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Clinton Undermining His Elder Statesman Standing

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/presidents-image.jpgPhoto From Top Row: Harry S. Truman, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton. Bottom Row From Left: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt

Bill Clinton’s ever increasing role in the presidential campaign has stirred much discussion. Has an ex-president ever taken so aggressive a part in his party’s nominating contest?

Well, yes and no.

As a rule, most former chief executives remain influential in their party’s deliberations. But eager to seem above the fray and maintain their standing as elder statesmen more devoted to the national well-being than any one faction, they mute their commitment to a potential successor.

Some past presidents—notably, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M Nixon–were so discredited that they couldn’t affect their party’s choice through either private or public support.

Others, like an Andrew Jackson and a Theodore Roosevelt, used their influence to anoint their successors — Martin Van Buren and William Howard Taft. But some respected former presidents, like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, were reluctant to sacrifice their elder statesmen standing by getting into an intra-party fight.

By contrast, Harry S. Truman used his revived public standing in 1960 to back Johnson against John F. Kennedy. Because primaries counted for so much less 48 years ago, Truman could do this behind the scenes, without creating intra-party antagonism.

Because candidates are now chosen in public caucuses and primaries, an ex-president eager to help one potential nominee has to find some different device to back his chosen successor. George H.W. Bush’s willingness to have Mitt Romney give his big speech about religion at the Bush presidential library in College Station, Tex., was an indication of who the Bushes favor. But the Bushes have kept their counsel on who they ultimately prefer, perhaps reluctant to give more than tacit support to Romney, lest it link Bush 41 with someone unpopular with part of the GOP base or to undermine Bush 43’s standing with Romney’s opponents.

Former President Clinton’s aggressive backing for one candidate in an initially crowded field is indeed unprecedented. But, then, so is the fact that we have never had an ex-president’s wife running to follow him in the Oval Office. Clinton’s partisanship, then, is understandable and seems unlikely to be repeated. But this is not just because the odds of another president’s spouse running seem small. Rather,

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s decisive defeat in South Carolina on Saturday may be ascribed at least partly to her husband’s excesses in attacking Sen. Barack Obama. Complaints that the former president has distorted Obama’s record and engaged in the politics of personal destruction seem to be doing the New York senator more harm than good. For example, one reason Sen. Edward M. Kennedy decided to announce his support of Obama on Monday is reportedly his displeasure at the former president’s campaign tactics. This is also undermining Clinton’s standing in the eyes of many Americans. Can they trust an ex-president who seems more intent on winning elections for his wife than ensuring that the most qualified candidate gains the country’s highest political office?

What the Clintons need to understand is that presidents — and, especially, ex-presidents — are seen as symbolic expressions of the country’s highest values. As presidents, these men were viewed as both the nation’s prime ministers and its kings. In retirement, they become goodwill ambassadors as well as models of national regard for U.S. freedoms and the rule of law. If they reenter the world of political backbiting, and identify themselves with mudslinging and overheated rhetoric about opponents of their favored candidate, they not only compromise themselves. they demean the presidency.

In Clinton’s case this is particularly worrisome. The only elected president ever impeached and tried for unbecoming moral behavior—allegedly perjury, but really sexual misconduct in the Oval Office and lying about it—Clinton needed to be especially careful not to raise questions about his personal credibility.

Henry James described America’s “moral flabbiness” as the product of the country’s obsession with “the bitch-goddess success.” Bill and Hillary Clinton seem to be in the clutches of this compulsion to win at any cost. But they should understand that there are degrees and degrees in political combat. The disadvantage of having been in the public eye for so long and with so much skepticism about their integrity is the ease with which opponents and the media can attack them as unprincipled scoundrels all too ready to cut political corners in the service of their ambition.

They need to disprove Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [high office], a rottenness begins in his conduct.”

Robert Dallek, an historian, is a member of the organization: Historians for Obama. He is also the author of “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power.” His other books include “Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents” and “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963″ “Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973.”

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