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Teddy Roosevelt the Second? Clinton's aspiration: Nominated for a second term, he seeks the elusive path to greatness.


DURING THE BUILDUP for his renomination tonight at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton once mused that he sometimes wished he lived in a more challenging time -- specifically a time of war -- that could produce greatness in a president. He apparently had in mind the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But if that is not to be, and God grant that it isn't, then he is willing to settle for Theodore Roosevelt as his model.

In a pre-convention interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Clinton said he hoped historians would write that for only the second time since the founding of the republic, a president guided the nation through a major change in the way people work, live and relate to one another "without a major war catalyzing it." "The first time," he said, "obviously being under Theodore Roosevelt's administration."

Among Clinton detractors, this could be a source of some amusement, since TR made it to the White House on the strength of his charge up San Juan Hill while Mr. Clinton got there in spite of his draft avoidance during the Vietnam war. But Mr. Clinton had another comparison in mind -- the rise of the industrial age at the beginning of this century and the transition to an information high-tech economy at its end.

Although Teddy Roosevelt is noted for his efforts to expand the scope of the federal government, Mr. Clinton is caught in circumstances that have forced him to proclaim that the "era of big government is over." How then can he aspire to greatness in seeking a second term after a first term of limited accomplishment? By his own admission, his agenda relies on small steps that he hopes will add up to something big.

Having made the switch from left-leaning liberal in his first two years to a centrist in his second two years, Mr. Clinton now says he believes in a federal government that is strong but smaller, activist but ready to dole out prerogatives to the states and the private sector. He vows to use "all the powers of the presidency" to achieve such aims as his recent restrictions on the tobacco industry. In dealing with Congress, he or Republican Bob Dole will be the first president armed with a line-item veto.

The major task of the next president will be to get a handle on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security entitlements. All will require constraints, despite Mr. Clinton's contention that the deficit hawks exaggerate. While real progress toward a balanced budget would be of enormous benefit to the nation, one has to wonder if this is the path to greatness as historians (and Bill Clinton) define it.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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