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Michael Beschloss, Presidential historian

Interviewed June 13, 1996


FL: The patterns in Clinton's political career.

Beschloss: If you look through Clinton's career, there's a little bit of a pattern. And that is if you go all the way back to the first election to the governorship, 1978, Clinton was elected Governor largely on the assumption by Arkansans that this was someone that was rather moderate, very much the Arkansas brand of Democrat. And then after that, for the first two years, Clinton behaved in a way that is very liberal, very much over-reaching. Then he is defeated, then he retrenches and comes back again using very much the same pattern in the election to the Presidency in the first 8 months or so after November of 1992. And this is something I think that really runs rather deeply in Clinton's political character.

One way to really get at a politician's character is to look at the difference between reality and what he sees as his own situation. And in Clinton's case there's been a little bit of a difference throughout his career. Go back to 1978. He was first elected Governor really sort of provisionally. The idea was that this was someone who was not the McGovern Democrat that he was in 1972, someone who was a lot more moderate, a lot more suited to Arkansas. So in a way the rational thing for Clinton to have done after the election in 1978 would have been to come and demonstrate that he was not a trojan horse McGovern Democrat, but actually someone who was much more moderate, much more in keeping with his image of 1978.

That was very different from what happened. Instead, he ran a regime that was much more liberal, much more reformist than the Clinton of the campaign. Ultimately he was thrown out. We see very much the same pattern I think in 1992. Clinton, who was trying to demonstrate that unlike Mondale, unlike Dukakis, this was someone who was an actual New Democrat, knew the limitations of big government, was not a traditional liberal. Instead, after getting elected, he spent the first eight months in a way demonstrating that he was a liberal and had not learned those lessons. There's a little bit of a pattern in Clinton of getting elected to an office in a way that is somewhat provisional, and rather than seeing that as the case, seeing the election a little bit of a license to do almost what he wanted to do.

In '79, it would have been a lot more sensible for him to say I've got to demonstrate to Arkansans that they were right in assuming that I was a moderate. In 1993 it probably would have been sensible for Clinton to say, I was only elected by 43% of the vote, I have to show people that once elected I remain a New Democrat.

Bill Clinton was largely elected because he was able to convince Americans that this was not a George McGovern trojan horse. That this was someone who was a genuine moderate Democrat who saw the limitations of the New Deal, and the great society. Given that, you would expect that a sensible rational politician would have spent his initial months both as President-elect and as a President, demonstrating to Americans that they had not voted for one President and gotten another.

Instead he convinced a lot of people that they had been betrayed and perhaps deceived. A lot of what Clinton did in roughly the first eight months as President, suggested to Americans that this was a very different person than what he portrayed himself to be in the '92 campaign. He began the Presidency with gays in the military, made a lot of appointments that were much more liberal than he suggested during the '92 campaign, and wound up that year by proposing a health care program that was very much in the style of the New Deal and the Great Society, very much big government, almost the opposite of what he had said during the campaign. So in a way, Clinton as President during the first year made Americans feel somewhat short changed.

FL: Influences.......

This is someone if you are trying to understand him, who had to live a lot of his life on other people's money. This was someone who was given absolutely nothing for the first 18-20 years of his life. Always felt that he was on alien terrain, had to observe certain rules in order to get scholarships, make certain friendships and so on. And that is not a very nice way to live. And I think one way to interpret Clinton is to say that after going through many years in which he was operating according to other people's rules, once he was elected Governor, and perhaps also once he was elected President, he reacted in a way that perhaps was different from someone who had been a lot more privileged.

A human being often times feels that once he or she gets something, then you're in a state of nirvana, and you can sort of do what you want. In Clinton's case, to be from that background, having to work for every single thing that he got, and that once I become Governor, once I become President, then I can really sort of be myself, that is I think much more strong than in a political leader that had much more of a privileged background. So in a way that may explain the year after he was elected Governor, the year after he was elected President. You see somewhat a politician indulging himself. Not doing what is in his rational, political interest. This is a pattern of being very self-disciplined while running for election, then in a way feeling a sense of license that first year in office, that may once again happen if Bill Clinton is elected in 1996 and then serves as President during a second term.

FL: Speculating on a second term......

If there really is this pattern of election and overreach that I think we saw in 1979 in Arkansas, in 1993 in the Presidency, there is at least the possibility that if Bill Clinton is re-elected President, particularly by a landslide, you might see in your file of his presidency, the degree of overreaching that we've seen in a lot of second term Presidents. Such as Franklin Roosevelt in '37, Richard Nixon in 1973 with Watergate, Ronald Reagan in 1985 with Iran-Contra.

Clinton was elected in '92 with 43% of the vote. Richard Nixon was elected by the same margin in 1968. Nixon, a very disciplined politician, said obviously a lot of Americans have doubts about me, if I'm going to get re-elected, I'm going to have to be something of a provisional President to win these people over. And as a result Nixon in his first term was a lot more liberal and moderate than he really wanted to be. The reason for that was that 57% of the vote that Nixon was trying to corrupt.

