August 4, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lame duck presidencies, and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: President Clinton has been busy since the end of the Kosovo conflict. He's traveled to out-of-town party fund-raisers, regions of poverty, and to Sarajevo, Bosnia, as well. In Washington, he's asserting his views on legislative issues ranging from patient's rights to Social Security and Medicare. And today he vowed again today to veto the tax cut package worked out last night between House and Senate Republicans, setting the stage for a showdown next month between himself and Congress. Yet some commentators call him a lame duck. And at a news conference recently, Mr. Clinton was asked if he felt his role diminishing, as the race to succeed him begins.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I find myself apparently unlike some of my predecessors, but I just read what you all say about it, but I don't feel myself winding down. I feel myself keying up. I want to do more, I want to try to make sure that I give the American people as much as I can every day. So I've got plenty of energy, and I'll do whatever I'm asked to do. I love this job. I love it. Even on the bad days, you can do something good for the country, you can do something good for the future. I have loved doing this, and I have given it every ounce of my energy and ability and judgment.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, some historical perspective on the lame-duck phenomenon from three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael Beschloss; and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Marlin Fitzwater, former Press Secretary to Presidents Reagan and Bush. Is it inevitable, Marlin Fitzwater, that a two-term president finds his power and influence wane at some point in that second term?
MARLIN FITZWATER, Former Reagan & Bush Spokesman: I think it is inevitable. The question is kind of when and to what degree. For one thing, so much of the lame duck status occurs beyond the President's reach and because of institutions around it. And inevitably in the last year of a presidency, the other institutions begin to shut down. The bureaucracy says, well, we'll put things off till the next President comes. The Congress says, "we've got other things to do. We're all running for office and we're trying to elect a President, or we don't like this guy and we're not going to do anything meaningful." And it's just very hard. The press turns to other issues as well, and the candidates running. So a President finds himself in that last year at least, pretty much operating on his own.
MARGARET WARNER: Haynes, what do you think is the cause of this? What else would you add to what Marlin said?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I agree with everything he said.
MARGARET WARNER: The cause of this perception, we should say.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, there is perception. At some point you do, the clock is running. First of all, you know you won't be succeeded because we have, ever since Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, there's a constitutional amendment you can't succeed yourself in office. This is the Republican revenge on the New Deal and because before that - really, it's a fascinating thing but they were a minority party at that point after Roosevelt, and they put in the constitutional amendment so that you cannot succeed yourself and power ebbs -- the ability to inform, to lead in a very chemical, almost a metaphysical way. How do you reach the public, as Marlin says, through the press or through the Congress or the people themselves? And there's a weariness that sets in among the public, and we in the press go after -- we're looking to the next stage. Americans are always looking for the next act. But I think for a lot of factors, it's inevitable at some point-- it doesn't mean it's right now, but at some point that clock runs very quickly. The President can say, "I'm keening to go out and I'm not winding down," but he's not, but the clock is.
