[ Thursday, May 29, 2003 ]

The incredible, forgettable presidents

Bill Clinton would probably like to embrace an old Chinese curse.

Well, he might like to at least clutch a phrase attributed to ancient Oriental philosophy, although nobody seems able to document it much past this century in America. Either way, the curse is this: May you live in interesting times.

It’s a curse because most truly interesting times in terms of political and social development involve conflict and difficulty. But history also only tends to remember leaders who lived during interesting times. Nothing historically significant enough happened during Clinton’s presidency to lift him above the bottom level of presidents in terms of historical recognition come 100 years from now. The most interesting - and historically relevant - event of his presidency involved something Clinton, who recently suggested possibly altering the United States Constitution in order to allow a president to serve more than two terms, does obviously not want as his legacy.

However, the first line of Clinton’s biography will always involve a description of how he was the hillbilly who almost lost the presidency of the United States because he got blow jobs from an ugly fat chick. Part of the reason for that description was because Clinton did not live in exceptionally interesting times. Almost no events occurred during his eight years in office that leap out as among the most important in American history.

There were a few military actions. However, serving as Commander-in-Chief during battles like Kosovo did not secure any place in history. Just about every American president has dealt with some sort of armed conflict even if minor ones. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, so it does not guarantee immediate recognition. How many Americans remember who was president during the Whiskey Rebellion, Barbary Wars, Bleeding Kansas, Banana Wars, U.S. Intervention in the Hawaiian Revolution or Boxer Rebellion?

Even impeachment did not gain Clinton an automatic click in the minds of Americans like people get when hearing the name Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or Thomas Jefferson. Anybody who doubts that should poll people to see how many know Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868. Instead, Clinton finds himself a likely candidate for the list of forgettable presidents like James Polk, Benjamin Harrison, James Buchanan, Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur - a lot likely destined for most of the presidents of the last 50 years, excluding John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.

Sometimes the difference between historically significant and largely forgotten comes down to situations beyond the individual’s control. Even if out-of-the-ordinary forces act upon a person, there is no guarantee he will make a lasting impression on the American landscape. The presidencies and complete existences of James Garfield and William McKinley basically hold almost no immediate significance or recognition in modern American culture.

When was the last time you heard a person refer to either man?

Probably not within the last two years. However, both of them were involved in important events in the history of the presidency ... they were assassinated while in office.

But history can be fickle like that.

Few leaders can force their way into the collective fabric of America’s recognition. Almost nobody, excluding a few historians, remembers Lincoln’s economic policies. Rather, they remember how he rose to the occasion of preserving the Union. Every president develops financial strategies, trade policies and other philosophies to deal with issues of the day. But not all are called to respond to history-shaping events.

That is the key difference.

For example, Clinton can only watch as Bush runs America during historic times.

Clinton knows he could have been called upon to guide America through one of its darkest days if the timing had been different by only a few months. There is likely some jealousy involved. Bush certainly will not rank among the best presidents in United States history. Far from it. Far, far from it. Immediate recognition does not necessarily mean greatness, though. People will remember Nixon, but they will remember him for being a crook who tarnished the office. If nothing else, Bush will be remembered in the history books for holding office during one of the most historic times in recent memory that started with the 9-11 attacks.

Clinton will not gain any such recognition.

His obvious lost chance at a significant place in American presidential history possibly played a role in Clinton’s recent suggestion that the United States Constitution might possibly be amended so an individual could serve more than two terms as long as they are not consecutive. Clinton, who was barred from seeking a third term due to the 22nd Amendment just like every leader of the nation since Franklin Roosevelt won four elections, did not mention himself by name. Rather, he stated, “There may come a time when we elect a president at age 45 or 50, and then 20 years later the country comes up against the same kind of problems the president faced before. People would like to bring that man or woman back but they would have no way to do so.”

Short of using the hypothetical name - Bill C. from Arkansas - in his quote shown here at, his suggestion could not be more obvious.

Clinton will not get his wish, though, since officials will not amend the Constitution within the next few decades barring a drastic shift in American politics or an event that puts the country on the verge of extinction. He is destined to rank among the relatively unforgettable leaders of America. His lot was secured because circumstance never called upon him to display any potential greatness he could have shown. Such is the case with many presidents. Maybe Polk could have led America through the Civil War as well as Lincoln. He was just never called upon to do it.

So, he is largely forgotten.

Clinton will be, too.
Dave Sutor [10:38 PM]