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Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2001 / 5 Adar 5761

Philip Terzian

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The Clintoons: Is history repeating itself? -- ONCE there was a president who, despite certain personal and professional shortcomings, remained immensely popular with the American people.

He had an imperious, ambitious wife -- called "The Duchess" behind her back -- who prodded him along in his successful career. He loved to play golf, at which he wasn't very good, and charm visitors and audiences, at which he was very good indeed. His best friend in Washington was an equally charming, slightly raffish, millionaire who lived on a big estate at the edge of town, and whose wife had a fondness for diamonds and intrigue. His dog, a much-publicized dark collie mix, was nearly as famous to the public as his master.

The president surrounded himself with a curious combination of gray eminences and old cronies. His secretary of state was a distinguished lawyer-politician; his Treasury secretary was a successful financier; his secretary of commerce was admired around the world. His attorney general, however, was a provincial political hack, whose missteps and poor judgment caused the president much harm.

Having succeeded a commander-in-chief largely occupied with foreign, not domestic, affairs, the president was elected on the promise to raise government interest in the welfare of its citizens. He reduced the size of the nation's armed forces, and signaled a gradual withdrawal from world leadership. Still, he was not without foreign achievements. His inaugural address, despite its excessive length, eloquently expressed his hope to ease global tensions and advance the cause of peace. He convened a disarmament conference at which the world's principal naval powers agreed to limit the construction of new warships. He did much to repair frayed relations with our Latin American neghbors. The stock market boomed, and the economy yielded explosive growth and expanding wealth.

The president was famous for his personal magnetism, and empathetic manner; and while sometimes given credit for the hard work of others, retained the firm loyalty of his party in Congress. Still, there was a dark side to him as well. Despite a professed devotion to the simple virtues in life, he enjoyed the company of wealthy men, to whom he granted favors, and some of whom exerted undue influence on public policy. He was also a famous philanderer: He had a longtime mistress in his hometown, and a lover in the White House barely out of her teens. Infatuated with the older man she had admired from afar, she would slip in and out of the oval office, with the connivance of the president's staff. The president could be, in the words of one Washington wit, a "slob."

In due course, the bad things crowded out the good. It became evident, after awhile, that the president's faith in his associates was often misplaced. One was secretly leasing government reserves to private oilmen for a fee. Another was skimming proceeds from impounded foreign assets. An official concerned with veterans' affairs was found to have plundered federal assets, and permits and presidential pardons were sold for cash. A few of the president's midlevel associates were shipped off to prison. One cabinet member was convicted of taking bribes, and another was indicted but set free by hung juries. When investigators got too close to one of the president's oldest hometown friends and associates, he shot himself to death, sending shock waves through Washington.

I trust it has occurred to readers, at this juncture, that I am not describing William J. Clinton, but a famous predecessor, Warren G. Harding. There are differences between the two, to be sure. Harding once described himself as a "man of limited talents from a small town," not the sort of self-assessment Clinton might offer. But the parallels are instructive. As with Clinto, Harding's achievements were overstated by his admirers, and with brutal swiftness, forgotten in the midst of disillusion and scandal.

Another contrast, I fear, is to Clinton's disadvantage. The worst that can be said about Harding is that he was the passive victim of others' bad conduct, most of which came to light after his death. No one ever accused Harding of personal dishonesty; he was simply surrounded by subordinates on the make. With Bill and Hillary Clinton, the opposite is true. The press tends to suggest that scandal and misconduct happens to the Clintons when, in fact, it almost invariably originates with them. The extraordinary saga of the Clinton pardons is just beginning, and squalid details seem to ooze forth every day.

What a contrast with Harding! So troubled was he by Woodrow Wilson's wartime sedition acts that he freed any number of victims from prison, notably the famous socialist Eugene Debs. Debs' pardon was scheduled for 1922, but Harding advanced it to the previous December so Debs "could spend Christmas with his family."

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


02/26/01: Tax cut? How bourgeois
02/21/01: "Something must be done"
02/15/01: Under new management
02/12/01: Pickett's second charge
02/08/01: The wrong man
02/05/01: Their brother's keeper
01/25/01: The quantity of mercy
01/22/01: Run, Jesse, run
01/18/01: Clinton knows history's verdict
01/16/01: Take this job and ...
01/09/01: Washed in the blood
01/04/01: Up for the count
12/26/00: Remembering Comet Lindsay
12/20/00: Cooling down
12/18/00: Presidential legacies are not so obvious to contemporaries
12/13/00: Cops and soccer moms
12/11/00: The 'Net horrifies Stephen King
12/04/00: Downey behind bars
11/29/00: By any means necessary
11/16/00: Government sanctioned historical revisionism?
11/10/00: Breaking news: They don't know
11/09/00: Steve Allen: Smart TV
11/07/00: The November surprise
11/01/00: Take the Lieberman test
10/30/00: P.S. Don't tell Congress!
10/25/00: The election is close, but ...
10/23/00: King or jester?
10/19/00: The Million T-Shirt March
10/16/00: I like (fill in the blank)
10/12/00: Now comes the hard part
10/05/00: Good show, bad sports
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09/22/00: Preparing for a new administration
09/20/00: They've got a secret
09/18/00: Today, Dr. Laura. Tomorrow ...
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09/05/00: The catcher gets caught
08/31/00: A Golden Age that never was
08/28/00: Blame communism, not Russia
08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2001, The Providence Journal