Will the World Stay Out of Clinton's Way?

JACK BEATTY

November 24, 1992|By JACK BEATTY

An old man looking back on the century he had lived through, Walter Lippmann wrote that three times he had seen a Democratic president elected with a mandate to pursue a sweeping domestic agenda, and three times foreign wars had supervened, derailing the president's agenda and, in two of the cases, destroying the president.

Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were Lippmann's three presidents, and with Bill Clinton now elected on a platform of domestic reconstruction, it is worth considering their cautionary example.

Buoyed by ambitious legislative victories in labor relations, banking and corporate regulation in his first term, Wilson seemed poised to fulfill the progressive agenda in his second.

That agenda would have redeemed what Wilson's intellectual ally Herbert Croly (with Lippmann, one of the founding editors of The New Republic) called ''the promise of American life'' for millions of Americans who were excluded from it -- immigrant laborers and dirt farmers alike.

But, having campaigned for re-election in 1916 on the slogan, ''He kept us out of war,'' within a month of his inauguration Wilson led the country into war.

In an interview with a reporter, Wilson expressed a tragic prevision of what his act would mean to America. An innocence would go out of the country, never to be recaptured. There would be an end to respect for the minister and the policeman. The ''contagion of war'' would spread across the land, giving civilization's enemy, force, an insidious prominence, an evil legitimacy. America would change -- would become callous and brutal and intolerant.

It did. It has. To deny what ''the conta- To deny what 'the contagion of war' has done to us as a people is to live in a dream world.

First elected in 1932, Roosevelt tried to redirect the martial spirit to the task of domestic recovery. Modeling his management of the economy on Wilson's war capitalism of 1917-18, he called for a campaign against want and greed.

The New Deal realized the progressive agenda, but war prevented Roosevelt from going much beyond it. Elected to his third term in 1940 on a promise that ''our boys'' would not fight in foreign wars, a year later Roosevelt was forced to declare war against Japan.

The country remained on a war footing for the next 50 years, as the victory over the Axis powers was followed by the Cold War against the Soviet Union, which cost an estimated $8 trillion to conduct.

Within the spell cast by the Cold War, Johnson sought to pursue a domestic program more ambitious than Wilson's or Roosevelt's. Wilson had been hostile to African-Americans, and Roosevelt had left civil rights alone out of political expediency. Johnson championed the cause of civil rights even while knowing that it would splinter the Democratic coalition behind his presidency.

Not content with mere juridical changes, to his undying credit he also declared a ''war on poverty'' to redeem the promise of American life for the poor, the elderly and the sick.

What might have been can never be known. Elected in 1964 on a promise to keep ''American boys'' from fighting in Vietnam, Johnson sharply escalated the war in the summer of 1965. That decision doomed his domestic agenda, cost him his presidency and left poverty and its problems -- crime, illegitimacy, urban decay -- to worsen for a generation.

It must not happen a fourth time. The country cannot afford another repetition of this pattern. It decidedly does not want a repetition. According to one poll, only 8 percent of voters thought that foreign policy was the most important issue in this year's presidential election. And yet there were these portentous headlines after Election Day: ''Worries About Foreign Developments May Divert Clinton From Domestic Goals'' (Wall Street Journal) and ''Problems Abroad May Force Clinton to Alter Agenda'' (New York Times).

There are 24 wars raging around the world today, but in the judgment of the retired senior officers at the Center for Defense Information, not one of them poses a threat to the United States.

That would not have been true within the polarized option-destroying context of the Cold War, but now Bill Clinton has the chance to pursue a domestic agenda free of the shadow of serious security threats. That is the truly historic nature of his oppor- tunity.

''It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs,'' Woodrow Wilson remarked to a friend shortly after his election in 1912. It would be worse than an irony if that should happen to Bill Clinton's administration. It would be a tragedy, for Mr. Clinton and for America.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor of the Atlantic Monthly and author of the just-published biography of James Michael Curley, ''The Rascal King'' (Addison-Wesley). He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times

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