Bill Clinton, Joe Gibbs

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Two masters of their disciplines, who triumphed while young and stepped aside from competition (Clinton because he had to) while still in top form. Gibbs was 52 when he retired for the first time as Redskins coach, with three Superbowl wins behind him and election to the Hall of Fame ahead. Clinton was 54 when he watched George W. Bush sworn in as his successor, knowing that he would have won in a landslide if he were allowed to run again.

Then each returned. Coach Gibbs, for a disspiriting 31-36 four-year stint with the Redskins capped, if that's the right word, by the extremely disspiriting playoff loss to the Seahawks three days ago (and his resignation today). President Clinton, for what looks like a disspiriting 0-2 run as his wife's campaign booster and apparent strategist, and occasional negative-spin specialist against the candidate who is beating her. [Update: Coach-President Clinton has in fact opened 1-1. The questions below still apply.]

Will either of them be glad he came back into the fray? Were they rash to defy the maxim that there are no second acts in American lives? Other people have much worse problems, and Bill Clinton is probably not the most disspirited member of his household right now. Nonetheless I feel for both him and Gibbs.

Addendum: As readers Matt Megas and Robert Lamirande have pointed out, other obvious entries in this category include: Earl Weaver, who was brilliantly successful in his first stint as manager of the Orioles and then had his only losing season ever during his brief return run; Michael Jordan, who had the least successful of his several comebacks when he joined the Washington Wizards at the end of his career; and, tragically, too many boxers to mention, all of whom kept coming back.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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