MARGARET WARNER: What does history tell us, Michael, about whether this is caused by other institutions losing interest in the President or whether it's that the President's run out of gas in some way?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it's all those things, Margaret. You know, I sort of remember the beginning of 1968, Lyndon Johnson in his last year before he announced that he was not going to run, said privately to one of his aides "Congress and I are like an old married couple. Night after night we've been rubbing up against each other and we've been asking so much of each other over the years, that we've just sort of run to the end and run out of steam." And he said, "anyone else who would be President instead of me could get more out of Congress than I can." And the point he was making was that you get to the point where you've asked so many people to make compromises, vote for things that they don't want to vote for, you can only keep the violin tuned to the highest note on the scale for a period of time. And in Johnson's case that was four and a half years. The other thing is that after it is known that a President is not going to run again, as nowadays it always is because there can't be a third term, all sorts of things happen. The public begins to tune out because they knew that -- they know that this guy is not going to be around for so much longer. People in Congress know that, if a President will only be there for another year or so, it's easier to cross him. An administration begins to get exhausted. You sort of think of the late Franklin Roosevelt administration. He had been in for 12 years when he ran the last time in 1944, one of his opponents' arguments was, "These are tired old men, they can't really function very well anymore." Now we have more women in government, but they get pretty tired too.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, you're a veteran of the Lyndon Johnson administration. Do you, too, think it's inevitable?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think a President can fight against it. It's interesting, you know, the term "lame duck" originally came from the stock market to signify a trader who had lost so many resources that he couldn't pay his debts. But with it was opposed to a dead duck who was totally bankrupt. So I don't think these Presidents are totally bankrupt. And what happened in Johnson's last nine months, he went to his White House staff and he said to them, "I don't want to hear press reports about the new jobs you're looking for after we're out of here." We've got ten months left; you stay with me. He went to the Congress and he said, Perhaps it's true, as Michael said, that he felt he asked them for a lot but he said, "I'm going to ask you for more; we've got some time left." And he went to the country and said, "there's still unfinished business." And look what he accomplished in that time. He got the last great civil rights bill through, open housing to bar discrimination against racial discrimination in housing, he got a tax bill through without cutting the Great Society substantially, he create the Department of Health -- Housing and Urban Affairs Department. And somehow he kept quoting -- I remember I was there at the time as a young fellow, White House fellow, and he kept quoting Churchill. He kept saying to all of us, "look, Churchill was once told by a group of temperance ladies after the war that if they came into his office and filled the office with all the liquor he had consumed during the war, it would fill up half his office." And they said that as a reprimand. And he looked at them laughingly and he said, "So little done. So much left to do." And Johnson would say that to us over and over again, and he went out on that passionate note. The last State of the Union, he went in person. He said he just wished 100 years from then that people would look at the President and Congress and say they tried to extend social justice and economic justice to the ordinary Americans and they sang "Old Langsyne" and people cried. So it's not inevitable, but it's very hard to fight against. But you need passion; you need focus and a willingness to spend that popularity to make those things happen. Open housing was very unpopular. He went down in the polls for it but the legacy helps.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Haynes, what does the Lyndon Johnson example tell you? I mean, if your party still controls Congress you might be able to lead? What is it?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, sure, you have the Congress, if you have the same party in both houses of Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House and the Congress, you can do something. But they're looking -- as Marlin said -- they're looking also to the next act. They know that there's going to be another President in there. They're going to have to deal with that President. They're going to deal with different people. They're going to deal with different issues. They're going to have things on their burner that they want done, and they can schmooze with you and be very nice to you, but the fact is they're also looking around the corner and they know that that's going to happen rather quickly. So there is an inevitable built in. Doris is certainly right. You can make changes. The President has powers. In the nuclear age, he can summon missiles and he can order troops into combat and so forth, but he really is -- there's a limitation upon what he can do in that period.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Marlin, we saw today, both the Republicans in Congress and the President essentially say they're gunning for this showdown. The President obviously doesn't control the Congress, but the Republicans have a very narrow majority. Are all the pundits being, do you think, premature in already talking about lame duckary as it applies, what, 18 months out, 16 months out?
