Is it too early to start putting the 2016 presidential election in historical perspective?
But it is never too early to ask presidential historian and UNC-Chapel Hill emeritus history professor William Leuchtenburg to size up today’s presidential politics in light of the experiences of other presidents and presidential candidates.
Leuchtenburg recently completed work on a 752-page book, “The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton,” scheduled for publication in December by Oxford University Press. Oxford says the book will be “an enthralling account of American presidential actions from the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 to Bill Clinton’s last night in office in January 2001. William Leuchtenburg, one of the great presidential historians of the century, portrays each of the presidents in a chronicle sparkling with anecdote and wit.”
That last night of Clinton’s presidency, Leuchtenburg told me the other day, was unfortunate for Bill and will almost certainly be a negative factor for Hillary’s presidential campaign. “You would’ve thought that there would be no more pitfalls, but he managed one on this last night.”
Leuchtenburg was referring to Clinton’s last-minute pardoning of Marc Rich, whose wife was a big campaign contributor and frequent overnight guest at the White House. “It was not the brightest moment in Clinton’s career.” It left, Leuchtenburg said, “a sour taste.”
“But he did have his bright moments,” Leuchtenburg said. “There are numerous achievements of Bill Clinton’s presidency. But on balance, a good deal of the story of Clinton’s presidency is inevitably about the accusations against him, some of which were unfair. The Whitewater investigation never yielded anything. The suicide of Vince Foster was clearly the result of depression in a man who had been tried beyond his capabilities in Washington, who himself said that he should never have left a successful career in Little Rock. That did not stop accusations that Clinton had deliberately concocted his murder.
“There wasn’t a moment when Bill Clinton was not under attack, some brought on himself. But the worst episodes, like Whitewater and Vince Foster, were the result of a malignant campaign against him that was carried on for eight years.
“The connection of the Clintons with money and greed will surface in the 2016 campaign.
“I don’t think that my book or most books about the Clinton presidency are going to be very helpful to Hillary Clinton because there are a number of ways that she doesn’t come out well. I say that as someone who in all likelihood is going to vote for her. But this will be in spite of a number of things that she did during the Clinton presidency.”
On the positive side, Leuchtenburg said, “I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton will be well-financed. She seems to be so overwhelmingly the favorite that it’s hard to conceive of any viable candidate that could overtake her in the Democratic primaries. But she is going to be under fire to a far greater degree than most aspirants throughout the next stretch, from now until Election Day.”
On her preparation to be president, Leuchtenburg said, “She has established herself as a formidable public figure. She will of course be the first serious woman candidate for the presidency and the typical attack on women and public affairs is that they are not qualified. I would think that Hillary Clinton is unlikely to run into that kind of objection. Anybody saying that would immediately look foolish.”
Leuchtenburg’s thoughts should give other Democrats pause. To win presidential elections, a candidate needs more than the votes of people like Leuchtenburg. She has to fire their enthusiasm. The barrage of negative attacks and innuendo facing her over the next 18 months will make that task challenging.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.