The Karma Kid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 1999; Page C1
That lucky dog.
Bill Clinton's back on top, and looking good. No woodshed for this guy. His spanking will be the antiseptic kind, a squinty-eyed rebuke familiar to any sixth-grader. This is going to go into your permanent record, young man. The idea of censuring the president is practically dead; what will have to suffice is the proposed censure resolution that was entered into the Congressional Record last Friday.
He's in the catbird seat.
The economy is in giddy ascension. The man's popularity is Eisenhowerean. His public appearances resemble ticker-tape parades. He is indestructible. He is not the Teflon president. He is the Kevlar president.
So, is this guy lucky, or what?
Asked about Clinton's luck, James Carville is cagey. Bill Clinton makes his own luck, the Democratic strategist insists, quoting golfer Lee Trevino: "The harder I work, the luckier I get."
Carville says, "When we face a more skilled opponent, it's easier to attribute his success against us to luck. Luck is the pabulum of the elite."
Part of Clinton's success, he says, is that he never gives up. Never says uncle. He is like one of those inflatable punching bag clowns with a tushie full of sand; you smack it down, it keeps popping up. According to Carville, he's not the Teflon president or the Kevlar president. He's the rope-a-dope president. There is genius in Clinton's perseverance, Carville says.
"Bill Clinton," he says, "is the smartest man in Washington, D.C."
Okay, James. Was it Clinton's smarts that made the economy turn around in November 1992, and not a few months before, when George Bush could have justifiably taken credit for it, snapping the linchpin of his opponent's campaign and rescuing his presidency?
And that was just the beginning. Time and again, when he was on the brink of failure, something has happened to let Bill Clinton wriggle off the hook. Sometimes it has been because he is a great wriggler, a world-class contortionist. But more often, there have been opportune coincidences. Unforeseeable confluences of favorable events. Great timing.
Was it skill, James, that had the scandal break just days before the State of the Union address last year, allowing Clinton to stride presidentially into an amphitheater of dignitaries, all of whom had to smile and clap?
So, did Bill Clinton skill his way through all of this?
"He has had some lucky breaks," Carville concedes. "But he's always put himself in a position to get 'em."
Okay, James. Try this. You are in a room with Bill Clinton. There are two doors. Beyond one is a pile of money, yours for the taking. Behind the other is an explosive device that will blow you to pieces the size of BBs. You don't know which is which, and you must move now. Bill heads for Door A. Do you walk through with him, or choose Door B?
"I go with Bill," Carville says.
"Bill's lucky," Carville says.
"But I also think Bill would have talked to the janitor."
"President Clinton is lucky," insists Marc Myers in a New York Times op-ed piece last week on the president's remarkable good fortune. Myers is the author of "How to Make Luck: Seven Secrets Lucky People Use to Succeed."
Laurence Stains agrees. He is co-author of "The Good Luck Book," a 1997 study of myths and beliefs about luck. He agrees there is such a thing as luck, and that some people have it, and that Bill Clinton is one. Why Clinton is lucky eludes him.
"What did he do -- did he catch a falling leaf? Put a penny from his birth year in his kitchen? Walk up a flight of stairs backward? I think he is one lucky son of a gun, and I don't think we can make too much more of that."
However, Stains points out that in politics, luck can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Julius Caesar bragged thunderously about his luck, the way a politician today would brag of his honesty or toughness.
"He knew that if people thought that Fortuna smiles upon this guy, this is the guy we want leading the empire," said Stains. Caesar once sailed across the Mediterranean to attack an enemy. The sea surged and his pilot was going to turn back, but Caesar said, "Entrust your sails to fortune and receive her breeze, confident because you bear Caesar and Caesar's fortune." In other words: He was Caesar, and he was lucky, and the winds would shift, and they would win.
He was, he was, they did, and they did.
The fact is, there are plumb lucky people.
Many believe this is impossible -- that luck is, by its very nature, lucky; that luck distributes itself randomly, and that no one gets more than anyone else. That's wrong. There are bound to be people who are luckier than others, people like Bill Clinton. It is a scientific certainty.
"Basically, it's forced," says mathematician Persi Diaconis. In mathspeak, this means it's a sure thing. Diaconis, a Stanford University professor, is an expert on probability.
Imagine, he says, a thousand boxes, and a blind man tossing a thousand balls toward the boxes, with a completely random likelihood of each ball going into any box. The boxes represent a thousand people. The balls represent a thousand doses of identical good luck.
The probability that each box will get exactly one ball is so low that, statistically, it does not exist. In fact, many or most boxes will get no balls.
Diaconis has actually studied this. He invented the formula by which one might identify a Bill Clinton, and scientifically measure his luck.
Diaconis pulls out a calculator. There is much clicking and popping.
"It's around log . . . base . . . function," he mutters, lost in a language unfamiliar to most hominids.
Aha. Here it is.
For each 1,000 cases, Diaconis decides, there will be one box, one lucky box, that will get either seven or eight balls. Which is a lot.
Of course, Diaconis says, as a scientist he cannot affirm that the one lucky box is Bill Clinton. It is even theoretically possible that Clinton is not lucky but unlucky. Unlucky, for example, to have had this sexual affair explode so publicly.
"That would depend on the denominator," Diaconis says. "We don't know the denominator."
This is what he means: The larger the denominator -- the more sexual affairs that did not explode publicly -- the luckier Bill Clinton has been.
Some people just seem to be born lucky. Maybe they are.
Maybe there are genes for luck, good and bad.
It's not that far-fetched. A few years ago, Peter McGuffin, a psychiatrist and geneticist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, was working on a study of depression when he stumbled on something interesting. Among members of certain families -- even distant relations -- people tended to report unusual amounts of bad luck. McGuffin adjusted for various factors that could have skewed the results, such as the identical bad events being reported by more than one person, or inherited tendencies toward depression -- yet the familial patterns persisted. He checked identical twins who lived apart. Same thing. He concluded it had something to do with inherited personality traits. Depressed and pessimistic people report more bad luck. Optimistic people report less.
"Inherent risk-taking personalities," says McGuffin, "may have have a resilience that goes with good luck."
In effect, he is saying what Carville is saying. That some people just keep popping back up. They are not defeated by failures. They are indefatigable optimists, and they put themselves in a position to field good luck when it arrives.
In Clinton's case, his humble beginnings are often cited as examples of bad luck. His father died before he was born. His mother married a violent drunk. But there is something that people are not noticing. Clinton's biological father was a traveling salesman, a man of ordinary intellect and talent but extraordinary optimism. W.J. Blythe was quick with a smile and a handshake and a tall tale, and he believed, deeply and against all evidence, that he was going to become a millionaire.
Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley, was an inveterate gambler. Her whole life, she loved the ponies.
Gamblers, McGuffin says, are born optimists. They view the world as essentially unthreatening. They are not deterred by bad luck; they don't even see it as bad luck. When you play the lottery, you don't expect to win on every ticket. Each loss is simply a prudent investment against an inevitable glorious payday.
Same with politics.
On the road to redemption, the next bus is always just a few minutes away. You just have to be there, ready to climb aboard.
Clinton, says McGuffin, "might have good genes."
In the first days of the scandal, as the unbearably fetid facts began to ooze out, people were pretty sure Bill Clinton was done for, any minute. Folks said some pretty amazing things.
Here's a great one from George Will:
"His presidency, Cokie, today is dead -- deader, really, than Woodrow Wilson's was after he had a stroke. That's the immutable lesson of history."
On the face of it, Will was probably right. He's a smart man. He knows the American public. He knows the power of partisan politics. He knows history.
There's just one factor he didn't reckon on.
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