I was sorry to see that Griffin Bell died the other day. In the late 1970's, I began my career in speech communication by competing in forensics. In particular, I spent weeks giving extemporaneous speeches on current events. Griffin Bell was the Attorney General during that time and it was easy for even a teenager to find him impressive. Amid the incompetence of the Carter Administration, Bell reformed a post-Watergate Justice Department, restoring morale and demonstrating that government lawyers could fight for the right. In fact, after the intelligence scandals of the mid-70's, Bell shaped the Foreign Intelligence Surviellance Act that our current president ignored, much to our country's shame. Griffin Bell was good people. May our new president find public servants as good as Bell.
The New York Times endorsed Barack Obama today and, as a consequence, featured all of its previous endorsements on its website. Out of curiosity, I naturally turned to the first endorsement. The more things change...
It appears that Old Abe, all six foot seven (!) of him, will be an excellent president because of, well, gridlock. Sounding much like George Will, the 1860 version of the Times is pleased that Congress will thwart Lincoln's will and Lincoln will thwart Congress's will. As a result, the Southern states will stay in the Union, nothing at all will happen, and all will be well.
There was also an extended analysis of the qualities of character imparted by the profession of railsplitting. One can only hope that Barack Obama has cut down trees and split some rails. The moral firmness created through the chopping of wood is remarkable. It results in a president who will declare slavery to be a moral wrong, a president who is firm, manly and rugged. Perhaps not this rugged.
Ronald Reagan made a pretty good liberal Democrat. This clip disoriented me; it was so strange to listen to Reagan using his familiar strategies--the anecdote, the statistics, the refutation--in support of Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey. It's bizarro Reagan!
The controversy over Barack Obama's admiration for Ronald Reagan's political skills has taken a new direction; the Clintons now wish to focus on Bill's performance in office. They're arguing that Obama was wrong to say Reagan changed the country in fundamental ways and Clinton did not. Rather, the HRC campaign now declares, Bill Clinton was a transformational president. I've spent a lot of time studying the Clinton presidency. That is one of the silliest claims ever made about it.
There is not a single way to make this argument. In fact, the genius of the Clinton presidency came from the opposite direction. He took office at the end of a quarter century trend in favor of the Republicans. Beginning in 1968, the South, due to race, began to turn to the GOP. For myriad reasons, including simple inertia, it took years for conservative Democrats to give way to conservative Republicans. That process culminated in 1994. It dribbled on a bit after that, but that trend meant that, when Clinton left office, there were fewer elected Democrats at every level than when he came to office. He certainly failed to forestall that (and probably could not have done so) but he had to deal with it.
And it was, in fact, his legendary ability to maneuver through difficult terrain, confound his enemies, and achieve many of his objectives that characterized his presidency. Yet it was also due to this climate that those goals were decidedly modest, with the exception of the failed health care campaign. He created a budget surplus (which his successor immediately destroyed), passed trade treaties supported primarily by Republicans, expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit (a conservative innovation), put more police officers on the street, made college more affordable--note that I'm not saying, "He won the Civil War" or "He created the New Deal." Clinton did well, from within the confines of his political cage. He chose not to risk and lose it all on any one program, as Wilson did in a similar environment with the League of Nations.
Ironically, given this claim about his presidency, he might (and I emphasize might) have had the chance in his second term to transform entitlement programs (a Democrat like Bill Clinton might have been able to do that in much the way Nixon could go to China). Instead, Clinton risked his second term on Monica Lewinsky and lost. To claim that Clinton transformed American public life or politics is simply wrong.
To set the record straight, I'm not fond of the notion that Reagan did, either. For better and worse, the transformational president was Richard Nixon. He taught us to distrust government. He created the Southern strategy. He gave us a Supreme Court that endured until very recently. He gave us affirmative action. His actions allowed for genocide in Cambodia. He made a big place for environmental concerns in the government bureaucracy. He brought China firmly onto the world stage. Republicans and Democrats can meander on about Clinton or Reagan or both. We are all, for better and worse, the heirs of Richard Nixon.