More than eight months ago, we quoted Gov. Bill Clinton as saying of his second-place finish in the year's first presidential primary, "New Hampshire tonight has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid." He was referring to the fact that after explosive revelations about his womanizing and his draft avoidance had knocked him out of first place in the public opinion polls, he gained back about half his loss to finish behind Paul Tsongas.
We took the conventional view that former Senator Tsongas was the real comeback kid. He doubled his support to win the New Hampshire primary. Many analysts said the Arkansas governor was doomed. One compared him to a severely wounded Confederate soldier leaning against a tree -- bleeding to death from his untreatable wound. But with determination and apparent good will, Mr. Clinton soldiered on to win his party's nomination. Once in his grasp, the Democratic nomination's worth seemed to vanish, as Ross Perot came out of nowhere to attract the dissatisfied. Before the Democratic convention, Mr. Clinton had fallen to third in some national polls. He came back again, and when Mr. Perot temporarily dropped out of the race, the Arkansas governor soared to a strong lead over President Bush.
He never relinquished it. In late October pollsters had the two major party candidates in a statistical dead heat and President Bush seemed ready to overtake him -- but Governor Clinton came back again, to sprint ahead of the president to his amazing victory of yesterday.
We recite this history because we believe Clinton the campaigner -- the comeback kid -- may be the key to the kind of president he will be. His seemingly good-natured response to and his overcoming of the unprecedented personal criticism heaped on him, first by Mr. Tsongas and other Democrats, then by President Bush, finally by Mr. Perot suggests a first-class temperament. He was accused of lying, rampant infidelity, lack of patriotism, almost treason; he was blamed for his state's backwardness, criticized for his wife's career. He endured it all, and smiling he prevailed.
A first-class temperament is important in a president. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once used that phrase to describe Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was successful in a traumatic time in large part because he could smile at personal adversities overcome. We hope President Clinton will be able to do the same.
President Bush will leave office as repudiated as Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Herbert Hoover, the man FDR defeated in 1932. History has been kinder to those two than contemporary assessments. Perhaps the same will be true of Mr. Bush, who has had his moments and can take comfort in the fact that when history parcels out the credit for the victory over totalitarian communism in the Soviet Union, it will record that it happened on his watch.