Playing Politics

GARRY WILLS

January 12, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Bill Clinton is under criticism for the diversity he sought in his administration's appointments. We are told that he caved in to pressure groups, that he looked more to constituent-placation than to competence.

He denies this, of course. But even if it is partly true, why should we be surprised? There is nothing new, and certainly nothing wrong, in using appointments to recruit the loyalty of important parts of the electorate.

If any appointment process should look to competence, it is advancement in the military. Young men's lives depend on the ability of their generals; yet Abraham Lincoln appointed many ''political generals.'' Told that a certain Alexander Schimmelfennig was not as qualified as other contenders, Lincoln said the name was what he wanted -- it would cement German-American loyalty to the war effort. The distinguished civil-war historian James McPherson described Lincoln's strategy this way:

''Historians who note that Schimmelfennig turned out to be a mediocre commander miss the point. Their criticism is grounded in the narrow concept of military strategy. But Lincoln made this and similar appointments for reasons of national strategy. Each of the political generals represented an important ethnic, regional or political constituency in the North. The support of these constituencies for the war effort was crucial.''

Those who think President-elect Clinton's accommodation of effective blocs in our time is a new and shameful concession to ''political correctness'' have no sense of history. The idea that Mr. Clinton tries too hard to please different groups is not a new charge, either. It was frequently said of Franklin Roosevelt, during his transition period in 1932-1933, that he was too placatory to too many different viewpoints. As Frank Freidel, the leading biographer of Roosevelt, put it: Roosevelt ''succeeded in pleasing a wide array of visitors of differing political credos,through consulting them flatteringly, talking in generalities broad enough to embrace each point of view, and hinting of patronage.''

This led to some later misunderstandings, and Mr. Freidel admits that ''part of the trouble, no doubt, was Roosevelt's ready affability.''

But Roosevelt could be ''slick,'' too -- as when he evaded President Hoover's attempts to recruit him to the cause of forgiving foreign loans. Roosevelt visited the White House and smiled pleasantly through the president's lecture, but succeeded in remaining non-committal. Hoover petulantly told his diary that night that he could get no response from this man who was ''very badly informed and of comparatively little vision.''

Yet Roosevelt did all right -- and it is too soon to say that Mr. Clinton caved in on the appointments he has made. He is clearly using some of these people, as Lincoln used Schimmelfennig, to exert pressure, creatively, not merely to register it, responsively.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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