December 23, 1996
A NewsHour panel of historians looks at historical second terms.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: With his second and final wave of cabinet appointments completed last week, President Clinton has all the ingredients now in place to launch his second term. For some historical perspective on second terms and cabinets we have our NewsHour regulars, Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson, and they are joined tonight by Republican strategist Ken Duberstein, who ran the White House during Ronald Reagan's second term. Thank you all for being here. Starting with you, Doris, what does the--what does the cabinet that the President completed this last week tell us about where his second term might be going?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, it seems that what he's done with the cabinet is to make the group of people who've been loyal to him and who express diversity, those seem to be the two goals, and that's pretty common for President. I think after the first term, when there have been tough battles they have gone through, it seems that most Presidents in history have chosen loyalty over perhaps imagination, over confidence, because they want to have friends around them because they know it's been a tough time before. It doesn't seem like he's chosen an ideological cabinet. Some Presidents first coming in want to have a whole new direction to take the country in, but he seems to have chosen continuity over ideology.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Not the bridge to the 21st century, Haynes, that the President keeps talking about?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Let's drop that subject of the bridge. That's over now. We're going to build something else. But, you know, cabinets, I think, are exaggerated these days. I mean, I don't think, if you look back in the beginning of the republic, talk about history, you had the Adamses, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Henry Clay, John Marshall, all these great figures were cabinet. Increasingly, they have been political operatives. And in Clinton's case he desperately needed some continuity, as Doris said, and some experience. He had very little of either in the first term and a great deal of turmoil of the selection process which surfaced again in this selection process.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Michael, you have anything to add to that?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think Bill Clinton missed a bet this time. You know, he talked during the campaign and just after the election about the fact that you'd see some surprises in this cabinet. We really haven't seen any. And there's a historical precedent for using a cabinet to really show what the course of your administration is going to be. Richard Nixon in 1972 was re-elected by a big landslide. He went up to Camp David for a month, fired everyone, made everyone come up, and recast his government. He wanted to work against being a lame duck not only by rebuilding his cabinet and that administration but even by building a new center right political movement in this country. He took that very seriously. That's something Bill Clinton was not committed to do, but I think there was a little bit of an element of this that the President missed doing. One thing Nixon did that Clinton is doing, and that is that Nixon felt that he would benefit in the second term by naming his successor. He wanted John Connolly of Texas to be the next President. He felt that, among other things, to have Connolly identified as a possible next President, there were an awful lot of people in the government and on Capitol Hill that would be rather reluctant to cross Nixon because they figured not only would he be there for a few more years but they might have to contend with a President Connolly for eight years. Bill Clinton is the first President in this century to have essentially named a successor, Al Gore, perhaps since Theodore Roosevelt with William Howard Taft back at the beginning of the century.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ken Duberstein, does it say anything different to you about the man Clinton is or his--Doris said it was non-ideological. I've heard some say it shows him to be a centrist. What does it come out to you?
KEN DUBERSTEIN, Former Reagan Chief of Staff: It comes out to me that Bill Clinton is, in fact, his own domestic policy czar. He is going to call the shots on domestic policy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how does the cabinet say that?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: The cabinet officers are there to manage the cabinet agencies. They are not there to be provocateurs for new policy decisions. They are there to take care of business. They are there to take care of the constituencies. You know--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that's always been true?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: No. It's not always been true, but I think in this case certainly it is true. This is about--this cabinet making is more about constituency--constituencies of Bill Clinton than it is about governing. You know, governing is the White House now, and Bill Clinton is saying I'm the one who's going to decide the policy, I'm the President, and yes, I will have managers at each of the departments because I am responsible for the Executive Branch. But when it comes--push comes to shove, it's the White House, the White House staff, the President, and as Michael suggested, the Vice President, who are going to be the fundamental decision makers.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But he wasn't looking for new ideas, Haynes, it seems to you?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I think continuity is important, experience is important, but the staff, this is really the key to it. That White House this man knows better than any of us for sure. You are there, you did it. But the staff runs things. They tell the cabinet officers what to do. They are in charge of the politics. They can make the decisions, and what you've got now is a Clinton staff, unlike the first term, when no one had ever worked in the White House before. Now you have people who have been there, and they've shuffled around a lot, and there are not many new insider--but that makes--that helps Clinton. It's also very safe, and it's not very exciting maybe, but it is safe.