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.
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
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
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.