MARLIN FITZWATER: Well, this tax debate is an important one, and the President certainly has a major role in it. But I think even so, it's hard to deny the lame duck status that everyone feels in the various branches of government and I think is a reality for this President. When he spent an hour and fifteen minutes with the press last week in a press conference, what that says to me is here's a President begging for a stage, that's feeling like he's not having an impact. And President Reagan's term of six and a half years, seven years, he was just coming out of Iran-Contra, and you had a very similar kind of feeling. The last two years of his presidency were really rescued by the summit meetings with Gorbachev, the Soviet Union decision to start arms reductions and the first nuclear weapons treaty. But on the domestic side, it was pretty limited. And we came up with ideological things that the President took about the country. And that's kind of what President Clinton is doing now is he's laying out themes that he's interested in and talking about them and so forth, but this tax bill aside, the days of action, of authorizing action, I think are probably over.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think this label is being applied prematurely?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Probably, because there is a record of Presidents being able to do things. Doris is absolutely right about Lyndon Johnson. He was able to use, for instance the Martin Luther King assassination to get a fair housing bill and the Robert Kennedy assassination to get gun control and also to cast himself above politics as someone who had pulled out. Theodore Roosevelt, the first big lame duck in this century, immediately after being elected in 1904, announced he wouldn't run again. Yet, during that next term, he did a lot of the things that we remember him for, taking Panama, a lot of the progressive legislation that we think well of him for. The other thing that Presidents can do, and Marlin touched on this, is they can get involved in foreign policy. Eisenhower tried to get a detente with the Soviet Union during his last year or two. Ronald Reagan did a much more dramatic example of that with Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of his term. So that may be something that we see President Clinton much more deeply involved in than certainly he was at the beginning of his presidency.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, your further thoughts on what it takes for a President to transcend this label, this burden that we all seem so eager to put on them.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I this I in foreign policy, that President Clinton is actually well-positioned to do more than what we might expect. For one thing, America is in a unique position now that it hasn't been before since the end of the Cold War. We are new the unique power, militarily, economically. So we're going to be needed, we're going to be wanted, whether there's Middle East negotiations going on or Irish negotiations going on with England. And I think he can use that. It's also true that his success in Kosovo has probably created a certain confidence not only within him but within his foreign policy circle. They don't seem to have morale sliding down as they might have at a normal time like this because they have just gone through something that has made them feel a little better, more experienced, more comfortable with their role. So I think in foreign policy, if they can use that team that may have some sense of confidence now that they didn't have at the beginning -- and certainly Madeleine Albright doesn't feel that her time is up -- they lost so much time and attention with the impeachment trial that you have a feeling that they felt born again now with Kosovo, and that time constraints may operate in their favor rather than the other way around.
MARGARET WARNER: Haynes, speaking of feeling born again, there were a couple of aides or people close to the President quoted this weekend in the Washington Post as saying, "you know, he almost feels liberated in a way, the impeachment's over, Kosovo's over. He can turn back to these policy wok issues he really cares about and he doesn't have to worry about re-election." I mean, can it be liberating?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Sure, I'm sure it is. When you watched that cut tonight - you saw a minute ago - he looked great; he's there; he's President. He's talking about things he wants to do; he's talking about issues before the country and all that. The question is: Can he get it done? Can something come out of that process? And I don't want to put, as Doris said, the dead duck label on this President. I don't think that's happened at this point. But clearly he's aware, too, surely that the process does begin to sort of erode itself at some point.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that Presidents ever feel liberated in the sense of being able to more honest or more open about what they really want to do or believe in?
MARLIN FITZWATER: I think they do because expectations go down. People don't expect dramatic new proposals in the last year or so of an administration. And that in itself has a liberating effect. You can talk about things you really care about without having to worry about the scorecard, so to speak.
MARGARET WARNER: For instance, his touring the poverty areas, all these poor areas of the country, Appalachia and elsewhere?
MARLIN FITZWATER: Yes. What I think he has to be careful of and every President, as you start searching for things that are meaningful, that you don't just go around the table, if you will, picking up ideas. And my guess is that the President will be looking at one or two things that he cares very deeply about and will focus on those in this last year and a half.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And at some point you run head into the election with a new vice president who wants to have the power there, too, in this case, Mr. Gore. So that causes problems.
MARLIN FITZWATER: And that started early this year.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah, right.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And then one thing that's very unliberating. He's done a very unusual thing. He has named his vice president as the successor he wants. Everything he has to do during the next year is going to be gauged with an eye to the next election. That's very unliberating.
MARGARET WARNER: That's right. Well, thank you very much. Thank you, Doris, gentlemen, very much.