THE CURSE OF GOOD TIMES

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Ivy-league lawyer in the oval office, brilliant political practitioner, champion of better education for poor black children, husband of a woman who broke precedent and bravely crusaded nationally on one of the great social issues of the day, voracious book reader, shrewd observer who identified a massive shift in the U.S. economy and the job skills required to meet it, partisan of women's rights, winner of a knock-down, drag-out battle with a Congress that attempted to shut down the government and humiliate the President.

Bill Clinton? Not on your life. I'm talking about Rutherford B. Hayes, a President brushed aside by history and used as the prop of a thousand Washington toastmasters searching for a cheap laugh over the past 120 years. Humorist Bob Orben says the name is melodic ("Chester Arthur doesn't make it"), and Hayes' dim place in the national chronicle makes him fodder for almost any joke. Washington visitor at the Hayes Inauguration in 1877: "Who was that man in front of you on the stand with his hand raised?" Senator: "I didn't catch his name."

Clinton should take a lesson from Hayes if he wants to avoid being trapped by history into a forgettable presidency. His 19th century predecessor has been given a raw reading by historians who are just as enamored of wars and depressions and human calamity as Hollywood. They have tended to write bad scripts, at least at first, for those Presidents who presided in moments of prosperity and tranquillity and kept them that way. Cases in point: George Bush, Jimmy Carter, Dwight Eisenhower, William Howard Taft and Martin Van Buren.

High political priest of all historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr. assembled a jury a while back to judge presidential greatness. This flocking of fellow liberals quite naturally elevated John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and diminished Jerry Ford and Ronald Reagan. But the shocker was that Bill Clinton was also put down there with Hayes, Arthur and Benjamin Harrison and devastatingly close to Calvin Coolidge. The White House has not stopped quivering in indignation. Clinton's greatest second-term battle may be against historical irrelevance, and there is ample evidence that he understands the difficulty of being a heroic leader in a democracy in a period of well-being and peace. No civil war, no winning of the West, no world wars (hot or cold), no depression, no Dust Bowl. Even Schlesinger admits democracies often are at their worst in good times.

Clinton will attempt to take the crisis in America's personal and cultural values, along with the great economic changes caused by an industrial society giving way to the information age, and weave everything into a coherent national challenge with a language of hope and inspiration. Only one President so far has managed to do that. He was the muscular Theodore Roosevelt--rancher, explorer, author, hunter, warrior--who defined by his intelligence and personal exuberance America's arrival as the world's greatest mover and shaker. But even T.R. confessed that his success was based on the fact that the U.S. was in a "heroic mood" that came 20 years after Hayes was President. Is the nation now closer to Hayes or Roosevelt? And can it be nudged ahead?

"Modern historians like crisis management, crisis response and presidential swashbuckling," says Richard Norton Smith, a biographer of George Washington's. "My reading of Rutherford B. Hayes is that he was a great man who was President at a time when greatness lay beyond the presidency--in Congress and in the private sector." That situation exists in this nation today.

Other historical similarities between the Hayes and Clinton eras are startling. A Europe beginning a 40-year interlude of peace (for Clinton, read as the end of the cold war). A nation changing from an agricultural economy to an industrial base (now, industry to information). A First Lady, "Lemonade Lucy," devoted to attacking the great social and family scourge of alcohol (not far removed from Hillary's health-care and children's crusades).

Ari Hoogenboom, a wonderfully iconoclastic historian at Brooklyn College, has written two books on Hayes in the firm belief that history has shortchanged him, and in no small part because of a throwaway line by the brilliant but careless author Thomas Wolfe, who described Hayes along with Arthur, James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison as "lost Americans" with "gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces."

Without ever intending it, Hoogenboom has defined both Clinton's opportunity and his historical peril. If Clinton can deliver a heroic message on the commonplace and prosaic things of government (Social Security, balanced budget, education), he may climb up beside Roosevelt. But Hayes was not able to do it, even though he was a Civil War hero who, wounded five times and repeatedly cited for bravery, rose from major to general, and in office (Congressman, Governor, Senator and President) was judged to be intelligent, informed, squeaky clean and fully engaged with the issues before him. But there was no world or national upheaval worthy of the name.

"Clinton," says historian Smith, "needs to decide what needs to be done in this country, and he needs to just do it. If he starts to poll historians about what to do, he probably will never make it."