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The Politics of Ambition : When Your Strength Is Your Weakness

William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN.

A PRESIDENT’S greatest strength can be his greatest weakness. Look at the record.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s greatest strength was his political skill. He masterminded brilliant political deals, like the Civil Rights Act, the Medicare bill and the Voting Rights Act. But when the nation needed moral leadership during the Vietnam War, it didn’t get it from Johnson. He was too much of a politician.

Richard M. Nixon’s strength was his pragmatism. He didn’t let conservative doctrine stand in the way when he saw an opportunity to improve relations with the Soviet Union and China. But he also didn’t let principle stand in the way when it came to his political interests. During Watergate, his pragmatism turned into opportunism.

Jimmy Carter’s greatest strength was his morality. He was elected because, after Watergate, Americans wanted to restore integrity to the White House. But he was often disdainful in his relations with Congress and preachy toward the American people. Remember the “malaise” speech? That’s when morality turned into sanctimoniousness.

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For Ronald Reagan, ideology was a source of strength. He had a commitment to principle. But his ideology also got him into trouble. He was often hardheaded, provoking gridlock with Congress. He continued to send military aid to the Contras surreptitiously. Reagan’s Iran-Contra policy was ideologically correct--and illegal.

George Bush’s strength was his professionalism. He respected public service and surrounded himself with advisers who knew their way around government. Not a single one, including Bush, had any bold new ideas. The country wanted vision. Bush offered caution. It kept us out of trouble in foreign affairs. But it allowed the economy to drift.

What people like about Bill Clinton is his ambition. But that’s also what they don’t like about Clinton. President Clinton’s ambition is to solve the nation’s problems and set us--and himself--on a new path to greatness. But before the Democratic Convention, voters were down on Clinton because he seemed too ambitious. He was a typical politician who would do anything to get elected.

Yet right now, the public is thrilled by Clinton’s ambition. He’s going to fix the economy, reform health care and make us No. 1 again in the world. Wow! Bush never displayed ambition. It seemed to embarrass him. He was modest to a fault.

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There was nothing modest about Clinton’s inaugural last week. It was the most expensive in history. Hollywood stars and rock stars mingled with journalists and politicians. No more government by middle-aged, white men in suits! Let’s boogie!

Clinton started the week by paying homage to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. His first stop upon entering Washington was the Lincoln Memorial. On Tuesday morning, he visited the grave site of John F. Kennedy. Wrapping yourself in the garments of Jefferson, Lincoln and Kennedy--that’s a pretty impressive display of ambition for a new President.

One reason Clinton got elected is that, under Bush, many felt the nation had lost its ambition. We could still win wars abroad, of course. But that just made Americans feel more frustrated over the stagnant economy and festering social problems at home. Clinton promises great enterprises, at home as well as abroad.

Clinton declared that in the new global economy, “ambition for a better life is universal.” It’s Clinton’s life story. All his life he has been driven by ambition to conquer the world outside Hope, Ark.

You can see Clinton’s ambition in his relentless drive for self-improvement. The voracious reading. The tireless policy discussions. The jogging.

Clinton’s triumph is also the story of his generation. A lot of people think the religion of yuppies is greed. It’s not. It’s success.

Clinton has staffed his Administration with superachievers. They are the best and the brightest in their fields, whether that is public service (Secretary of State Warren Christopher), academics (Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala) or even lobbying (Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown). As one Washington wag remarked, “They are the kinds of people who always let you know that they are smarter and busier than you are.”

No wonder a lot of baby boomers felt depressed when Clinton got elected. Next to him, all baby boomers feel like failures.

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Last week’s events demonstrated both the promise and the perils of ambition. The promise came with Clinton’s conquest of Washington. He declared confidently, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” How’s that for self-improvement?

The perils of ambition were demonstrated by Zoe Baird, Clinton’s nominee to be attorney general. She is smart, ambitious and well-connected. She moved through the highest circles of government, law and big business. But she made one mistake--and not an untypical one for the supermoms of her generation.

Despite their substantial incomes and knowledge of the law, she and her husband hired undocumented workers to help care for their child. That doomed her. It also embarrassed Clinton, who nominated her even though he knew about her problem. Among the best and the brightest of their generation, hiring illegal aliens to care for your children is no big deal. It’s just a tiny modification of the yuppie creed: “I can do everything (maybe with a little illegal help).”

It was a big deal to the voters, however. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll Thursday night showed 3-1 opposition to Baird’s confirmation by the Senate. Only 18% of Americans felt her actions were “justifiable, given the difficulty of obtaining good child care.”

Baird fought mightily to hold on to her nomination. She resisted withdrawing her name until it became clear that support in the Senate, and in the Administration, was crumbling. Her experience demonstrates how easy it is for laudable ambition to turn into deplorable careerism--what Shakespeare called “vaulting ambition, which o’er leaps itself.” Baird became “An American Tragedy (Female)” of the baby-boom generation.

Clinton almost became “An American Tragedy (Male)” last year in New Hampshire. He cut corners, too, by evading the draft. And to hear Gennifer Flowers tell it, he, too, tried to “have it all.” He did the same thing Baird tried to do--overcome the obstacles through sheer force of will.

With Clinton, it worked. He defied the press and boldly took his campaign directly to the voters. Clinton bet that the voters of New Hampshire, preoccupied with their own economic problems, would regard the allegations about his personal life as “no big deal.”

Clinton impressed the voters with his talent and ambition. The premise of his campaign was, “I can do everything.” And he did. He campaigned tirelessly.

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But the politics of ambition has its pitfalls. The way this Administration is set up, everything depends on the President. Clinton’s chief of staff is new to Washington, so Clinton has to be his own manager and strategist. His appointees represent a diversity of viewpoints, so Clinton has to be his own top adviser. He has no ideological following, so he has to run a permanent campaign.

Clinton is already being criticized for getting too involved in personnel decisions. It has slowed down the staffing of the Administration and created the risk of losing momentum in these critical early weeks. It also means the President must take the heat for every flawed appointment--as he did with Baird.

That’s why Clinton is already taking heat over his “broken promises.” He seems to be wavering on his campaign promises to enact a middle-class tax cut, reduce the deficit by half and open U.S. borders to Haitian refugees seeking political asylum. “The American people would think I was foolish if I said, ‘I will not respond to changing circumstances,”’ Clinton declared.

Yes, but they would also be offended if he appeared not to be taking his campaign promises seriously. It’s one thing to show flexibility. It’s another to suggest your commitments and principles are “no big deal,” that they can be compromised when they become inconvenient.

Bush did that when he reversed his “no new taxes” pledge and pretended it was no big deal. Baird did that when she tried to argue that her knowing violation of the law was no big deal. Clinton did that when he appeared to agree with her.

Clinton’s strength right now is that he understands the difference between personal ambition and national ambition. In his Inaugural Address, he said, “Let us put aside personal advantage so that we can feel the pain and see the promise of America.” That’s right. When you sacrifice the interests of your career for the interests of the country, you have the right ambition. When you put your career first, your ambition has become a source of weakness.


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