, he decided to support candidates, Republicans in his case in the 1966 bi-elections all around the country. And when the Republicans swept that bi-election, he was off and running and, of course, became the next President of the United States. I think another example of a great comeback is that vital desire to still live actively in politics is old John Quincy Adams. It's almost my favorite. Here he had been President, he left so sad, and yet he came back as a freshman Congressman and lasted almost for two more decades, becoming a leader of the anti- slavery forces and died actually on the House floor. So I think if you can establish in that case a political base, that is one route for a comeback, but then another route for a comeback is Chief Justice Taft, who became Chief Justice after having been President Taft, loved the legal profession even more than the presidency and said he was happier than he had ever been in his life. And then there was Grant, who wrote his memoirs, leaving a permanent legacy because they were the best presidential memoir or the best memoir written by a President, $450,000 in royalties, considered the most extraordinary, which would pale by the tens of million of the Clintons.
GWEN IFILL: You claim all the good ones. Let me go to Richard Norton Smith and ask him who his favorite picks are for who did it well and poorly.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Doris is absolutely right. It's interesting though, there is a President in the 20th century whose comeback combined the political and the - if you will -- pure statesmanship and had I think lessons for Bill Clinton, and that is Herbert Hoover. Talk about a bad exit from the White House. The last day of Hoover's presidency, the nation's banking system collapsed. Hoover left office the most hated man in America, blamed fairly or not for the Great Depression. And, not surprisingly, he wanted electoral vindication, he wanted a rematch against Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Not surprisingly, FDR wanted a rematch, too. And Hoover won it again in 1940. Both times the Republicans decided that survival took precedence over sentiment. It was only later in life that Hoover stopped being a political figure, a partisan figure. Harry Truman brought him out of political purgatory and gave him a chance to do what he did best. After WW II, he sent him on around the world on a famine relief effort. He fed millions of people. He twice reorganized the Executive Branch of government and slowly over time... He wrote 30 books and slowly over time, he regained the luster that he had known before the Great Depression. Not long before he died, Justice William O. Douglas at the Bohemian Grove asked him how he managed to survive all the long years of ostracism, and he it was simple... He was 90 years old at the time, and he said, "I outlived the bastards." (Laughter) So longevity is the best there is.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, Haynes, you'll get your fix too, but I'm curious about this: Do Americans accept the notion of a political comeback from people so high-profile?
HAYNES JOHNSON: We like comebacks in American life. You know, Scott Fitzgerald had this famous saying, it's a cliché now: "There are no second acts in American life." Of course there are; people make comebacks all the time, in sports, in literature, in drama, acting, and all the rest. Politics is tougher, though. What Doris said was just exactly right, you take Nixon, the most persevering, tenacious political figure in our history. To come back as he did after that, not only off the defeat of the presidency in 1960, but I think even greater for Nixon was coming back after he was forced to resign in disgrace. And this took all of the tenacity and perseverance of this man in astonishing measure. John Quincy Adams she already talked about, but it is a hard, cruel thing for political figures. Look at Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most admired political figures in our history, vibrant, the youngest man ever to become President, 42 years old. He picks William Howard Taft... by the way, Doris, I thought that was a great reminder, Taft became a great Chief Justice after having been President. John Quincy Adams dies on the floor of the House fighting for abolition. But the modern age, I think you have to look at Jimmy Carter as the great example. And with two people -- I would add to that... I would add just one pair - Gerald Ford -- to your library, Richard. And the combination of what those two men have done, dignified, honorable, doing good works; no cheapness at all, not selling out. I mean, I think that is the example that I admire.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, imagine for a moment that one of these same people is trying to make a comeback in the age of 24-hour political coverage television. Could it happen? Is it possible?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think it's much harder. And I give you a couple of examples. Setting Nixon aside, the last time that a defeated candidate was renominated four years later was way back in 1956, Adlai Stevenson, who ran a superb campaign against a great war hero, actually received more voting in losing to Eisenhower than Truman received in defeating Tom Dewey four years before. He earned it. He deserved it. Democrats were proud of him. And yet he had to fight very hard and barely won his party's nomination. Likewise, Tom Dewey had run FDR -- his closest race in 1944, he was a young man, 42 years old, overwhelmingly reelected as governor of New York. It was thought he deserved a second shot, and much more favorable, it was thought political conditions. And yet that is the last Republican convention that went more than one ballot. And that was before television really took over, let alone the 24-hour news cycle. I think it's harder. I think television devours these people. And the quality of media coverage is different today. Today it's not only the New Hampshire primary, and the Iowa Caucus, and the money primary, you have what I call "the Maureen Dowd primary." You have to impress the opinion leaders in the immediate media, most of whom are inclined to ridicule you.
