- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Already an irrelevancy on the political scene, a lame duck whose wife and vice president now outshine him on a daily basis, President Clinton cannot even taken comfort in the verdict of history. A new poll of 58 historians, issued on the occasion of President's Day, among them presidential historians Stephen D. Ambrose, Douglas Brinkley and David Kennedy, ranked the 42nd president of the United States the most average of the average, deeming him precisely middling at No. 21. The good news for Mr. Clinton, if you can call it that, is that he nosed out George Bush (No. 20); tougher to take, no doubt, is that he placed behind the hapless Jimmy Carter (No. 22), the underwhelming Gerald Ford (No. 23), and salt on his wounds the scandal-ridden Richard Nixon (No. 25).

So much for Mr. Clinton's mediocre overall ranking. In the category of "moral authority," our first Baby Boomer president truly distinguished himself. There, he placed dead last behind you guessed it Richard Nixon. In other words, in the eyes of almost three score historians surveyed by C-Span "from across the political spectrum," Tricky Dick now has Slick Willie to look down on. All of which would indicate that the Clinton scandals, previously clung to as less serious than Watergate by the merlot-and-Volvo set, may actually be beginning to loom larger, heavier and more grotesque. The ironies, of course, are novelistically intense: The anti-war radical turned commander in chief the man whose political career was born as a "Watergate Baby" protest candidate, and whose wife famously toiled as an ideological young zealot drafting articles of impeachment against Mr. Nixon now finds himself surpassing Mr. Nixon in these latest immorality sweepstakes.

For a White House that loves polls, this one has got to hurt. Smiling through the pain, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart first chose to dismiss it lightly, telling the New York Times that historians of the future are the ones to judge his boss best. "It often takes the passing of time to understand the full meaning of one's leadership ability," Mr. Lockhart said. Nice try. In fact, there's a certain ring of truth to Mr. Lockhart's statement. The longer view very often sheds new light on old reputations, either burnishing or diminishing them for posterity. Look at Ronald Reagan. Underrated as "average (low)" in a much-ballyhooed poll taken by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., just four years ago, Mr. Reagan has now risen in this most recent poll to a much loftier No. 11.

Of course, when it comes to Mr. Clinton's dubious distinction as "moral authority" loser, Mr. Lockhart was unable to maintain that longer, lighter, more collegial view. "I suspect that that's more a reaction to reading the tabloids than a fair reading of history," he said. That's right, Mr. Lockhart attack the attackers; or, in this case, impugn the historians. How utterly Clintonian. It is the disgraceful case that all too much of the history of this administration has been the stuff of tabloids or, rather, tabloid-type stuff. When historians quite fairly assess this shameful fact and attempt a collective judgment, the Clinton White House's time-tested reaction debuted in Arkansas, honed on the presidential campaign trail, and made an art form during the Kenneth Starr investigation and the impeachment process is to turn on its accusers. To be sure, this tactic has worked in the heat and noise of political battle; it is seeming increasingly doubtful that it will prevail in the cool light and quiet study of hindsight.

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