I was on the road today and, while waiting in the Cleveland airport, picked up a stray copy of USA Today. A very foolish columnist named DeWayne Wickham has a piece called “How sweet it is: Respect for Clinton rebounds among Amercans.” The column is based on a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll which asked a sample of Americans to identify the “greatest” president. Wickham gleefully reports that 11 percent named Bill Clinton, and concludes from this that the “right” has failed to besmirch the Clinton legacy. Wickham acknowledges that “George W. Bush managed to tie Clinton for third place” behind Lincoln at 15 percent and Kennedy at 13 percent. Nonetheless, he concludes that Clinton’s lofty rating “has to make conservatives squirm.”
For this conservative, the thougt that even one American outside of his immediate family considers Bill Clinton our greatest president is mildly unsettling. However, on reflection, it isn’t surprising that Clinton is so rated by 11 percent of Americans. First, he is enormously popular among African-Americans (such as Wickham himself). Presumably blacks constituted close to 10 percent of those polled. It wouldn’t surprise me if something like half of the blacks polled picked Clinton. Second, Clinton is the only recent Democratic president other than Jimmy Carter. Carter’s presidency was an abject failure, and he gained minimal support in the poll. President Bush, by contrast, had to share the vote of Republicans inclined to select a recent president with Ronald Reagan, who came in right behind “W” with 10 percent.
It could be argued that Clinton had to share the Democratic vote with Kennedy (who, as noted, pulled in 13 percent), but I don’t think that was the case. Kennedy’s popularity is explained by his status as an icon — there can be no other explanation for why such a brief, relatively undistinguished presidency is rated above those of FDR and Reagan, to name just two, and even that of Clinton. Although Kennedy was a Democrat, he was by no means a liberal by today’s standards (Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t even consider him a liberal by the standards of 1960). Ideologically, though not sexually, his administration, with its emphasis on the global power struggle and tax cuts, resembled the current one more than Bill Clinton’s. But Kennedy’s support in the poll has little to do with Democrat vs. Republican or liberal vs. conservative. E.J. Dionne makes this case in today’s Washington Post, and for once I agree with him.
In the final analysis, Clinton’s presidency will not be regarded nearly as well as he hopes or as badly as his detractors wish. If the economy fails to rebound for President Bush, Clinton will be remembered more fondly than would otherwise be the case. But even in this scenario, I very much doubt that he will be considered an upper echelon president years from now, either in polls of historians or of the public.
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