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: You know, maybe for the first year, year and a half, the cabinet officer is the President's representative to the cabinet agency. And what I think we have found throughout history is that they quickly become the cabinet agency's representative to the President. And so you're shelf life is a year or a year and a half as far as being the President's appointee at that cabinet agency.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Doris, now that this President has already made history by becoming the first Democrat re-elected in, what is it, 60 years, what does that tell us? I mean, with the other two termers as successful, how did they make it?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know, surprisingly, you would think that a second term would be more likely to be successful. The President knows his way around Washington. He's got an experienced pool of people to call on. He doesn't have to worry about public opinion the same way he did the first time, but history suggests that it's gone the opposite way, that second terms have been less successful than first terms. And I think there's a couple of reasons for that. One is that after you've sat in that White House with those big columns for four years, a certain arrogance tends to set in in previous presidents, where they feel they want to do things, and they can do them without Congress, without the country. FDR deciding in 1937-38 to go for court packing and purging the Congress of the people who were against him is a perfect example of that. He overreached because he felt less vulnerable than he did at the beginning. And it's really interesting because Lyndon Johnson watched Sam Rayburn when he got one of Roosevelt's bills up on the Hill that he knew was going to be a terribly hard bill to get through Congress, and he saw Rayburn in tears, and he vowed that when he ever got to be President, he would never use his power against Congress that way. And, indeed, he was much more aware of the arrogance of power. In ‘64, he really courted Congress in ‘65. So that's one problem. The other problem Presidents face in the second term, there's not that same exuberance you had in the first term. You can't attract the same quality of people. They're only going to be there a brief time. So they don't have that same sense of making history that they did. So it's tough for second terms. What we've seen with Eisenhower, Reagan, and FDR are not successful second terms.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Doris has named several of them. Were there more, Michael, second terms?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: There were. There is this tendency to overreach, and it's amazing how many of these cases we really had almost disaster. With Richard Nixon, the second term was really the time when the cover-up of Watergate went into earnest. Ronald Reagan--that was the time when Iran-Contra began. Of course, Ken Duberstein was called to the rescue to rescue the President--and brought it all around. But the point is that usually these things ended up in a difficult way. The fascinating thing, we, historians, think that it's not a bad thing for Presidents to learn from history. Bill Clinton, for the first time I know about, has been doing some reading about the pitfalls that Presidents run into in a second term. The fascinating thing will be to see whether he's able to use this and apply it, and in some way make itself a little bit immune from the tendencies that Doris was mentioning.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ken Duberstein, what lessons might the President learn from second termers? I mean, even starting with Ronald Reagan?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: Well, I think one of the keys is something that Doris suggested, and that is reaching out and working with Congress. I think one of the fundamental failures the first four years is that Bill Clinton didn't, with the exception of NAFTA, adequately reach out and work with Republicans. I think the message of this November 5th was a message that said stop the finger pointing, stop the blame placing, and govern. I think with Bob Rubin at Treasury and with Bill Cohen at Defense and certainly with Erskine Bowles, that you're going to see very much of an effort to reach out and build bipartisan coalitions. You know, Reagan did that in the first term because the Democrats controlled the House, Tip O'Neill and the House. In 1987 and ‘88, in those waning last two years of Ronald Reagan, he re-doubled his efforts to reach out and work with the Democratic House, and that time a Democratic Senate as well, because if you can demonstrate that you can win on Capitol Hill, you build up more chips to do other things. What we established, what President Reagan established, was a positive agenda, three or four things, that together would show that he is bouncing back from the depths of Iran-Contra, that would revitalize his presidency, and that's why he went from not simply being a lame duck but frankly everybody was referring to him as a dead duck in March of 1987 to the point that he left the presidency with the INF Treaty, with tearing down the wall, Mr. Gorbachev, with the end of the Cold War, because he had reached out and worked, and at the same time had established a very good brief but positive agenda, three or four things.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I certainly think that's right. There's an opportunity to be bipartisan, but you also have something else that is quite unusual. You have the Speaker of the House investigation ongoing. You have an investigation against the President. And that sets a cloud over both parts. It may drive them closer together, depending on what happens here.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: I think very much that the allegations for the speaker and certainly for the President drive people toward a principle compromise. But I would also, I'd like to pick up on Michael's point, because I think there is another major vested interest here, and it's the vested interest of Al Gore. And as far as bipartisanship on fiscal matters, bipartisanship on at least short-term solvency of Medicare, Al Gore would like very much that it be taken care of in the next couple of years, or certainly this next year, before he starts his run for the presidency.