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22 January 2001

Was Bill Clinton the poor man’s J F Kennedy?

The US Presidency - It is the end of an era, but not of the man. Albert Scardinoon the cont

By Albert Scardino

“Camelot: the sequel” ends its eight-year run this week. Three thousand nights of adrenalin highs and colonic lows, great box office, but a vapid book, forgettable lyrics and not one tune that you could carry past the lobby. The thousand days of the original may not have accomplished much more than defining a transitional moment in America between a wartime generation and the baby boomers. The sequel did not enjoy even that symbolic value. It merely interrupted a slow-motion counter-revolution led by the older crowd.

Bill Clinton certainly established himself as a star, a legend even, in the vein of Jack Kennedy, the hero of the original and Clinton’s personal hero, too. The parallels are obvious, if shallow: the age of both men, the energy, the devotion to lifting legal and social discrimination from people of colour and to helping the poor find a place in the system.

They could both seize a crowd in a moment, or develop an enduring friendship with a nod – but then, that is the role of a star. To implement their agendas (if they have one), mere presidents also need a working majority in Congress. Unfortunately, because of an inability to cede even a bit of the limelight, both failed to develop a coherent legislative programme. Even when they devised individual measures to cope with broad social issues – Kennedy with civil rights, Clinton with healthcare – they proved incapable of hammering together a legislative coalition.

They shared many of the same enemies, at least at home. Fatally for one and fatefully for the other, they triggered a wave of religious revulsion among the Bible-thumpers and on the corporate right, who came to see them as Satanic agents conspiring to remove God from the dollar bill, the classroom and the family.

They both also proved to be masterful campaigners, using the latest propaganda techniques to outmanoeuvre better-financed opponents on the campaign trail. Kennedy had to operate in disguise. As we learnt decades later, he suffered from Addison’s disease and severe back injuries. Until the 1950s, Addison’s had proved invariably fatal by the time a victim reached his or her thirties. Kennedy’s doctors adopted the experimental treatment of cortisone injections. The drug caused Kennedy’s hair to turn a sandy-brown colour and his complexion to appear deeply tanned. Add to that the babies and the young wife, and to the camera he seemed even healthier and younger than others of his generation, including Richard Nixon.

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For his war-injured back, Kennedy received heavy doses of painkillers and wore a stiff brace that pulled back his shoulders and forced him upright. In the novel televised debates of the 1960 campaign, it was Kennedy who appeared tall and energetic, warning of an alarming but non-existent missile gap. Nixon, roughly the same age and height as Kennedy, glowered at the camera through a heavy beard, sweat trickling across his forehead. The glower was Nixon’s. The beard and the heavy sweat were engineered by Dick Tuck, a Democrat operative. Just before airtime, Tuck slipped into technician’s overalls and, disguised as a stagehand, aimed a powerful backlight straight down on to the top of Nixon’s head. The shadows on his chest made him seem stooped.

Clinton’s youth and vigour were real, not the result of drugs. Clinton may have resisted taking advantage of a Tuck-like moment against George Bush Sr in his first campaign in 1992, had he come across one. He would have seen such a trick as little more than a practical joke. Instead, he adopted the marketing and advertising techniques that the Reagan team had employed so successfully during the 1980s. He kept the press at arm’s length, allowing his own team to define his image through staged events, campaign adverts and emissaries delivering identical “lines of the day”. Having amassed more campaign money than any Democrat before him – almost as much as Bush – he commissioned poll after poll to assure himself that he never offered a promise or programme that voters had not already approved.

Bush, accustomed to passive Democratic opponents from Jimmy Carter to Michael Dukakis, seemed bewildered by this candidate who could anticipate his every assault – the faxes offering the Democratic response frequently arrived at reporters’ desks even before the Republican attack had been sent. Having lost his chief strategist, Lee Atwater, to a brain tumour before the 1992 campaign got under way, and with Reagan isolated by Alzheimer’s in California, Bush became the passive one. In other elections, the victory over Iraq might have given Bush the edge to win a second term. But Clinton was reteaching the Democrats how to campaign, seizing the middle ground with promises of a middle-class tax cut, rebuilding the New Deal coalition of liberals, blacks and the unions.

The Southern strategy devised by the Nixon campaign team in 1968, relying on white backlash against the civil rights movement, had secured for the Republicans virtually uninterrupted control of the White House for 24 years. It had allowed them to capture control of the federal court system through timely appointments of a host of rightist judges. It had served as a blueprint for them to recapture the Senate for the first time since the 1950s. It had shown them the way to overthrow Democratic dominance of governorships, state legislatures and even local governments, and it seemed destined to guide them to the Promised Land as the majority party. Clinton interrupted the dream by using their own campaign tactics against them, in much the same way Kennedy had against Nixon.

