Pairing Presidents: Clinton and Eisenhower

Clinton and Ike:

This will raise hackles, but there's more that connects Bill Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower than one might imagine. Don't be too quick to dismiss this in the belief that "Ike" was moral and dour, whilst Clinton was hornier than a bunny rabbit in April. Eisenhower biographers don't like to hear it, but Ike probably had a long-term affair with his military chauffeur Kay Summersby. Harry Truman claimed Eisenhower considered divorcing Mamie and Ms. Summersby made a disputed deathbed confession. Still, if collecting conquests were the sole criterion, Clinton would be matched with the greatest Lothario in White House history: John F. Kennedy. But wait… there's more.

How they are similar:

Both were great disappointments to ideologues. Eisenhower took office after the long FDR/Truman reign that instituted social, economic, and cultural reforms that drove archconservatives to despair. They dared hope that Ike would repeal New Deal, end "social engineering," cut taxes for the wealthy, support anti-communist witch hunts, and unleash the private sector. They badly misjudged their man. "Moderate" is usually a hollow term used by politicians seeking to hide the fact they've been forced to "compromise," but Eisenhower is as close to being moderate as one can imagine. Famed as the World War Two general in charge of D-Day, Ike's political views were so little known that both parties courted him in 1952. He easily defeated liberal Adlai Stevenson twice, but Ike was not a conservative poster boy. He quietly (but effectively) isolated the loathsome Joseph McCarthy, resisted big ticket budget items, spurned big tax cuts, and left most remaining New Deal programs intact. There were three big moments associated with his domestic polices, each of which demonstrated Ike's moderation. He signed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, but it wasn't a liberal moment; it was subsumed within a Cold War defense bill and justified as a way to move troops and materiel quickly in a national emergency. Ike's signature on the 1957 Civil Rights Act is another case in point. It came on the heels of a showdown in Little Rock, Arkansas, in which Governor Orval Faubus refused to integrate public schools per the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision. Eisenhower reluctantly sent troops to Little Rock, then signed the Civil Rights Act, but only after assuring it was so watered down that seven years later it was rewritten. Eisenhower once baffled Americans with his advice that the great challenge of the age was to "take the straight path down the middle," but he practiced what he preached. He had four net appointments to the Supreme Court—Charles Whittaker resigned just a year into his term: John Marshall Harlan III and Potter Stewart, both conservatives; but also two great liberals: Earl Warren and William Brennan.

Clinton took over after the Reagan/Bush I interregnum to a hail of misplaced enthusiasm. Liberals hoped he'd be another FDR and African Americans proclaimed him "America's first black president." Oh dear! Clinton's MO was "triangulation," a purposeful attempt to steer a middle path between liberals and conservatives; hence we got a bit of both. Liberal: repeal of Bush I family planning restrictions, cutting taxes for low-income earners, the Family and Medical Leave Act, a diverse Cabinet, several child healthcare bills, Megan's Law, AmeriCorps, a clean water bill….  On the other hand, one could call Clinton the most effective Republican president since Ike: NAFTA, DOMA, a bill protecting religious education, curbs on illegal immigration, welfare reform, shrinking the federal bureaucracy, the Telecommunications Reform Act, draconian crime bills, and repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the last of which paved the way for the Bush II recession. On balance, Clinton averages out as a moderate—just like his Supreme Court appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Both men were parsimonious. Eisenhower warned of a "military-industrial complex" and sought to starve it; Clinton produced the first balanced budget since Lyndon Johnson. Both ruled over periods of outward economic prosperity. Eisenhower was in office for the longest period of economic expansion in U.S. history, while Clinton saw the end of the Bush I recession and enjoyed years of Stock Market growth, low unemployment, and minimal inflation.

Neither Eisenhower nor Clinton had unqualified success in foreign affairs. As a Cold War president, Eisenhower maintained needed calm during the Suez Crisis, attempted rapprochement with the Soviet Union, and isolated extremists during a period of global tension and Red Scare. His time in office was marred by periods in which his administration elevated that tension—the issuance of NSC-162, the articulation of the (now discredited) Domino Theory, the cancellation of free elections in Vietnam, the uncertain culmination of the Korean War, nuclear testing, the U-2 incident, and the Bay of Pigs plan. Turning loose the CIA in places such as Guatemala, Iran, and the Congo proved unwise in the long run.

Clinton wasn't much interested in foreign policy, but he charmed foreign leaders. He left what is, at best, a mixed record. Bungled: Bosnia. Success: Kosovo. Bungled: the immediate response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Wise: His warnings on Osama bin-Laden (and Saddam Hussein). Bungled: the response to US Cole bombing. Success: Bombings of Afghanistan and Sudan. Bungled: Rwanda. Success: the Israel-Jordan Treaty. And so it goes….

It's tempting to say that Ike was saddled by the Cold War, and Clinton was the first post-USSR president, but if one considers Clinton the first Age of Terrorism POTUS, that difference dissolves.

How they are different:

Mainly in style. Eisenhower was grandfatherly and dull; Clinton was Elvis crossed with Kennedy. You'd definitely rather have beers with Bill.  

It is fair game to say that whether or not Ike had an affair, he was a choirboy compared to Clinton. Whitewater, Travelgate, lying under oath, and his sexual peccadilloes turned out to be more smoke than fire, and the attempt to impeach Clinton ranks among history's smelliest foiled vendettas. That said, seldom has America seen such a skilled politician with such a broken moral compass.


Eisenhower is enjoying reassessment and currently ranks 9th (of 42). This rating is assuredly over-zealous revisionism that confuses the postwar economic boom with Ike's actual accomplishments. Clinton is currently # 20 and would be higher, were it not for his personal flaws. Twenty sounds about right for each.  

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