Burns, Whitmire discuss Clinton presidency

The nation is sick of the Clintons. The most relevant political process to most of Williams is the upcoming College Council elections. But Williams has not forgotten the First Couple completely.

Last Friday, March 5, at 4 p.m., a diverse group of community members gathered in Griffin 3 for a presentation on “Bill and Hillary Clinton – the Leadership Dilemma.” James MacGregor Burns ’49 and Kathryn Whitmire each gave speeches. An informal question and answer period followed.

Burns is the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government, Emeritus at Williams. He is currently Senior Scholar at the Center for Political Leadership and Participation, University of Maryland at College Park. He has been on the faculty at Williams since 1951, during which time he has written a shelf-full of books and won a litany of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Whitmire was Mayor of Houston for five terms from 1982-1992. She now works on the Board of Directors of the New York Stock Exchange and is prominent in national organizations such as the American Leadership Forum and Scenic America.

Burns and Whitmire debated the advantages and shortcomings of centrist leadership.

In Whitmire’s words, the dilemma mentioned in the title of the presentation compares the different political styles of Bill and Hillary.

Whitmire said, “The question is, ‘Can you more effectively lead from the center, as Bill Clinton has tried to do, or do you need to be more passionate in one direction or the other as Hillary Rodham Clinton is?’”

Whitmire began by likening herself to Bill Clinton. She praised him for balancing his beliefs on specific issues, which detractors on both sides criticize as divergent. Clinton, she said, is not a true moderate.

“If you examine it carefully, you will see that I’m not moderate at all, and neither is Bill Clinton. I’m very radical about my views on fiscal issues and on free trade, and I’m also very radical about my views on diversity, affirmative action, and race relations,” said Whitmire. “I’m fairly radical on all those issues, but if you average them out, I become a moderate, and that’s where Bill Clinton has landed as well.”

Whitmire continued to say that Clinton has succeeded in his administration, citing the strong economy and a balancing budget.

Although Whitmire set up the dilemma in the title as a comparison between the First Spouses, she still supports Hillary’s candidacy for Senator from New York.

“I believe she will make an incredible contribution, by bringing the concerns of women higher on the national agenda, something that Bill Clinton has not been able to do,” said Whitmire. She did not elaborate.

Like Whitmire, Burns voted for Clinton twice. But Burns came down much harder on the President.

Clinton is famous for being more concerned than most presidents about his place in history. According to Burns, history will look upon Clinton will poorly.

“The one thing he’s lacked has been political courage,” said Burns, citing Clinton’s failure to assert his right to privacy in the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

“He had the opportunity, over a year ago. Had he done so, he would have caused the greatest Constitutional crisis of our time.

And there is enough precedent that he would have won,” said Burns.

Burns criticized centrist leadership, saying that if one stands in the center it is physically impossible to lead in any direction.

Burns ridiculed Clinton’s political strategy of “incrementalism”–what Burns said was making small insignificant changes that resonate with the electorate but in reality do not accomplish much at all.

“The problem with incrementalism,” said Burns, “is that policy may be incremental, but the rest of the world is not being incremental.”

Burns, like Whitmire, endorses Hillary Rodham Clinton’s style of leadership. When an audience criticized her political resumé as containing only a messy failed health care reform early in the administration, Burns turned the blame on Bill Clinton for not abandoning health care reform.

“Every time this country has tried a reform, at first it has failed. Committed leadership goes back and tries again,” said Burns.

Burns said that the health care situation supports his point that the President lacks the courage to stand up for whatever specific beliefs he may have. Burns continued to say that Clinton’s stance on education, the death penalty, his gradual retreat from environmental issues, and his actions in the welfare reform of 1996 all support the same conclusion.

“If you really believe in certain values, it takes courage to stand up for them,” said Burns. “I have much greater respect for Ronald Reagan. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with what he stood for, he believed in it firmly and acted upon those beliefs.”

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