Bush in the Moment, Bill in History

What a terrific speech the president gave Tuesday on the need to cut taxes. He stood at the podium at the Economic Club of New York and seemed to radiate a youthfulness and dynamism that his advisers no doubt hoped would reflect on his economic program. Trim and youthful, relatively new to presidential power and yet already seeming to be at home with it, he declared that the question is not whether the U.S. dares to lower taxes, but whether it dares not to.

The speech was not on C-Span, so let me quote at some length.

“I know you share my conviction,” he told the assembled business leaders, “that proud as we are of its progress, this nation’s economy can and must do even better than it has done in the last five years. Our choice, therefore, boils down to one of doing nothing and thereby risking a widening gap between our actual and potential growth . . . or taking action at the federal level to raise our entire economy to a new and higher level of business activity. . . .

“The most direct and significant kind of federal action aiding economic growth is to make possible an increase in private consumption and investment demand—to cut the fetters which hold back private spending. In the past, this could be done . . . by increasing federal expenditures more rapidly than necessary—but such a course would soon demoralize both the government and our economy. If government is to retain the confidence of the people, it must not spend more than can be justified on grounds of national need or spent with maximum efficiency, and I shall say more on this in a moment.” Here the audience broke into applause.

“The final and best means of strengthening demand among consumers and business,” he continued, “is to reduce the burden on private income and the deterrents to private initiative which are imposed by our present tax system—and this administration pledged itself last summer to an across-the-board, top to bottom cut in personal and corporate income taxes” to become effective next year.

“I am not talking about a ‘quickie’ or temporary tax cut,” he said. “Nor am I talking about giving the economy a mere shot in the arm, to ease some temporary complaint. I am talking about the accumulated evidence of the last five years that our present tax system . . . exerts too heavy a drag on growth in peacetime—that it siphons out of the private economy too large a share of personal and business purchasing power—that it reduces the financial incentives for personal effort, investment and risk taking.”

He said the time to move is now. We should reduce taxes “by a sufficiently early date and a sufficiently large amount to do the job required. Early action could give us extra leverage, added results and important insurance against recession. Too large a tax cut, of course, could result in inflation and insufficient future revenues—but the greater danger is a tax cut too little or too late to be effective.”

He went on to argue that after-tax income will provide stronger markets for American industry, and that while those in the lower brackets will likely spend their additional take-home pay, those in the upper brackets will be able to invest it, which will encourage expansion.

He had a blunt assessment of the difficulties ahead: “I do not underestimate the obstacles which the Congress will face in enacting such legislation. No one will be satisfied. Everyone will have his own approach, his own bill, his own reductions. A high order of restraint and determination will be required if the possible is not to wait on the perfect.”

He concluded, “this nation can afford to reduce taxes . . . but we cannot afford to do nothing. For on the strength of our free economy rests the hope of all free nations.”

It was a good speech—closely argued, simply put. It was a great success, receiving a lot of media attention. The young president left with what seemed an air of triumph, or at least of high optimism.

And his tax cut passed.

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Because the president—close readers will already know—was John F. Kennedy. The Tuesday on which he gave the address was Dec. 14, 1962. It had been a busy time for Mr. Kennedy—the U.S. space probe Mariner Two, approaching Venus, had that day begun transmitting back information on the planet, a first. And the president was putting the finishing touches on a letter to Nikita Krushchev, thanking him for his cooperation in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis just a few weeks before, and expressing hope for “a final settlement” of the Cuban question.

The audience that day really was the Economic Club of New York, which applauded several times, including the one I noted above. The only thing its members did not hear that they probably would have remembered was Kennedy’s pithy statement, uttered a few months before, that tax relief is fair to all because a better economy benefits all: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

I remembered this speech and dug it out of my files the other day—we used to quote it in the Reagan era, to torture Walter Mondale—because Mr. Bush’s recent arguments in favor of his tax cut made me think of it, and reminded me of what Arthur Schlesinger has called the circularity of life—the fact that people, themes, and initiatives often seem connected, or at least seem to occur and reoccur, to pop up, go away and return again.

Economic numbers change, but economic arguments, when they are obvious and grounded in history, do not. It’s a matter of emphasis. Ronald Reagan could have given JFK’s speech but would have added a section on the right of citizens to be free of onerous government demands; he would have used the word “freedom” more than once. George W. Bush puts his emphasis on the family, what the average family of four will save and be able to spend or invest with tax relief.

At any rate, Kennedy’s arguments seem as fresh and timely today as they seemed to that audience 39 years ago. And it is interesting that he thought he might have the same trouble with his party members in Congress—others will have larger cuts; “no one will be satisfied”—that Mr. Bush may have with some of his.

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Obligatory mention of our former president:

To live in New York this week was to see, over and over, the pictures and videotape of Bill Clinton being mobbed by supporters on the streets of Harlem after he looked at office space. He was laughing and, as he once said of another audience, “just lapping it up,” reaching out to shake people’s hands as they strained to touch him.

When I see the former president I think of the invisible man on the stairs—”He wasn’t there again today / I wish that he would go away.”

Mr. Clinton looks happy because he derives such pleasure from confounding his enemies. That’s one reason he always makes sure he has them.

