Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Sunday, December 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — Presidential history books tell the stories of a select few pairs: Abigail and John. Eleanor and Franklin. Jack and Jackie. Yes, Bill and Hillary are on the shelf, too.

Indelible partnerships make memorable presidencies. Abigail and John Adams relied on each other’s Yankee work ethic and shrewd advice. The Kennedys scattered stardust a thousand ways in a thousand days.

But it’s the Roosevelts, Eleanor and Franklin, that Hillary and Bill Clinton aim to take after. The Roosevelts lived in the White House for a dozen years. The Clintons plan to stay a total of 16.

On a new page, weary Americans may welcome two Clintons minding the store again at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hillary’s failed health care initiative and Bill’s sins with Monica Lewinsky are Whitewater over the dam.

In their marriage, Barack and Michelle Obama aren’t locked in a laserlike political duet. Too bad. Mrs. Obama could have saved the president from rudely cutting a senator of his own party, Elizabeth Warren, speaking of her in public anger by her first name. The talk of the town isn’t just trade anymore; Obama’s faux pas disrespected a female lawmaker. When Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), called out the personal outburst, the White House demanded an apology, stirring the tempest.

As the 2016 election churn gets going, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton is sure to play strings of shared memory. President Bill Clinton presided over peace and prosperity, with plenty of help from her First Ladyship. The 1990s were pretty golden.

The 21st century, since 9/11, has been pretty dreary. That sad fact is in plain sight, from the streets of Detroit to Baltimore. The tragic train wreck in Philadelphia is an object lesson in life falling off the tracks.

If history repeats or rhymes, the deep bond between Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt sets the stage for Hillary and Bill Clinton. In each case, the presidents were rock stars, with perfect pitch. Bill Clinton’s appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show brought back his disarming demeanor in a rush. That Huckleberry Finn smile.

Franklin D. Roosevelt exuded cheer, competence, and confidence. A nation in despair badly needed that when he took office. The Great Depression was the crisis that he faced and solved by trying new things, like creating government work programs. Conservation was one; another was a writers project for preserving folklore. Building bridges and civic buildings also became part of his lasting repertoire.

A jaunty patrician with a common touch, Roosevelt was a stellar president. My father’s boyhood was brightened by the father-like FDR, until age 12. Families in Chicago and New York kept his picture in the kitchen and huddled by the radio to hear his fireside chats as if he were speaking directly to them. The voice had a magical reach.

Of the famous presidential couples, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were the most consequential during their time together in the White House, from 1933 to 1945, through the Depression on the home front and then the Second World War. The nation trusted and believed in both Roosevelts.

Mrs. Roosevelt acted as her husband’s “eyes and ears” all over the country as a kind of ambassador, from the coal mines to the bread lines. (Few knew the president could not walk unaided.) She returned to the White House filled with stories and ideas for social programs that would help poverty and lift morale.

According to author Doris Kearns Goodwin, idealistic Eleanor knew what should be done, while Franklin knew what could be done. They were extraordinary. Their personal relationship foundered over an affair of Franklin, but they had an unwavering pact to shore up the common good.

As for the Clintons, give them this: never a dull day. They met as equals at Yale Law School, and always presented themselves as a team, for better or worse. Grand jury testimony one day, ending the war in Bosnia the next. They refused to let impeachment do them part, over a slight affair. Their bond proved unbreakable, proving the cynics and critics wrong.

Was it a co-presidency? Close enough so that voters will associate Hillary Clinton with the good times of the 1990s. Her ringing declaration in Beijing, that women’s rights are human rights, also showed her solo on the world stage before she became a senator and secretary of state. Everyone knew she was speaking for President Clinton.

And one day, Bill may be speaking for President Clinton.

Photo: Karen Murphy via Flickr