Writing on the eve of the 1952 presidential election, the Cambridge political scientist D.W. Brogan described a peculiar trait in the American psyche, which he called “the illusion of American omnipotence.” This, he elaborated, “is the illusion that any situa-tion which distresses or endangers the United States can only exist because some Americans have been fools or knaves.”
Brogan was writing in the context of the debate over “Who lost China?,” which was premised on the assumption that the convulsive Chinese Communist revolution, a forty-year struggle involving hundreds of millions of desperate people, could have been thwarted, or at least turned in a positive direction, by adroit diplomacy in Washington. The inanity of the China debate was instantly apparent (just as soon as Brogan put it into words), yet the illusion thrives. Even today, there are perfectly serious people who believe President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a knave for failing to stop the Nazi Holocaust or a fool for allowing the Red Army to occupy Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.
Brogan did not make the point, but the most obvious candidate for accusations of knavery is the president, especially now that whoever is in the White House is chief executive of the world’s last superpower. In Dead Center, a survey of Bill Clinton’s presidency, we see a modern extension of what Brogan described, the illusion of presidential omnipotence. In the current version, all that has gone wrong in America or the world at large—the slaughter in Kosovo, continuing inequality of wealth, the lack of national health insurance, even leaky roofs in our schools—can be blamed on Clinton. He is guilty, in the eyes of James MacGregor Burns and Georgia J. Sorenson, not because he is a knave or a fool, but, just as bad, because he is a centrist who shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.
Burns and Sorenson, colleagues at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, describe Clinton as a “transactional” president—one who makes deals—rather than a “transformational” one, who confronts political foes head-on and galvanizes the nation into taking fresh paths and shattering old habits. This is a fair assessment. Clinton has no large vision. As president, he has tried to reach across party lines. He has used opinion polls to assess and then act in accordance with the prevailing public sentiment, which will usually be more or less in the center. He has famously adopted a policy of “triangulation,” trying to place himself at the apex of a triangle whose base angles are the preternaturally hostile congressional Republicans and Democrats. Though he is an eloquent speaker, he seldom directs his oratory against his enemies. Rather he lets them snarl themselves into incoherence.
The result is that Clinton has survived and prevailed over them. The Monica Lewinsky scandal guarantees that his presidency will be forever deemed a disappointment, not …