With Nixon gone, Clinton loses adviser

April 26, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of the Sun Contributing writer Nelson Schwartz provided information for this article.

WASHINGTON -- When Richard M. Nixon died, the current occupants of the White House lost a man that Bill Clinton had once worked to defeat and his wife had once worked to impeach. But Mr. Clinton also lost an adviser, one of the five former presidents he has regularly tapped since he assumed office last year.

The Nixon family and Mr. Nixon's Republican loyalists -- normally no friends of the Clintons -- have expressed gratitude to the president for his private kindnesses and public words. He praised Mr. Nixon Friday night and made his staff available to help with the memorial service, transportation to California, press credentials and the hundreds of other details involved in a presidential funeral.

All presidents pay homage to the office; all presidents quote Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt -- and Bill Clinton is no exception.

What is exceptional is the degree to which this president has cultivated and relied on living ex-presidents.

"These guys have keen minds and a vibrancy," says White House communications director Mark Gearan. "They have a lot to offer."

Before he was inaugurated, Mr. Clinton went to pay his respects to Ronald Reagan. After his election, he has sought the advice of Mr. Nixon on Russia and China and Jimmy Carter on the Middle East and Africa. Gerald R. Ford's counsel was sought on the North American Free Trade Agreement, particularly regarding its impact on Mexico.

The most interesting of these conversations is the one Mr. Clinton had with Mr. Nixon in the Oval Office on March 8, 1993. It was a picture that struck some people -- including partisan young Democratic White House aides -- as being as incongruous as the famous photograph of Elvis Presley presenting then-President Nixon with a handgun.

Mr. Clinton, however, clearly believed that it was politically valuable to be seen with Republican presidents: The White House released the picture of Mr. Nixon and Mr. Clinton, but wouldn't make public one a few weeks later when Mr. Carter visited.

Perhaps more important, the presidency can be a lonely job. Mr. Clinton hinted at this other reason behind his unlikely friendship with Mr. Nixon in the kind remarks he made Friday night in the Rose Garden.

"It's impossible to be in this job," he said, "without feeling a special bond with the people who have gone before."

"The president very much values the opinions of the former presidents because they have particular understanding and insight on certain issues," said White House chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III. "But it's more than that, of course. . . . There's an empathy, a bond -- 'They've walked a mile in my shoes' -- and no one else can really know what that means."

Mr. McLarty coordinated the events involving the former presidents that constituted the most conspicuous use of ex-presidents by a sitting president in recent history:

On Sept. 13, Mr. Clinton presided over the signing of a historic peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. As Mr. Reagan had done when he rounded up three former presidents for Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat's funeral, Mr. Clinton invited his predecessors to be a part of the history they helped create.

With Mr. Carter and George Bush in attendance at the South Lawn ceremony, Mr. Clinton gave a special salute to Mr. Carter.

Then he added: "Ever since Harry Truman first recognized Israel, every American president -- Democrat and Republican -- has worked for peace between Israel and her neighbors. Now, the efforts of all who have labored before us bring us to this moment . . ."

Mr. Gearan says that making this point was Mr. Clinton's idea. "He's really a student of the presidency," he said. "He's read every presidential biography you can imagine."

The next day, Mr. Bush, Mr. Carter and Mr. Ford all joined Mr. Clinton in the East Room at the signing of the NAFTA side agreements. All three ex-presidents spoke passionately in favor of the agreement. Mr. Bush and Mr. Carter even spent the night in the White House, which they mentioned nostalgically.

The interplay between 1992 opponents Mr. Bush, who negotiated NAFTA, and Mr. Clinton, who helped get it ratified, was intriguing.

"I thought that was a very eloquent statement by Mr. Clinton," Mr. Bush quipped. "Now I understand why he's inside looking out and I'm outside looking in."

There is no particular custom or precedent for how the current occupant of the White House is supposed to deal with previous occupants. Mr. Bush, for instance, rarely sought the counsel of his predecessors. This was especially galling to conservative Republicans who thought that Mr. Bush owed his presence in the White House to Mr. Reagan.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.