One Sunday morning in August 1996, the political strategist Dick Morris picked up the telephone and called his boss, Bill Clinton, to raise the question of how history would rank him among presidents. He found an interested audience.
A president could make the first tier, Morris argued, only if the circumstances were right. “You mean a war or something like that?,” Clinton responded, according to Morris’s 1999 book, Behind the Oval Office. Morris agreed. When Clinton asked where he ranked, Morris said he had a shot at reaching the “second tier,” if he could accomplish a few big things, like balancing the budget.
Less than a month later, during the Democratic Convention in Chicago that Morris had orchestrated for the glory of Clinton, and during the week that Time put the operative on its cover as “The Man Who Has Clinton’s Ear,” Star magazine revealed that Morris liked to suck the toes of a Washington prostitute. He resigned on the same day Clinton accepted the nomination. Well, that’s how things were in those days. Completely insane.
Somehow, all that drama—all the contempt for Clinton for consorting with Morris, and belly flopping on health care, panting after polls, renting out the Lincoln Bedroom, dallying with an intern, pardoning Marc Rich (Google him if you must)—is fading, leaving only a warm glow of retrospective approval by the chattering class. (The greater public always liked Clinton more.) He is seen these days as having governed responsibly and, for the most part, well. And rightly so. But will he make the second tier?
It is not easy to judge a president’s true performance in office. For Life magazine in 1948, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger polled his colleagues to create a ranking of presidents. He repeated the poll in 1962. Among the historians he sent the questionnaire that year was President John F. Kennedy, who set it aside. “How the hell can you tell?” he complained to Schlesinger’s son. “Only the president himself can know what his real pressures and real alternatives are.” And, with time, verdicts shift. That 1962 poll ranked Dwight Eisenhower No. 22 (to Kennedy’s amusement). By the time Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. conducted the poll himself in 1996, Eisenhower had climbed past John Quincy Adams (and Kennedy) to No. 10.
Barack Obama’s mere election was an American milestone, and the circumstances of his presidency, like those of his immediate predecessor’s, would seem to cross Morris’s threshold for potential greatness: not just one war but two, and an economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression. According to Franklin Roosevelt (ranked third in every Schlesinger poll), “All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.” That would seem to describe our times, but does it describe our president? Are we watching Obama fail? Is he storm-tossed by circumstances, or is he on his way to mastering them? In our cover story, James Fallows assesses Obama’s progress and renders judgment. He does so with an eye on the long view—but also with humility about the contingency of any conclusions we reach today. Who knows what history may have in store?
“Bin Laden did this,” Clinton said, the instant he learned of the 9/11 attacks. “Like many tragedies, this one was laced with irony,” John F. Harris wrote in his biography of Clinton, The Survivor. “One thought back to five years earlier,” Harris continued, to the “historical parlor game” with Dick Morris. “Only leaders who govern in times of great conflict can vault to the first tier, Morris gently told his client. Yet even then a mortal conflict was building.” Though few paid much attention, Harris wrote, Clinton had, in his last two years in office, “focused intently” on the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. But he had not quelled it. “As the twin towers burned that day, this aspect of Clinton’s leadership could only be judged a failure.”
Particularly in this season of hyperpoliticized coverage of public policy, it’s only fair to note (as Harris did) that the failure wasn’t Clinton’s alone. It’s a long list. I recently hung on my office wall one of the steel plates used to print a front page of The New York Times. The date of this front page is August 18, 1998, and the headline, stripped across all six columns, reads, “Clinton Admits Lewinsky Liaison to Jury; Tells Nation ‘It Was Wrong,’ but Private.” The byline is mine. The same day Clinton made that confession, the CIA director secretly briefed the White House about targets in Afghanistan and Sudan for cruise-missile strikes in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s embassy bombings in Africa; days later, Clinton would order the strikes and, to the world’s subsequent sorrow, miss bin Laden. I wrote that story, too, but my focus in those days, like most everyone’s, was chiefly on the “Lewinsky liaison.” For me, that plate is a reminder of how badly I missed the real story.