August 24, 1994
Clinton, Johnson, Nixon ... and the Stick
Bill Clinton idolizes John Kennedy, and he probably would love to be Franklin Roosevelt if these times called for sweeping New Deal plans. Yet it's revealing to compare the president with two more recent and less beloved figures, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Bill Clinton often comes across as Lyndon Johnson with a Yale degree. He has the same Johnsonian love for the mechanics of politics, the same outsized appetites and energy reserves, the same instinct to bring everyone inside the tent with him. Bill Clinton improves on the original model by avoiding Johnson's defensiveness towards those with fancy educations and by being able to perform well on TV, not just in the back room over bourbon, as Johnson could.
At the same time, President Clinton is turning into the Democrat's version of Richard Nixon -- by which I mean someone who seems politically unkillable, who eventually wins most of his big legislative fights, who may well be re-elected, but who nonetheless is simply hated by a large minority of people, as President Nixon always was and President Clinton is. Bill Clinton improves on the Nixonian model too by not smoldering with free-form resentment and by having a genius for the person-to-person politicking that left Nixon paralyzed.
Yet in one crucial way Bill Clinton differs from both these men. All three have been adored and reviled; but presidents Nixon and Johnson were also feared. The first time a Democratic legislator defied Lyndon Johnson was the last time he got a public-works grant. By contrast Bill Clinton, he of the ready smile, has seemed reluctant to make Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, or defecting Democrats pay when they disagree. Indeed those who feel the worst of Bill Clinton's wrath are apparently his closest aides, who endure his outbursts when things go wrong. The people who have paid with their careers are his own appointees, cut loose when they become liabilities, from Roger Altman back to Zoe Baird.
As a human trait, Bill Clinton's lack of vengefulness toward adversaries is attractive. Presidents Johnson and Nixon were destroyed by their resentments, Johnson's of Bobby Kennedy and Nixon's of Kennedys in general. Politically it can be useful to forgive today's opponent, knowing that tomorrow you'll need his vote. But a president without a stick will end up having to forgive too often, like an owner too soft-hearted to housebreak his pet. Before the summer ends we may see pictures of President Clinton on the beach. With rolled newspaper in hand he could practice the crucial words -- Sit, Stay, Bad Dog.
Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.