In a way Clinton would have been very well advised after the election of '92 to learn from Nixon and to say that the real lesson of this election is that despite the fact that the economy was going very much in my favor, George Bush ran a horrendous campaign, Ross Perot took a lot of votes away from George Bush, in spite of the fact that a lot of these things were going in my favor, I only managed to convince 43% of Americans that I should be President, a fraction of the Americans even smaller than Michael Dukakis got, losing in 1988. Based on all that, I think what you might of seen in a more self-disciplined politician would have been from day one of the period after the election of '92, Bill Clinton very carefully making it clear to Americans that this was not a liberal Democrat, but the kind of new, moderate Democrat that he had portrayed himself as during the campaign. Instead you saw a lot of appointments that were very much similar to the George McGovern spectrum of the party, you saw him lead off as President with gays in the military, a lot of other things that were very much against the Clinton of 1992. And you have to really ask the question why is it that this very self-protective politician Bill Clinton, who in other ways was politically brilliant, operated in a way during those first eight months after his election as President that was very much injurious to himself.

FL: Analyzing the early months of Clinton's first term...

I think in this case there is a tendency to see things that perhaps aren't there. One possibility is this. We know that Bill Clinton, from very early in his life, read a lot of Presidential history and Presidential biography. The Presidents that he admired were people like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, and at least the domestic side of Lyndon Johnson. These were great activist Presidents who came to office with a great deal of ballyhoo, and governed, at least in the case of FDR and LBJ, with a great majority.

And in early 1993, we saw Clinton behaving not like a minority who'd gotten 43% of the vote, but very much in the mold of these other Presidents who'd won with roughly 60-61%. You had the sense of someone who was operating more out of his imagination and reading of Presidential history perhaps than someone who was very much in tune with the reality of 1992.

One of the new views of Lincoln is that Lincoln was less of a great figure and perhaps less of a great politician than perhaps we have thought up until now. Whether you think that or not, I think one thing that Bill Clinton may take some comfort in is that even Abraham Lincoln who was the gold standard for Presidents, is now seen as someone with very great flaws. And for any President who is serving at the time and getting criticized, I think it's probably somewhat comforting to see that the verdict in later generations is very different from what people say about a President who is sitting in the White House.

FL: The times...

In a way Bill Clinton is a guest in his time, and to some extent, I think one thing he will be honored for later on is that he's been able to be rather politically successful in a time that really should have been very hard for a Democrat, and particularly a Democrat of rather liberal, New Deal, Great Society, New Frontier origins like Bill Clinton.

I am quite sure that Bill Clinton would have much preferred to be President in the period like the 1930s or the 1960s, a period much more hospitable to a big government, liberal Democrat like an FDR, like an LBJ. Instead, to some extent, he has to put on the coloration of a New Democrat, in some cases, arrive at conclusions that are very different from those of a Roosevelt, or Johnson, people he would have admired. It's a much tougher job than it would have been in a period like that. Bill Clinton is someone who draws enormous affection from crowds and from people who are writing and talking about him. Had he been President in a period like the 1930s or the 1960s, these were periods in which there was a maximum of respect for any President even though he was criticized. He has the very bad fortune of sitting in the White House in a time in which being President is a very different experience.

FL: His convictions...

This is someone I think of instincts more than convictions, and what I mean by that for instance, is this is someone who would have preferred to be a President who was ultimately admired by liberals than perhaps a President who ultimately was admired by conservatives. That's where his instincts were. Above all of that, this is someone who is determined to do what it takes to get elected President and also to get re-elected. This is someone who knows that historians scorn Presidents who do not make it back to a second term.

And in a way, I think Bill Clinton had to make somewhat of a Faustian bargain after the election of 1994 in saying, do I want to follow my instincts which probably are left of center, and certainly tolerant of the kind of big government program that we saw in his proposals for health care. Or do I want to get re-elected. The choice I think he made was to get re-elected. And in a way I think it poses a conflict.

FL: Bosnia and Foreign Policy...

Bosnia in a way brings out Clinton's contradictions. Someone who in '92 argued that something should be done to alleviate the suffering in central Europe, also the Clinton of 1968, someone who was against the idea of American use of force in a lot of different theaters. But also brings up I think the overriding Clinton, and that is the Clinton who is politically self-protective. Above all, he knows that Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson. He was determined not to do the same thing. At the same time he was criticized domestically for doing nothing. And in a way, the Bosnian result follows from being a President who at once wanted to do something to end the suffering and at the same time wanted to diffuse Bosnia, as the 1996 domestic political issue that could have been used to show Clinton as a President who was weak

.....this was a very self-protective politician who did not want Bosnia to be used by Bob Dole and the Republicans in 1996 as exhibit A of unkept Clinton campaign promise, and also exhibit A of Clinton as a traditional Democrat averse to the use of force.

FL: The importance of character......

I think character is essential in assessing a sitting President and a future President, because it tells you a lot about what you are going to see in the future. It tells you first of all, what kind of trade offs a President is going to make. Any President is going to have a lot of values and purposes and promises that are going to come into conflict. Unless you know that person's character, you are not going to have at least some idea of which way he is going to finally choose.

In 1961, John Kennedy had come into office, promising in the '60 campaign to end discrimination against African-Americans with a stroke of pen. Blacks in 1961 sent Kennedy a lot of pens because he wasn't doing very much for civil rights. The answer was that Kennedy wanted a lot of other things from Southerners in Congress, and so therefore, for two, two and a half years, he did not follow through on that campaign promise. If we had known more about Kennedy's character in 1960, we might have known that it would have taken him a long time to take a risk that would advance civil rights in this country. Another example of the importance of character is this.

In Clinton's case, we never have yet seen that ultimate test where he has an absolute choice between preserving and advancing his political career on the one hand, or furthering an important ideal on the other. You might see that kind of conflict in a second term, and maybe without the sort of having to run for re-election, you might see a Bill Clinton who is willing to be that politically courageous. You have not seen him yet.

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