If Clinton Gets One Sentence in the Books

BEN WATTENBERG

February 17, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington. -- This being Presidential Birthday Week, let us consider how George Washington and Abraham Lincoln might have fared under the present rules of the road, and let us see if there is a lesson regarding Bill Clinton's stewardship.

It is 1790: In the capital (Philadelphia) the scribes ask ''how's he doing?'' Not well. Sam Donaldson says, ''George Washington lacks vision.'' The Los Angeles Times is checking the cherry-tree story, a credibility-buster. The call-ins on C-Span focus on Washington's nomination of a man who was not a horse thief, but knew one. The New Republic intones, ''Americans no longer think their children will do better than their parents.'' George Washington's approval rating is down seven points.

It is 1861: The capital (now named, interestingly, ''Washington'') is asking, ''How's he's doing?'' CNN reports that Honest Abe is stumbling. No wonder, say the guests on ''Nightline.'' He received only a minority of the popular vote. On ''The McLaughlin Group'' the panelists stress that Lincoln's high voice robs him of the ability to inspire people. On PBS, Gergen and Shields agree that Honest Abe is ''off message.'' Rush Limbaugh says, ''Even Republicans are disappointed.''

How are presidents judged? The late Clare Booth Luce said that every important president ends up with only one sentence in the history books. Less important presidents are ignored.

Thus, it is said, ''George Washington was the father of his country.'' And, ''Lincoln saved the union and freed the slaves.'' Teddy Roosevelt ''busted the trusts,'' Franklin Roosevelt ''ended the Depression and won the war,'' Harry Truman ''contained communism.'' Don't bother asking about Grover Cleveland or Calvin Coolidge.

What about Clinton? If he ends up deserving a sentence in future history texts, it will not be about his stumbling start, nor his diminished approval ratings. It won't be about Zoe Baird, or Kimba Wood, or about how he botched the handling of gays in the military. That is not the stuff of history, but of media fire-storming driven by the expanding ''electronic news hole.'' I grant that scandalizing our public personages offers a perverse and hypnotic sort of fun, but most of it is trivial.

So what might President Clinton's single sentence be? Is it the economy, stupid? I am dubious. What will spark this economy is the new wave of almost-raw capitalism. The layoffs, closings and restructurings can be temporarily tragic for individuals. But our businesses are sleek, stripped to the waist, able to compete for championships. That yields more prosperity for individuals. It is the hidebound economies of Europe that now must reform.

Anyway, ''He shrank the deficit,'' is less than a trumpet of historical glory.

Might health care be Mr. Clinton's call to greatness? If he proposed dramatic socialized medicine, and if it worked wonderfully, that might do it. But he won't, because it doesn't. The socialized German system is in deep trouble. America will pick at the edges to make a good system better.

I think Bill Clinton's potential for a great sentence will come, if it comes, from the idea that ''he saved liberalism from itself.''

The fruits of 60 years of liberalism gave America much that is good, and now much that is troubling. A welfare system that helped create ''a culture of dependency'' saps our spirit and our purse; an erosion of discipline in our schools has ''dumbed down'' our children; the unraveling of the criminal code triggered a crime wave.

Republican and/or conservative presidents have not (yet) been able to reform the excesses of liberalism. President Clinton could do it if he's tough enough. He has foolishly made his task more difficult by appointing only a handful of the ''orthodoxy busters'' who shaped his campaign. But his term is young; that might change.

There is another mildly plausible strategy: instead of fighting the troglodyte liberals, he might convince them to change their minds, for their own good. After all, liberals these days don't believe in much, and it is easier to convert people with little conviction.

Failing that, President Clinton may not get a Washington-style or a Lincoln-style one-sentence verdict of history, but something like this: ''Bill Clinton served during an era of one-term presidents.''

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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