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Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2000 /7 Shevat, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The prodigal returns -- NO ONE WHO'S NOTICED that Bill Clinton's life has been roughly coincident with his running for public office will be surprised to hear him musing about running for Congress once his sentence in the White House is completed.

But why run in Arkansas? Isn't that a bit of a commute from Chappaqua, N.Y. Still, it would be something, having the prodigal home, campaigning at Toadsuck Ferry, handling folks' problems with Social Security or the IRS. He might even be able to attract some new government installation located in Arkansas after all these years.

He would also be handy to Susan Webber Wright's court, the one that found him in contempt, and the state Supreme Court's committee on professional conduct, which must be quietly considering his disbarment by now.

Whether as senator from Arkansas or congressman from the the state's Second District, Bill Clinton would make an interesting role model for our young people, and a great guest at university seminars on ethics in government. Perhaps he could talk at the law schools, or maybe at a seminary or two about perjury -- its legal, ethical and theological ramifications. He could speak from a background few scholars bring to the subject.

The president noted that his running for Congress someday would not be unprecedented. John Quincy Adams, he observed, spent 17 years as a U.S. representative after he left the presidency. Bill Clinton's ear for the finer resonances of history remains as sharp as ever. For other than their possibly sharing a post-White House career on Capitol Hill, it is hard to think of anything John Quincy Adams might have had in common with William Jefferson Clinton.

Unlike this president, Adams the younger was never a popular leader; he served only one term in the presidency and was never impeached; there was nothing hail-fellow-well-met about him (or any of the other Adamses); he devoted himself almost exclusively to fighting for great principles, in particular the cause of human freedom; he took one unpopular stand after another and paid for them by being defeated at the polls; he never built a personal political machine and was remarkably free of partisanship in general; and he successfully argued a landmark case before the Supreme Court on behalf of liberty and the rule of law.

A federalist by inclination and temperament long after his father's party had died out and he himself had abandoned it, John Quincy Adams never suffered a fool or dodged an unpleasant truth in his life. He abominated small talk and usually settled for muttering. An English diplomat once described him as "a bulldog among spaniels'' -- a wholly unintended compliment.

Not only wouldn't J.Q. Adams have made a modern president, he was an obsolescent figure by the time he was elected to the office in 1824. And he was chosen then only by a fluke of the Electoral College -- and an arrangement with Henry Clay that remains controversial to this day. The acid-tongued John Randolph of Roanoke called it an alliance of "Blifil and Black George ... the puritan with the blackleg.''

An aristocrat in a dawning mass democracy, John Quincy Adams was shoved aside as soon as the people could elect a military hero and Man of the People in Andrew Jackson. Came the election of 1828, and Adams found himself denounced not only as a puritan, but a menace to popular government, an old stick with no human feelings -- and not without reason. He proved about as popular as Kenneth Starr, and for some of the same reasons.

Years later, his own grandson Henry, in "The Education of Henry Adams,'' a book that still merits re-reading, would accuse his grandfather John Quincy of being incapable of uttering "a syllable of cant.'' The man never heard of public opinion polls or focus groups or triangulation, and if he had, one can only imagine the contempt he would have had for them. He used a conscience instead. He acted as if he had no need for popularity -- in short, as if he were an Adams, and knew who he was.

As a politician, John Quincy Adams doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, in the same paragraph, even in the same book as William Jefferson Clinton or any other great two-time winner of the presidency like Richard Nixon.

John Quincy Adams' understanding of the uses of patronage was primitive, his comprehension of the spoils system abysmal. He was an unregenerate outsider who refused to play the game. When his postmaster-general insisted on hiring those of another political persuasion, President Adams refused to interfere. ("I will not dismiss, or drop from executive offices, able and faithful political opponents to provide for my own partisans.'') An antique in his own time, the man was light-years removed -- like a distant sun -- from an administration that could produce Travelgate and then try to avenge itself on a hapless civil servant like Billy Dale for nothing more than being in its way.

John Quincy Adams, a forgettable president, was anything but a forgettable man. In that respect, too, William Jefferson Clinton has it all over his forgotten predecessor, for as long as the history of impeachment is studied, Bill Clinton will prove anything but a forgettable president. He's not only been a president but a precedent. And he may have only begun to represent Arkansas in the national mind, this time in Congress.

Now there's a sobering prospect. It's enough to send one hurrying back to read the dull, dusty history of the first and only presidential term of John Quincy Adams -- with delight and instruction. For we live in an age when simple rectitude in a president might come as a fascinating novelty.

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate