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Memphis Flyer Is Clinton JFK's Peer?

Peace and prosperity have given the president a new status.

By Richard Cohen

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  Thirty-four years agothis summer, a kid named Bill Clinton shook hands with apresident named John F. Kennedy. The moment, of course, wasphotographed for history -- and, as it turned out, Clinton's ownpresidential campaign.

For this and other reasons -- theiryouth, good looks, and unbridled ambition, among others -- thetwo presidents have often been compared, with Clinton oftencoming off second best. Now, though, that may be changing.Clinton is emerging as Kennedy's equal.

The president's triumph is in the numbers. On the date they shook hands, Kennedy had an approval rating of 61 percent. That was low for Kennedy, who had enjoyed approval ratings in the 70s and high 60s for most of his presidency (he even hit 83 in April of 1961), but as his first term was winding down, so was his phenomenal popularity. Clinton, in contrast, is going the other way. His latest approval rating was 64 percent.

The economy is so good Alan Greenspan has resorted to speaking plain English. Unemployment seems to have gone to Europe and inflation to Brazil. The stock market is up and up, increasing the wealth of the 40 percent of Americans with a stake in Wall Street.

Americans are enjoying the sounds of silence from abroad. From a strictly parochial point of view, things could not be better: Americans are not dying overseas. U.S. forces have been dispatched to both Bosnia and Haiti, but not a single American has died in a combat-related incident.

Those twin areas -- peace and prosperity -- usually make or break a presidency. It hardly matters to the average American if, in fact, Clinton has merely been in the right places at the right times or, say, that this is an Alan Greenspan-Robert Rubin economy. What matters is that Clinton presides. He takes the rap, he takes the credit. That's the way American presidential politics works.

In yet another area, though, Clinton's success is clearly of his own doing: He has reoriented the Democratic Party so that, once again, it can claim the allegiance of the middle class. No longer does it appear to be the party of minority groups -- a parade of special interests -- but it can now claim to represent Middle America.

That, anyhow, is how the White House successfully positioned itself during the negotiation with the Republican-controlled Congress over the recently agreed-upon tax-budget-and-everything-else bill. Now it's the GOP that seems ideologically strident and out of touch with the average American.

It has taken some time for Clinton's success to become apparent. The first part of his first term was a debacle, and he has been dogged by scandal, the appearance and the reality. A man gifted with the narcissist's desire to be loved, he nevertheless remains a polarizing figure.

Some of that, I think, is earned. Clinton, after all, has cheapened both himself and the presidency by skirting -- if not breaking -- the laws on campaign financing. His unrelenting rummage sale of nearly every aspect of the White House was just plain tawdry. He occasionally has a hard time telling the truth, his ideology is sometimes hard to detect, and he can be a shameless political panderer. If there were any votes in it, he would support the death penalty for traffic violations.

But there is no denying that at this moment Bill Clinton is triumphant. In a sense, it's silly to compare Clinton to Kennedy. JFK has become a virtually mythical figure and, what's more, he presided in a time of crisis -- Cuba, Berlin, and always the Cold War. Clinton has not been able to rise to any crisis because there's been none. His historical burden is peace and prosperity -- dull times, dull reading.

But if, as now seems possible, his eight years are followed by a Gore administration (another eight?), he will have established a Democratic political era second only toFranklin Roosevelt's. That may not make him a great president, but it sure would make him a great politician. As Kennedy himself always recognized, you can't have one without the other.


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