- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

If George W. Bush decides to grant a pardon to his predecessor, it would be an echo of what Gerald Ford did for the man who made him vice president. But it would not be the most notable of the striking parallels between Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.

The two, of course, also share the experience of impeachment, something endured by only one other president. That, however, is not just a similarity but a symptom of what they had in common. Few presidents in American history have been so controversial and polarizing as these two. Both had a talent for generating venomous hatred in their opponents.

That wouldn't be surprising if either had been a sharp-edged ideological leader, like Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt. But as presidents, they were centrists: Neither had much use for party dogma, and both were notable for their marvelously flexible convictions. In fact, a frequent criticism of each was that he had no principles beyond self-interest.

They certainly governed that way. No one would have predicted, when the fiercely anti-communist Nixon took office, that history would remember him for the rapprochement with China — then one of the more bellicose communist regimes on the planet — and detente with the Soviet Union.

This nemesis of the left preserved and expanded Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, proposed a guaranteed annual income, signed a raft of environmental laws, imposed wage and price controls, appointed Supreme Court justices who expanded abortion rights, and pushed affirmative action. Just looking at the policies pursued from 1969 to 1974 (with the exception of the Vietnam War), it would be hard to guess that the White House was occupied by a Republican.

Future historians may likewise be mystified to learn that Clinton was a Democrat beloved by his party's liberal wing. He rejected big new spending plans in favor of attacking the budget deficit, pushed free trade agreements over the bitter objections of organized labor and environmentalists, forced welfare recipients to go to work or lose their benefits, and bragged about pushing stern anti-crime measures and putting more cops on the street. Liberals worried in 1992 that he would drift too far to the right for their tastes, but his skill in impersonating a conservative must have surprised even them.

Nixon and Clinton each pushed his party toward the center after a more ideological nominee had gone down in defeat (Barry Goldwater for the GOP, Michael Dukakis for the Democrats). Both were distrusted at the outset by the hard-core party faithful, but it was the hard-core party faithful who came to be their most fervent defenders. Republicans came to admire Nixon for his resilience and indomitability, a quality in which he was exceeded only by the unsinkable Clinton.

Among many or even most Americans, both men were seen as amoral opportunists who couldn't be trusted on basic matters of truth. The old jibe about Nixon — “Would you buy a used car from this man?” — could have been invented for Bill Clinton. In each case, their dishonesty encompassed a willingness to break the law to advance their interests. What infuriated critics is that both of them succeeded despite their utter lack of principle. The rage and hatred they provoked were augmented by their White House scandals — but the virulent animus was there long before.

And both did succeed: Nixon won in a landslide in 1972, and Clinton became the first Democrat in 60 years to win two terms in the White House. More than achieving personal victories, though, these two redrew the political map. Just four years after the Goldwater debacle, Nixon helped create and consolidate what his adviser Kevin Phillips called “the emerging Republican majority” — putting his party in position to control the White House for all but four of the next 24 years.

By the time Clinton ran in 1992, Republicans were seen as having an “electoral lock” on the presidency. Today, no one, least of all George W. Bush, thinks the GOP can take anything for granted. States that once were regarded as safely in the Republican column — Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, New Hampshire, and others — have shown they can go Democratic. Bush won this election, it's true, but that was in spite of the fact that more Americans voted for his opponent than for him. He will need skill and luck to avoid being what Jimmy Carter was — a brief interruption in the opposing party's historical resurgence.

Clinton survived his impeachment battle, while Nixon didn't. But Nixon escaped prosecution, while Clinton may not. Regardless of whether he is pardoned, we can be sure of one thing: In Clinton's case, as in Nixon's, his departure from the White House doesn't mean we've heard the last of him. He'll be haunting us for a long time yet.



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