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Archive for Sunday, February 24, 2008

Presidential mantle can be tough to transfer

February 24, 2008

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The thing about the presidency is that it's usually nontransferable.

You can clip a coupon from the newspaper and pass it on to a friend. If you get a ticket to a ball game, you can pass that on, too. But if you have the presidency - or if you have it listed on your resume - you can't pass it on.

There are exceptions, of course. James Madison wanted James Monroe, his secretary of state (and his secretary of war), to ascend to the White House. Thomas Jefferson supported Monroe as well. Together, they pulled it off. Monroe served two terms and lent his name to the most important foreign-policy doctrine in American history.

Andrew Jackson was able to choose his successor, too. He wanted Martin Van Buren to succeed him, and he wanted Van Buren so badly that he positioned him for the job by forcing the former New York governor and secretary of state onto his ticket as vice president, in the process injuring the Democratic Party for generations.

When the Jackson camp pushed the Little Magician, as Van Buren was known, as the president's running mate for his second term, it imposed on the 1832 convention a "two-thirds rule" that required a super-majority to win a Democratic nomination. That rule prevailed for more than a century and was responsible for a series of agonizing convention battles.

Now we have another president, Bill Clinton, pressing to elect his wife to the White House to succeed a president who was supported by his father, himself a former president.

The relationship between Bush 41 and Bush 43, as the two presidents are sometimes known in a reference to their positions in the parade of presidents, has been a subject of as much wonder, speculation, research, pop psychology, gossip and utter bull as the marriage between Clinton 42 and Clinton 44 (prospective).

There's a substantial difference, of course, between how George W. Bush won the 2000 Republican nomination and then the White House, and how Hillary Clinton is trying to win the 2008 Democratic nomination and, if she is successful, the White House. The elder Bush played a minimal role in the 2000 primaries, which ended relatively swiftly, while Mr. Clinton has been an active force in his wife's campaign in 2008. (Of course, after the 2000 general election it was a legal team led in part by longtime Bush 41 retainer James A. Baker that helped the Texas governor become Bush 43.) But now that Bush 43 has weighed in on the Republican nomination fight, all but clearing Sen. John S. McCain for take-off, we have the Potomac transfer question in two dimensions.

While McCain may need the imprimatur of the incumbent president - who lowered taxes, fought terrorists, battled abortion rights and invaded Iraq - to assure nervous conservatives that their nominee is one of them, he may prefer a handshake more than an embrace. Mr. Bush is not a popular president, and his war is not a popular war, and a little bit of Bush might be a little bit too much for some people who might otherwise be willing to give the Republicans a fresh look and a fresh chance.

The same goes for Mr. Clinton. He presided over rollicking good times, but his own reputation for letting the good times roll makes him a mixed blessing. There is a parallel here with Mr. Bush, the question of whether a little bit of Clinton, whose strong personality makes it hard to distribute him in small bits, might be a bit too much for voters who might otherwise be willing to give Mrs. Clinton the fresh look and fresh chance she needs so much after 10 consecutive losses in presidential primaries and caucuses.

Theodore Roosevelt was popular enough to force the Republican Party to accept his choice, William Howard Taft, as his successor in 1909, but the relationship between the two soured swiftly. By the time TR was challenging Taft in the 1912 election, he was referring to the man's "muddleheaded inability."

At one time, Vice President Richard Nixon hoped the beneficent smile of Dwight D. Eisenhower, under whom he served for two terms, might help transfer the presidency to him in his battle with Sen. John F. Kennedy. But President Eisenhower was asked at a press conference in August 1960 to identify a major achievement or idea of the administration that Nixon had initiated. "If you give me a week, I might think of one," Eisenhower answered. That prompted a Kennedy ad that said, in part: "President Eisenhower could not remember, but the voters will remember. For real leadership in the '60s, help elect Sen. John F. Kennedy president."

The problem with trying to transfer the presidency is that the transferrer (a) doesn't have any power to do so; and (b) oftentimes has disadvantages of his own ("negatives," in the argot of politics). Touring the United States in 1842, Charles Dickens described Washington as a "City of Magnificent Intentions." Every presidential aspirant is a candidate of Magnificent Intentions. But every president is necessarily a politician of Magnificent Disappointments. The hazards of a president's record detracts from the hope of a candidate's appeal.

Which is why Mr. McCain - endorsed formally the other day by the first President Bush, now widely regarded, even by the Clintons, as a senior statesman - is being careful about getting too close to the current president.

It is also why Mrs. Clinton - whose campaign is using her husband to make fundraising calls and to muscle former Clinton administration superdelegates to line up with the New York senator - is being equally careful about the former president's profile.

If her resolve weakens, someone in her campaign will surely show her the cover of the Feb. 25 issue of the conservative National Review magazine. It's a picture of the two Clintons with this headline: "Please Nominate This Couple."

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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