Every American president leaves his stamp, his signature or his stain. George Washington, the one truly "indispensable man" in whom citizens of the infant republic could repose both their trust and confidence, defined the presidency.
To preserve the Union during this country's hour of maximum peril, Abraham Lincoln overcame his own innate modesty to become the nation's strongest president. With an effect upon history still being felt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, brimming with indomitable optimism and self-confidence, inspired a people woefully bereft of both to believe they could beat the Great Depression as well as Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.
On the evening of May 27, 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, FDR gave a 45-minute fireside chat to the nation over radio in which he challenged Germany on free U.S. access to the Atlantic and enlisted support for Great Britain, then under siege. The New York Giants and the Boston Braves were, on that date, playing the first night baseball game of the season. The start of the game was held up 45 minutes while the president's speech was broadcast over the Polo Grounds' loudspeaker system, and the crowd sat and listened.
Today, almost regardless of the subject matter, no president in prime time will be carried on MTV, HBO, ESPN or the Weather Channel. No tennis match would be delayed.
The happy end of the Cold War -- after direct U.S. conflict with totalitarianism for half a century when the powers of the man in the White House were large and centralized -- has led to the downsizing of the American presidency. The 1996 presidential campaign, with the winning incumbent's successful emphasis on V-chips for home television, school uniforms and tax deductibility of college tuition, attests to the lowering of expectations for and by our presidents.
Four years earlier, "the president as commander in chief" ceased to be of paramount importance to voters in selecting the new national leader. Exit polls on Election Day 1992 found four out of five voters stating that Bill Clinton's checkered draft status and anti-war activities had been "not important" in making their presidential choice. The collapse of the Soviet Union had changed citizens' job description for the president.
Failed and flawed presidencies can dramatically change what voters seek in choosing the next chief executive. After Watergate and Vietnam, and disclosure of organized deception by Presidents Nixon and Johnson -- two men who had previously served in the House, the Senate and as vice presidents -- voters in 1976 were quite taken by a one-term Georgia governor who trumpeted his ignorance of Washington as a plus and soberly promised never to tell a lie.
President Reagan believed that he embodied many of President Roosevelt's most memorable qualities: optimism, confidence, the ability to inspire and a finely tuned flair for the dramatic. To his credit, he left the presidency a strengthened instrument of democracy.
The iron rule of American political campaigns holds that when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue, and when the economy is good, a challenger-candidate had better find some other issue on which to beat an incumbent. In 1992, the economy was bad, and Democrat Bill Clinton, revealing a truly uncanny ability to establish instant communication with individual voters, defeated George Bush.
With his unwavering gaze and his capacity to communicate empathy to perfect strangers, Clinton actually did seem to feel the other person's pain. Nowhere was that more evident than in Clinton's comforting eulogy after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed.
In addition, President Clinton is the acknowledged master of information. He knows, is comfortable with and can explain policy and programs as well as any president. The two front-runners to succeed Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, the Democrat, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican, each has half of the Clinton package. Gore has the obvious mastery of policy and detail but without either Clinton's personal touch or easy ability to popularize the complex. Bush has that Clintonian personal touch and ease with strangers, but he has yet to reveal any mastery of policy.
What next? The Clinton soap opera has overstayed its welcome. Voters are sick and tired of being embarrassed by their chief executive. Voters for 2000 want a "grown-up" in the West Wing and an elected leader who brings no surprises. And just possibly, the nation may have grown up enough to support that rare leader who reminds us of our responsibilities as well as our rights, who instead of offering more painless individual prosperity might dare challenge us to collective sacrifice for the common good. Wouldn't that be something?