A rather unusual op-ed appears in today’s Washington Post, written by Karl E. Meyer, a longtime writer (and editorial-board member) for both that paper and the New York Times, who recently retired after many years editing World Policy Journal, and his wife Shareen Blair Brysac.
The column argues that, should President-elect Obama confirm his choice of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to be Secretary of State, a “wonderful combination of circumstances” will arise to benefit the nation. The authors argue that to replace Hillary, New York Governor David Paterson should select, not New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo or Reps. Nita Lowey or Kirsten Gillibrand or Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown or even Robert Kennedy Jr. or Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, but instead a person with more political experience than any of these figures, a man who knows Washington well already….
The suggestion, on its face, sounds bizarre, but than again when Cindy Adams wrote in her column a little over a decade ago that the First Lady was contemplating seeking Daniel P. Moynihan’s Senate seat after he retired, a lot of people had trouble taking that notion seriously. And this time, the prospect is being suggested by a journalist with somewhat greater gravitas than even the venerable Ms. Adams.
The argument that Meyer and Brysac make cites an historical precedent. In 1830, two years after his defeat by Andrew Jackson, former President John Quincy Adams ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and won. At the time, some asked what it was appropriate for a onetime occupant of the White House to seek a lesser office. Adams’s reply was he was honored to serve any office to which the public chose to elect him, even as a county clerk or selectman. And so for the next 18 years he worked in the House with considerable distinction; among his achievements, as the column notes, was his work, spanning the years 1836 to 1846, to ensure that the $500,000 bequest left to the United States by an Englishman “for an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” was invested to create the Smithsonian Institution.
Rather interestingly, Meyer and Brysac do not cite the example of the only other former President who returned to serve on Capitol HIll – Andrew Johnson, who also was the only President before Clinton to be impeached. After avoiding removal from office by one vote and leaving the White House under a cloud, Johnson thirsted for vindication. In 1872, like Adams, he sought election to the House, but was defeated. Two years later, the Tennessee state legislature elected him to the Senate. Johnson returned to Washington in 1875 and served just five months before his death, but not before making a speech that earned him a standing ovation from many who had voted for his removal in 1868.
President Clinton is a man with a considerable knowledge of American history, and surely is familiar with Andrew Johnson’s career. Could it be that the wish to erase the stain of impeachment is encouraging him to think along the lines of a return to politics?
However, if there is a serious effort underway to get Bill Clinton into the Senate in this fashion, I’d say that is one good reason for Obama to let Hillary stay where she is. Putting her in charge of the State Department, whether or not Dick Holbrooke is present to provide his wealth of expertise as Undersecretary, would in itself create a power center in the executive branch that would challenge Obama’s capacity to use the full authority of his office when it came to foreign policy. Having Bill Clinton in the Senate at the same time, with an opportunity to second-guess every initiative coming from the Oval Office, would only compound the problem where the domestic front was concerned.
One Clinton in Washington is sufficient for the well-being of the republic; to have two of them making policy would be two too many. The future may see a situation where it would be fitting for a former President to seek and obtain high office and continue to serve his or her nation, but in this case it’s better for the 42nd Chief Executive to stay in his office in Harlem.