- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 1999

James Bryce famously explained and titled a chapter in “The American Commonwealth” (1888) “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.” The writer reasoned that political parties in America were better at identifying attractive, charismatic candidates than great men. Bryce was actually comfortable with this. Everyday values such as moderation, “firmness, common sense, and, most of all, honesty,” and not extraordinary virtue, were what the country needed most of all from its president. And this, it turned out, was what the parties usually delivered.

The authors of “Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation,” James MacGregor Burns (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of FDR) and Georgia J. Sorenson, have tried without saying so to reverse Bryce’s logic. They think our best American presidents are not necessarily decent, honest, moderate “transactional leaders” but bold and passionate “transformational leaders.”

Why? Because the authors want to bury William Butler Yeats’ finding that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Our presidents, they believe, should err not on the side of moderation but extremism. They should look first not for compromise but for transformation, a newer order of things.

Thus the final paragraph of “Dead Center”: “Months after his impeachment/acquittal, memories of the severest crisis of Bill Clinton’s presidency were still acute among the people. Extreme rightists, full of passionate intensity,’ had almost toppled a twice-elected president. On the eve of another millennium, could rough beasts’ of the world threaten American democracy? Could the centrist-left Democrats demonstrate the conviction that Yeats had found so lacking in the best’ and command the courage so necessary to that conviction?”

This is ridiculous, as if American democracy would have crumbled if President Clinton had packed his bags last year and moved to Hollywood. And it’s an unfortunate ending to an interesting and enjoyable book. Most of Mr. Clinton’s severest critics regarding the Lewinsky affair, which include many Democrats, are not “rough beasts” or evil extremists. They are citizens who believe in the Constitution and the president’s oath of office.

The book may be weak when it criticizes the Republican party, “one of the most disciplined and doctrinaire parties in this century.” (If only it were so.) But the book hits its stride when it knocks Mr. Clinton. The authors write that the Clinton White House will be remembered as “scandal-ridden,” “Leadership Lite,” “a rhetorical presidency that tinkered at the margins of policy,” “remarkably imprudent in foreign affairs.” In the end, they write, “perhaps Clinton’s finest legacy will be the two persons he chose to be his close and nondisposable comrades,” Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. A damning indictment, indeed.

The most revealing discussion examines Mr. Clinton and his true-North race. Time and again, the president cites racial relations and African Americans, in particular, as his specialty, his deepest concern, the one area where he fully comprehends his destiny to make a difference. Yet as the authors demonstrate: Bill Clinton plays the race card more successfully and cynically than almost any other American politician in recent history.

Warned by campaign pollsters “of the danger faced by aligning himself too specifically with blacks” in 1992, Mr. Clinton acted swiftly. As the authors document in great detail, he redrafted his campaign agenda to “send a message” to white Southern voters and began a public relations tour.

As part of his efforts to “send a message,” Mr. Clinton rushed back to Arkansas from New Hampshire and presided over the execution of Rickey Rector, a black, brain-injured cop-killer; he posed for press photographers at the Stone Mountain Correctional Facility (only miles away from the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan) with a formation of mostly black prisoners standing behind him; he made rare appearances at black events and, when he did attend them,”intentionally scheduled [them] too late for the evening news.” That the authors do not shock readers with this news is an indication of how far Mr. Clinton and the popular politics of expediency have taken us.

In the book, Bill Clinton is a case study in the perils of triangulation. The authors use his example as proof that we should look for larger, more extraordinary things in our leaders. Because we live “at a time when the biggest changes are flowing from private leaders in business and technology, only strong public leadership can hold antidemocratic forces in check.” This makes sense for the most part.

We should look for Lincolns and not Pierces; for Roosevelts (both are fine) and not Wilsons; for Reagans and not Clintons. The critical question, which the book fails to address, is how to balance the two passionate intensity with prudent moderation because both are essential. What matters most? Which qualities to look for first? These questions are the burden, and the glory, of representative republics.

Jason Bertsch is a writer, policy adviser and strategist in Washington.

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