In office, Clinton proved to be less of a Jack Kennedy. Kennedy chose Robert Frost and Pablo Casals to set a new cultural tone; Clinton fell for Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg. Both Kennedy and Clinton satisfied large sexual appetites with droit du seigneur casualness. But Kennedy realised his fantasies with Marilyn Monroe, Clinton with Monica Lewinsky. As for the Washington establishment, Kennedy swept them up in glamour, hosting or attending almost every evening. Clinton limited his attention to Vernon Jordan, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist. By the time of his impeachment, Clinton had so few allies that he had to resort to the old Washington aphorism: “If you want a friend in this town, get a dog.”

Where Kennedy drew thousands of young people to public service in Washington as volunteers and government aides (“Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”), Clinton drove them away disillusioned. Kennedy beguiled every reporter and photographer who came to town, even drawing the top guns of the Washington Post into his daytime panty raids around Washington. Clinton viewed the press corps as a hostile camp. He routinely exploited the media with the leak, the spin, the line of the day, the overnight poll from the White House; but, unlike Reagan and Kennedy, he never had the confidence even to invite a handful of correspondents to dinner. If ever Clinton placed a midnight call to a reporter or editor about a first-edition headline, as Lyndon Johnson often did, the parties have remained silent about it.

But, once isolated on the political battlefield, Clinton proved so adept that he prevented a bitterly hostile Congress from ever realising its radical endgame. For most of his tenure, he faced a Congressional leadership intent on scuppering the environmental legislation of the 1970s. They expected to undo what remained of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, especially the public health plans. They wanted to get the government out of social security, turning the pension system into a private savings arrangement. They dreamed of reversing the effect of the 1913 constitutional amendment that allowed for graduated income tax, adopting instead regressive flat taxes on sales and income. They even hoped to defeat Charles Darwin and return the doctrine of creationism to school classrooms as a substitute for the theory of evolution. Clinton defeated every one.

At the same time, he embraced enough of the more traditional Republican agenda to win approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a new World Trade Organisation, helping to spread the notion of freedom of commerce as a basic human right guaranteed to individuals as much as to multinational corporations, which sometimes act as governments in their own right.

What he failed to accomplish with broad social programmes, he partly achieved in pieces. He cajoled Congress into funding health coverage for 3.3 million poor children, and has just managed a public relations triumph by winning approval for a $53bn increase in defence spending, most of it directed not to weapons systems, but to improved healthcare, pay and benefits for the troops.

What legacy, then? Aside from modernising the Democratic electoral machine – an unappreciated achievement, even by many in his own party – there is the economy. Soon after taking office, he abandoned his campaign commitment to a middle-class tax cut, embracing instead moves to balance the budget and reduce the huge public debt. He appointed the most careful of economic stewards: Robert Rubin, first at the White House and then at the treasury; Alan Greenspan for a new term at the Federal Reserve; Arthur Levitt as the chief market regulator.

In foreign affairs, the record is far spottier. He engaged most directly when his personal magnetism seemed capable of pulling enemies to the negotiating table, as with the Middle East and Northern Ireland. Most importantly, Clinton began the long process of correcting the imbalance in the federal court system. His two Supreme Court appointments, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, arrived just in time to prevent the formation of a majority indicating every willingness to roll back judicial gains for individual liberty in favour of the power of the state. At district and appeals court level, Clinton managed to accomplish a similar change in course. But the hope for a more moderate judiciary must now wait another generation.

The end of the Clinton presidency may not mean the end of the Clinton era. As Al Gore fades rapidly into the background, Bill and Hillary step back on stage. With their new house in Georgetown and her seat in the Senate, they show every indication of taking on the role so absent in American life, that of leader of the loyal opposition. With the wisdom of his bad judgements and his insight into the workings of the system, Clinton may yet distinguish himself as a public servant, rather than a media star.

Capitol Curiosities

– At only 135 words, George Washington’s second inaugural address, in 1793, was the shortest ever.

– In 1825, John Quincy Adams was reportedly the first man to take the presidential oath while wearing long trousers.

– Franklin Pierce, in 1853, drove to and from the Capitol standing up in his carriage. He affirmed (rather than swore) the oath of office and broke precedent by not kissing the Bible and merely placing his left hand on it.

– In 1921, Warren G Harding was the first president to ride to and from his inaugural ceremony in a motor car; he was also the first to use loudspeakers.

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