Franklin Foer: The last WASP president
Since then, every president has faced some sort of crisis of legitimacy. Bill Clinton’s began with the fact that in 1992 (and again in 1996) he won only a plurality of the vote. Exacerbating that legitimacy gap was the fact that he had avoided service in Vietnam. Soon after Clinton took office, an Air Force general openly derided him for “draft dodging.” Senator Jesse Helms warned that if Clinton visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.” Already deemed culturally illegitimate by some on the political right, Clinton was then exposed as having violated norms of personal decency by having an affair with a White House intern—and impeached.
Then came George W. Bush, who in 2000 lost the popular vote and entered the White House after a bitterly partisan, 5–4 vote on the Supreme Court. Next was Barack Obama, an African American with a Muslim middle name whose father hailed from Kenya and who grew up partly in Indonesia. For many Americans, Obama’s presidency was racially illegitimate. As late as 2016, only a quarter of Republicans conceded that he was born in the United States. Now we have Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote in an election in which he received help from the Russian government, and virtually every day comports himself in ways that many Americans deem unpresidential. According to exit polls conducted during last month’s midterm elections, more than three-quarters of Democrats want Trump impeached.
What explains this crisis of presidential legitimacy since Bush? Partly, it’s because he was the last president to fight in World War II, which brought Americans of all classes and ideologies together in common purpose. Clinton, by contrast, came of age during Vietnam. Like many students at elite universities, he avoided service in that enormously divisive war—and after becoming president endured a fierce backlash for doing so.
Todd S. Purdum: A kinder, gentler Republican president is dead
George H. W. Bush was also the last president whose private life was not intensively scrutinized by the press. The watershed was 1987, when likely Democratic front-runner Gary Hart left the presidential race after the Miami Herald published a story suggesting an extramarital affair; shortly after he quit the race, the National Enquirer ran a photo of a woman who was not his wife sitting on his lap on a yacht called Monkey Business. That cultural shift came too late to engulf Bush: He wasn’t asked about rumors that he had had an extramarital affair until near the end of his first term, and when he angrily denied the charge, the press mostly dropped the subject. Clinton, by contrast, was dogged by accusations of infidelity from virtually the moment he announced his presidential candidacy until Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff broke the news of his affair with Monica Lewinsky in January 1998, which set off a chain reaction that led to Clinton’s impeachment.