GWEN IFILL: Doris, I want to ask you about two Presidents, in particular. What about Glover Cleveland and Lyndon Johnson?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, what's interesting about Grover Cleveland is it has some parallels in some ways to Al Gore because he had lost the electoral college even though he won the popular vote to Harrison and then went home to New York, his own home state, which was why he lost the electoral college, because he lost New York. And some say Gore losing Tennessee has brought him back to Tennessee. But he actually was able to ally himself with a particular wing of the Democratic Party during those four years out of office; the conservative wing and came roaring back into the presidency. I think what happened with Lyndon Johnson-- and sadly, I was witness to those last years of his life-- is when you leave as a defeated candidate, and he was defeated not by running again, but by the war in Vietnam in many ways, you are haunted always by the thought of what might have been. And so for him, those last years, the ranch became like a miniature world where he couldn't stray beyond it because he knew there would be anti-war protests against him. And I always wished for him that only had he lived long enough to see historians turning so much more positively through his achievements in the civil rights because he had to live those last years so sadly, wishing that it had all ended up differently.
GWEN IFILL: Haynes, what is the essential ingredient if you are a disgraced, soiled, defeated politician and you want to stage a comeback?
HAYNES JOHNSON: To know what you want to do and how you want to spend the rest of your life -- and don't worry about acclaim, and don't worry about the polls. You have little time left. If you are President of the United States, even a defeated President, there's nothing you can do to go higher than that, so how do you want to live your life? What Jimmy Carter has done is try to make a difference in the world, and he has done it with dignity and quiet and effectiveness. And I think that's the kind of model that you want to do-- the John Quincy Adams, it's going back and serving. It's going to be very interesting to watch Mr. Clinton. Heaven knows how this last act is going to come out. There may be many last acts yet. With all the talent and charm, he has to repatriate himself in a way every bit as much as Richard Nixon did.
GWEN IFILL: Viewed through the prism of history, what we've seen, what should he be doing-what should Al Gore be doing, if he's not the next President?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Al Gore is a tougher situation, because I think Richard was right, the media spotlight goes like this. And we want new faces. And he has already been a candidate twice -- don't forget, he didn't get the nomination once before. He was the Vice President, he became the nominee. It's going to be hard for him.
GWEN IFILL: I read a detail today if he ran in 2004, he would be on four consecutive cycles -- the only person ever to do that.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Right.
GWEN IFILL: Doris, Richard... I'll ask you, because I see you up there on the big screen, at least I did a moment ago - okay, I'll ask Doris. What is the essential ingredient to a comeback for these two men?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think having some sort of purpose and focus. I mean, it will be so easy say for Clinton to scatter his energies now, a $10 million advance on royalties on his book, roaming around the country giving lectures, doing a little bit of AIDS, doing a little bit of racial reconciliation, becoming a theatrical figure again; whereas, I think what he will have to decide after the next couple of years are up is just, "what is the one or two things I would like to leave as my legacy?" And that is hard to do when you're an a ex-President, you are used to doing 1,000 things. But I don't think you can do 1,000 things well as an ex-President, so I think choice.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, do you want to get in this?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes. I think they are absolutely diametrically opposite. Bill Clinton has to stop being a partisan or polarizing figure. Al Gore, on the other hand, has to hope the historical analogy that governs is that of fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson who actually led in a four-way race in 1824, only to have the House elect John Quincy Adams. And Jackson's followers kept their anger so hot over the next four years they were able to come back and win a rematch in 1828.
GWEN IFILL: We are going to have to leave it there in 1828. Thank you all very much.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|