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Doris, you're nodding your head. Do you have something to add here?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, the interesting thing, bipartisanship is not easy to achieve, particularly in the cabinet. Eisenhower tried, for example, to bring upon a Democrat to the Department of Labor, a man named Derkin, who was a plumber's union representative, and so the argument was made he had eight millionaires in his cabinet and one plumber, and he didn't work out. He had too much pressure on him to be the one Democrat, the one Catholic, the one non-millionaire, and he resigned after a couple of months. So I think it's a good thing that Sen. Cohen has been named to the cabinet. I think it should happen much more often than it happens, and at least there's one symbol of bipartisanship in the cabinet level.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: But I think it's a whole style of governing. I think it's Erskine Bowles--
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I agree with you.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: --going up and meeting with the moderate Republicans in the House a couple of weeks ago.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Erskine Bowles, the new chief of staff.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: The new chief of staff--of trying to bring them into consultation on some of the major elements of the President's budget and his agenda for the State of the Union Address, that all gets us to a point perhaps of some breakthroughs in the next six to nine months. We have to get passed this blowing kisses at one another stage and get to some of the serious bipartisanship that I think is necessary.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think those--the problem is, you know, we've got this built-in problem for Presidents. Ever since the 22nd Amendment that forbade Presidents from running for a third time, we've made it very tough. One thing Ronald Reagan I think did "not" do was really have a strategy to keep and expand his power in a second term. He didn't campaign in ‘84 with the idea of much of a mandate. The biggest legislative initiative, tax reform, was scarcely mentioned during the ‘84 campaign, and the other thing was that when Reagan named a chief of staff, it was Donald Regan, in 1985, that was something he didn't give very much thought to. So I think in a way this is something that really says to a modern President such as Bill Clinton you've got to work very hard to overcome this problem that the amendment to the Constitution creates.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Haynes, what does he have to do to get--I mean, can he in a second term get to the level of the great--the pantheon of great Presidents? I mean, is that possible during this second term?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Sure. Everything is possible. But I think--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Probable?
HAYNES JOHNSON: --the one thing that you have to emphasize--I think we've all been saying one way or another--the clock is running very quickly in a second President's term because the amendment that limits him to succeed himself, power erodes very rapidly. You have these partisan differences between the Congress and the Republicans and the Democrats. I hope that we're right, that there'll be a deal cut and bipartisanship, but it may be the opposite, in which case you have even more gridlock in Washington. Those seem to me the stakes of this.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: In some ways it's like a poker game, and you need to replenish your chips, and Bill Clinton has to demonstrate that he can, in fact, govern, that he, in fact, can reach some principle compromises, especially in the first six to nine months, in order to renew, refresh, restore, and build to what Michael is suggesting.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And he's got to lay out a real goal too in that State of the Union message and his Inaugural Address more than just the bridge, if I may say so again, to the 21st century. It's got to be something more specific.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Doris mentioned earlier the lame duck issue. I mean, how much of a factor is lame duckness?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think it's a very big factor, and I think it's one of the reasons why that amendment is not a good amendment to the Constitution. And I think it's probably a good thing to not have Presidents in there more than two terms, but we should have had the possibility of a third term if somebody really deserved to have that third term.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How did--excuse me. Go ahead.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And most importantly, it means that after two years, I think, our attention is going to shift to who is his successor, who is going to be the Republican contender, and his publicity power is going to diminish even as well as his real power.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Did that happen in the Reagan administration?
KEN DUBERSTEIN: The key I think, though, as Doris was beginning to allude to, is that the presidency is really six years, not eight years. You can finally get to those last two years, but with these historians that I am surrounded by, look at the sixth year of an incumbent President and what happens in Congress. And if I am not mistaken, certainly since post World War II, the President's party in Congress has always lost seats, sometimes--
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Absolutely.
KEN DUBERSTEIN: --many and sometimes just a few. What that says is that you need very much to get things done in this next year before you get into re-election cycle with Congress.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. That's an interesting place to leave it. Thank you all for joining us.