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Legacies Echo Through Clinton's Crisis

Clinton on Trial

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 10, 1999; Page A16

    One man was the glittering star for Bill Clinton's generation of Democrats, the other reigned for decades as its villain-in-chief. Clinton shared a magic handshake with his soon-to-be-martyred hero at age 16. Thirty-one years later, when a life in politics had made him more understanding of failure and redemption, Clinton spoke with compassion at the funeral of a man he had once disdained.

    This week the ghosts of two presidents who defined American politics for so much of the post-World War II era will be hovering over the Senate debate about Clinton's fitness to remain in power: John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

    Kennedy's example has echoed all through Clinton's life, from the younger man's early decision to pursue a life in politics to the personal transgressions that lately have placed him in such peril.

    But in what some loyalists fear will be the most painful irony for Clinton, it could be the Nixon legacy that echoes louder. The Republican's Watergate scandal, say historians, infused a deep prosecutorial streak in American politics that may have reached its apogee in the Clinton impeachment.

    "We are living in a completely different age that began on Aug. 9, 1974," the day Nixon resigned, said historian Michael Beschloss. He said the public standards before and after Nixon's "helicopter lifted off the White House lawn are as different as night and day, and presidents have been absolutely on notice since then" that the rules have changed.

    The question that is roiling American politics today -- just as much as Clinton's guilt or innocence -- is whether those changing rules for presidents are justified or fair. And in that debate, the Kennedy and Nixon legacies are still proving their long trajectories.

    It was Kennedy who inaugurated the modern era of president-as-celebrity, in which the power of the Oval Office became infused with an aura of glamour and sex appeal. Inspired by the JFK style, Clinton has emulated it in many ways. He, too, has relied on his fluency at mass communications. He, too, has prospered with a brand of politics in which the public is invited to identify with politicians as personalities, not mere government officials. And even some past and present Clinton advisers have privately speculated that, as the president sought to rationalize his own sexual indiscretions, he may have been emboldened by the example of what historians now say was Kennedy's sexual license.

    But if Kennedy's lapses stayed unexposed and unpunished in his lifetime, Clinton's transgressions led to a chain of events that has consumed his presidency. And that doleful reality for Clinton is in part an inheritance from Nixon.

    Nixon's Watergate crimes led to the installation of a permanent investigative apparatus in modern politics -- in Congress, in the news media and, above all, through the appointment of independent counsels to probe allegations of official wrongdoing. Before these post-Nixon innovations, many historians agree, it would scarcely have been conceivable that Clinton's dalliance with Monica S. Lewinsky could come to threaten his presidency.

    The arguments can be heard daily around lunch tables and on call-in radio shows. Clinton supporters say Kennedy showed that personal indiscretions do not diminish a president's greatness. Clinton's foes counter that the Kennedy example shows the dangers of a complacent news media that left serious sexual misconduct -- Kennedy's apparent affair with a mafia moll, for example -- unknown until after his death. And the Nixon example, say the Clinton critics, shows how no president should be above the law.

    Clinton himself has in private warmed to the argument about whether he is being persecuted by the changing standards for judging private conduct in public officials. At a Cabinet meeting in September, Clinton apologized for his misconduct with Lewinsky. But participants said he bristled when Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala said later that good public policies cannot compensate for private character flaws. By that logic, Clinton shot back, Kennedy could never have been elected president over Nixon in 1960.

    Clinton discussed the Kennedy example in more piquant language on an earlier occasion, according to Dick Morris, his former political consultant and one of the few people Clinton confided in when the Lewinsky story first broke a year ago. The occasion was Presidents Day 1995. An interviewer asked Clinton what he would discuss if he could somehow converse with Kennedy. Clinton responded that he would seek advice on "how to restore at least a measure of the optimism and sense of trust that existed when he became president."

    It was only later, according to an account Morris offered in a new edition of his book on the 1996 campaign, that Clinton revealed with a smile what he would really like to ask: "I wanted to ask him, you know, how did you do it? How did you get away with it?"

    Thomas Caplan, a friend of Clinton from his Georgetown University days who also knew JFK, agreed that Kennedy's style powerfully appealed to Clinton, but rejected the idea that Clinton is somehow patterning his life after his predecessor's.

    Democrats of Caplan and Clinton's age, no longer children but not yet adults when Kennedy came to power, were permanently influenced by the revelation that not all leaders were the age of grandparents. "He was a movie star as well as president, and at the deepest level we were affected by the sheer force" of Kennedy's glamour and rhetorical skill, Caplan said. "I think he was inspired by Kennedy's style, but I don't think he's derivative of it. . . . He's developed his own."

    But a political style that emphasizes personality and public performance carries its own risks -- ones that have landed with force on Clinton. "You pay a high price for the constant publicity and scrutiny," said Robert Dallek, author of biographies of President Lyndon B. Johnson. "Your character flaws are put on constant display."

    White House senior adviser Douglas Sosnik acknowledged that Clinton labors under the JFK legacy, just as much as he is inspired by it: "Kennedy in both a symbolic and real way ushered in a generation in which television became a dominant force in politics and virtually everything else in American life, and for many people President Clinton is, for better or worse, the son of that generation."

    "It's a blessing and a curse," Sosnik continued. Just as some people despise Clinton because they think he represents the moral failings of the baby boomer generation, so do many others identify with him. "For the same reasons that many people can empathize with his mistakes and forgive him, 30 percent of the country wants to destroy him."

    Kennedy's sexual escapades, even after they were exposed after his death, did not diminish his glow in many eyes. In a survey by the Roper polling firm last year, more Americans named him than any other when asked to name the "most effective" president since World War II.

    Clinton, say friends, remains vexed by his belief that he is being pursued for lapses that were commonplace among his predecessors. "It's not like he sits around and wallows in it, but he does think the sands have shifted," said one friend who has spoken often with Clinton since the Lewinsky scandal broke. "He thinks he has been held to a standard that other presidents were not."

    Charles Peters, editor of Washington Monthly magazine and a former campaign aide to Kennedy, said the hostile reactions to Clinton may be in part a matter of style as much as morality. To many people, Peters believes, Kennedy's affairs carry an aura of romance and James Bond-era cool, while Clinton's furtive assignations with Lewinsky seem more vulgar and embarrassing. "That's why some people are so angry with Clinton; he's offended their sense of taste," said Peters, who added that the most desirable consequence of the scandal might be a shift away from celebrity-style presidents.

    Political consultant Mandy Grunwald, who helped produce the 1992 campaign video that featured the young Clinton's handshake with Kennedy, agreed.

    "People will be exhausted by the roller-coaster of the Clinton years, and they'll want somebody boring" in the Eisenhower tradition, said Grunwald. She sees Clinton's predicament as replete with ironies. "He is neither as reckless as Kennedy nor as malevolent as Nixon," Grunwald said. "I think the saddest legacy could be, just as Kennedy inspired a whole generation of people to public service, a whole generation of people are turned off because of this scandal."

    Mark Penn, a Clinton pollster, drew the opposite conclusion, saying the scandal has shown that voters care more about a president's "public values" than private behavior.

    For Clinton, who aspired to Kennedy's legacy, the best hope is that he will be judged with the same leniency he once recommended for Nixon. He condemned Nixon in his 1974 congressional campaign, and Hillary Rodham served on the House committee investigating the Watergate crimes. But at Nixon's funeral, on April 28, 1994, he praised his predecessor as a man who never gave up. "He made mistakes, and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record," Clinton said. "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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