• U.S.

A Time for Courage

7 minute read
Walter Isaacson

CHANGE, BILL CLINTON SAID AGAIN AND again during his long trek to the White House, does not come easily. It will take courage, their own courage, for Americans to choose a new course. Now that they have made that choice, it is Clinton’s turn to be courageous.

With his computer-like mind and his joyous addiction to pressing the flesh, Clinton was a brilliant campaigner. Almost too brilliant: toward the end his biggest vulnerability was his reputation as a dexterous accommodator, the schoolboy politician perennially concerned about preserving his political viability. On one of his last nights on the trail, Clinton told a crowd that Teddy Roosevelt had shaken thousands of hands at his Inauguration. “Maybe this is a record I will break,” Clinton exulted. Maybe, but once he takes office the born pleaser will have to master a different art: that of displeasing people. He will need the courage to do more than husband his success if he is to fulfill the mandate for change that he sought.

According to the old theory propounded by historians Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr., every 30 years or so the nation turns, after a respite of conservative retrenchment, to a new era of active government, public purpose and liberal idealism. “Government is not the solution to our problems,” Ronald Reagan proclaimed at his first Inaugural 12 years ago. “Government is the problem.” Bill Clinton, on the other hand, has displayed an almost evangelical faith in the ability of government to improve people’s lives. If he can turn his “new covenant” rhetoric into reality, he has the chance to personify the type of mood swing ushered in by the rough-riding progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt in 1900, the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and the New Frontier of John Kennedy in 1960.

Once again, the mainspring that turns the cycle is generational. “It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things,” President Woodrow Wilson explained to his youthful Assistant Secretary of the Navy. That young man was Franklin Roosevelt, and his activist presidency was the formative experience for the generation that came to fruition with Kennedy. Now the torch is being passed to the generation that was touched and inspired by Kennedy. Indeed, the most memorable moment in the convention video about the man from Hope was the scene of the eager student being inspired by Kennedy’s anointing touch.

But historical cycles are not inevitable. They depend on the strengths and frailties of those who become repositories of the hope for change. In a democracy, successful reformers must have, above all, the backbone to convey brutal facts unflinchingly. Especially now: America’s current plight has been aggravated by a willful refusal to inhale unpleasant truths about the deficit, about racial divisions, about defense cuts and conversion of military facilities, about schools and about the workplace.

Though hardly saintly in this regard, George Bush was not off base in charging that Clinton’s tendency to waffle on tough issues was worrisome. The Democratic candidate talked only vaguely about “challenges,” while avoiding any mention of sacrifice, and his economic program was a no-pain pastiche that involved taxing only the rich and foreign corporations. The resulting doubts about his trustworthiness produced enough near death experiences for his campaign to serve as warning that being all things to all people will not work.

There is also ample evidence that Americans are ready, even eager, to hear some of the hard truths that inform a yearning for change. It was a year, to borrow a phrase E.B. White used to describe a contentious New England town meeting, “when democracy sat up and looked around.” Part of Ross Perot’s appeal was his rapid-fire, flip-chart manner of laying out the bad news that Bush and Clinton did not want to discuss.

Before he launched his famous first 100 days, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that “the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.” He understood that the best way to protect the mandate he had won was to expend his political capital, to treat his popularity as a tool for governing rather than as an asset to be hoarded until the next election. He was re-elected three ; times. George Bush is living proof that the opposite approach leads to failure.

Clinton has pledged, in the spirit of Roosevelt, to spend his first 100 days reigniting the nation’s economic confidence. Instead of accepting a muddle- through series of compromises that offends few factions, he must be a leader, working with the new Democratic Congress to produce the kind of jolt that will cause Americans in their corner coffee shops to talk once again about the future with hope, not fear. The rare combination of an administration and both houses of Congress controlled by the same party means that the President can be held accountable for a change. But it also means that Clinton must prevent his seductive rhetoric about “infrastructure investments” from being translated by Congress into pork-barrel programs.

Clinton’s willingness to move beyond some of the old-time Democratic religion is auspicious. He has spoken eloquently of the need to redefine liberalism: the language of entitlements and rights and special-interest demands, he says, must give way to talk of responsibilities and duties. “We’re going to empower people to take control of their own lives, then hold them accountable for doing so,” he says.

COMBINING CONSERVATIVE VALUES SUCH AS RESPONsibility and self-help with liberal ones like tolerance and generosity — which is precisely the covenant that Clinton proposes — could conquer the corrosive tactic of making wedge issues out of racial fears and sexual prejudices. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, Clinton decried the us-vs.-them politics of division. “This is America,” he said. “There is no ‘them’; there is only us.” He then maneuvered to ensure that, unlike in 1988, in fact unlike in any election since 1960, race was not an issue. Partly he achieved this by shying away from being cast as the tribune for the poor and blacks. Now he faces the more exalted challenge of acting affirmatively to heal the racial and cultural tensions that have frayed America’s social quilt.

By reviving a sense of common citizenship and civic good, by exalting the notions of public purpose and mutual obligation, America could grope toward a cease-fire in its divisive culture wars. Rather than being rhetorical weapons used to divide the country, such words as values and family could become unifying themes in a quest for common ground. Only then will America begin to cope with poverty, race, welfare, discrimination, abortion and even the deficit.

< Clinton has the credentials to lead such a unifying crusade. Unlike George Bush or Ross Perot, he has an intuitive feel for America’s changing patterns. He is comfortable with women as equal partners in the workplace, in government and in marriages like his own. As an exemplar of the new South, he has dealt with blacks and gays, as well as good ole boys and businessmen, on a daily basis with mutual respect. And unlike any other prominent Democrat since Jimmy Carter, he is not tone deaf to the religious chords that can help bind American society. Not only does he know how to clap on the back-beat of gospel hymns, he also draws unabashed strength from his Baptist upbringing.

With all that is at stake and with all the hope that America has invested in him, Clinton can scarcely afford to prove unequal to his task. Another failed one-term presidency would reinforce not only the notion that government cannot cope, but also the clawing anxiety that the country and its economy may be heading toward an inexorable decline. It would deal a further blow to the two- party system, opening the door to a stronger Perot or Perot-like candidacy in 1996.

So Clinton has not just an opportunity but an awesome obligation: to make Americans believe once again that they are masters of an ever improving destiny. When John Kennedy, leaving Boston for Washington just after his election, listed the questions by which history would judge his Administration, he began with, “First, were we truly men of courage?” Bill Clinton, who put the same sort of question to his country, now has the chance to answer it himself.

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