The key to Mr. Clinton’s character, as I’m sure has been said, is that he derives satisfaction from getting away with it. He likes doing something wrong or illegal, getting caught and escaping. It’s as if the escape is proof, to him, of his superiority, his cleverness. Of his chosenness—he was chosen by God or the fates to frustrate and stop the Bad People—the other party, the opposition, the Republicans, or, as he sometimes in the White House referred to them, the Nazis. He hates them, and feels his hatred is justified. It’s not really bad, after all, to aggress against the wicked. In fact it’s fun. This is why people used to call him a rascal and a scamp and not, say, a psychopath.

But he isn’t really a rascal. What keeps him from being a rascal, among other things, is his joylessness. Rascals love the game, get the joke, love the chase; rascals laugh out loud. Mr. Clinton simmers, obsesses. In private he is as joyful as Richard Nixon.

The only time he seems to feel happiness is (a) when people on stages and on streets are adoring him, reaching out to him in rapture, and (b) when he almost dies—Lincoln bedroom, Monica, China, choose the scandal—but manages to elude the posse and survive.

Not dying makes him feel alive, and grateful to be alive, and happy. So happy he goes out and makes more trouble so the chase can begin again, and be followed by the hunt, and the happiness.

He is addicted to trouble, and, because he was our president, makes his disorder our disorder.

As for the latest scandals, against the odds and for three weeks Pardongate and Giftgate have dominated the news, giving one last attack of heartburn to his foes and one last embarrassment to his friends.

But perhaps soon now the enough-is-enough brigades will arrive. “We have terrible problems facing us, we’ve got to stop focusing on the past.” Or “we have a new president, let’s focus on him.”

*   *   *

President Bush himself is right to say let’s move on. He has a tax plan to sell and a military to refigure, a presidency to establish, dominance to claim.

All true and legitimate, but history has needs here too.

Somewhere around 2014, say, some young revisionist scholar, a brilliant young man who is at this moment putting the finishing touches on his master’s thesis at Yale, will come forward with a compelling retelling of the Clinton era. It will be a strong and memorable polemic, a revising of history that argues, with carefully marshaled data, that Mr. Clinton was great—tragic but great, and not sufficiently appreciated by historians. In fact in a philosophically murky time with a sated nation logy from getting and having and getting, he led our country forward, establishing both peace in the world and the fabulous long boom, establishing racial progress, moving quietly, softly, incrementally toward the greater public good. But he was tragic because his foes exploited his character flaws, which were the result of childhood misfortune that disfigured his psyche and distorted his gifts. Thus the scandals obscured his greatness.

The revisionist Clinton will be big, an Ozarks Lear. The portrait will be, um, arguable, but down the road it will be the new new thing, and the young will listen, and ponder.

None of this is terrible—history exists to be revised, to be reseen. But it is very much in the interests of history, and in the future’s understanding of it, to gather all the facts, so the young revisionist historian will have as a matter of intellectual integrity to include all the data, the findings, the testimony under oath, on all of the gates—including Pardongate and Giftgate.

We owe it to history to gather the facts. For this reason alone the current hearings and investigations should continue.

*   *   *

As for Mr. Clinton himself, without the aides and assistants who tended to everything about him and on him from the cut of his suits to the spray on his hair, from the polishing of his shoes to the development of political strategy—without them, life will be harder. The best have left, and the rest don’t want to stay, for Mr. Clinton at the moment has political cooties and they don’t want to catch them. “Longtime Clinton aide” and “Diehard Clinton fan” are not phrases you want in your entry in Who’s Who, or in the first and second paragraphs of your obit.

So many have departed, and Manhattan has cooled on Mr. Clinton, and so has Washington, and we will see if Hollywood follows.

In time, “Clinton Alone” may become a great story. When I think of him in future years, I keep thinking of Howard Hughes—Mr. Clinton’s hair grown long and wild, the toenails, the sandals, driving around at night and dropping by all-night diners where the waitresses know him as a regular and give him donuts and coffee. Mr. Clinton has always had a nice way of just chatting with people, of connecting to people hauling through a shift, and I imagine this coming even more to the fore.

In time perhaps an enterprising young reporter will take to following him, and then hanging with him at the counter, and then putting the tape recorder next to the ketchup bottle. And from it might come another book—“The Confessions of Bill Clinton”—with long quotes, the free associative soliloquy of one of the most famous and unusual men of the past century. He’ll talk about the flat and dusty streets of Hope, the Little Rock childhood, the American yearning to get out of nowhere, to join history, to be big. And the discovery of glamour and fame and a constant sense that you were, finally, someone. Through the scandals, through his thoughts on history and people and what he daydreamed about as he looked through the glass of the residence at the normal life passing by on Pennsylvania Avenue . . .

It could be a really great book, revealing and eye-opening. Because beneath the squalor that’s beneath the cynicism that’s beneath the hunger that’s beneath the patina of dignity there is . . . an interesting man down there, a genuine eccentric, one strange American man. Everyone has a story to tell. His could be fascinating. (No, not the memoir he just signed for; that will just be assertive, defensive and bitter.)

So that is an imagined future. But to make sure it is complete, with a complete picture of what really happened, we should get all the facts, now, under oath. And put them in a file marked “To the Revisionist Scholar” and “To the Young Man in the Diner With the Tape Recorder.”