Clinton learns his lesson: 'Sacrifice' goes by an alias


February 17, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

The spirits of three presidents circle Bill Clinton's head, each whispering in his ear, each vying for his soul.

He is familiar with them all:

Bill Clinton sits at John F. Kennedy's desk. The photograph of 16-year-old Clinton meeting Kennedy in 1962 is virtually a religious icon in the Clinton household.

And on the day before his inaugural, Clinton, accompanied by Ted Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr., paid silent homage at the Kennedy gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery.

And what did John Kennedy offer America in his first days in office?

The cleansing power of sacrifice.

"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," Kennedy said. "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

And at a time when middle-class Americans could afford a house, two cars and college educations for the kids all on one salary, the time seemed ripe for a little noblesse oblige.

Nobody called it that, but that is what the Peace Corps and VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America)were all about.

And we could afford it. It and a space program and a small, winnable war in Southeast Asia.

Jimmy Carter, too, was a president of sacrifice. But he advocated it not because Americans could still afford to sacrifice, but because Americans could no longer afford not to.

We were far too dependent on foreign oil (and are even more dependent today) and an Arab oil boycott had sent our economy into a tailspin.

So dial down the thermostat, Carter said. Live more simply. And expect less.

But Americans didn't buy it. Which, to Bill Clinton, means Carter didn't sell it.

And today Bill Clinton studies Jimmy Carter only to avoid making the same mistakes.

Which brings us to Ronald Reagan.

Clinton has made no secret of the fact that he and his aides have carefully studied the reasons behind Ronald Reagan's popularity with the people.

Speaking on ABC's "Nightline" Monday, Clinton aide Paul Begala said: "He [Clinton] derives his power much in the way President Reagan did: from his rapport with the American people."

Well, not quite.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, it was by an outright majority of the electorate. Not so for Bill Clinton.

In his televised address to the nation on Monday night, Clinton said: "After all, that's why you sent me here: not to keep this seat warm but to work for fundamental change."

But most of the electorate did not send Bill Clinton to Washington for that or any other reason. Fifty-seven percent of the electorate voted against him. (Thirty-eight percent voted for George Bush, and 19 percent voted for Ross Perot.)

So how much of a mandate for fundamental change, let alone for sacrificial change, can he really claim?

And keep in mind one of the reasons Ronald Reagan was so popular. Here is part of his stump speech from 1980:

"How many times has Jimmy Carter come before us and acted as if this economy were our fault? As if it were some kind of plague that came out of the air because you and I are spending too much, we're buying too many things, we're living too well. Carter says we've got to get used to austerity and sharing and scarcity and give up luxury. Well, I don't believe that! I think we should cover our children's ears when they hear that kind of talk!"

And now we come to today, an era when many Americans, even on two salaries, can't afford the life their parents led.

And what do we need to return America to prosperity? Sacrifice, perhaps, but by some other name definitely.

Though Clinton had used the word in his inaugural -- "It will require sacrifice" to renew America, he said -- he now no longer finds it an appropriate term.

And you can see why:

John F. Kennedy offered noble sacrifice, and we do not know whether he would have been re-elected or not.

Jimmy Carter offered necessary sacrifice and was defeated.

Ronald Reagan attacked sacrifice and was returned to office.

So no wonder Bill Clinton wants to find another word.

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