Feet of clay

Bill Clinton's 19th-century predecessor

Issue: "Larry Woiwode: By the book," July 4, 1998

I've written about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on past July 4ths-it's a great day for historical columns-but this time, given the sad times in Washington, I would like to introduce readers to the Bill Clinton of the 19th century: Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Mr. Clay was at first Speaker of the House, then the Senate's most influential leader and a perennial presidential candidate from the 1820s through the 1840s. Like President Clinton he was "irritable, impatient, and occasionally overbearing" (in the words of Daniel Webster), but a charmer as well when he wanted to be: Mr. Clay's warm insinuations and ability to connect mesmerized some audiences.

Mr. Clay, like Mr. Clinton today, could at times not keep from smirking, even when his words indicated total seriousness. Senator Clay liked to talk much more than he liked to listen, and during long orations by others he consoled himself on the Senate floor by licking a stick of peppermint candy. And yet, his ability to register total commitment to whatever cause he was speaking on at the moment swayed even some of those who had vowed not to be fooled again.

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Henry Clay, like Bill Clinton, stayed married to one woman, but Mr. Clay more and more kept her at home in Kentucky so he could have what he called "tours of pleasure" in Washington. Some critics called Mr. Clay a man who "disregards our moral relations." A pamphlet headlined, "Christian Voters! Read, Pause and Reflect! Mr. Clay's Moral Character," depicted him as a libertine gambler who spent too much time in "appreciation" of feminine charms.

Henry Clay, like Bill Clinton, moved from infidelity in marriage to Constitutional looseness. Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe had all declared that the Constitution did not permit federal spending for roads and canals, but Sen. Clay argued that since landlocked states like Kentucky would not be able to participate fully in interstate commerce unless they had better roads and canals, Congress should fund them. Few at that time accepted such an extension of the Constitution's Commerce clause-let the states pay for their own roads, most leaders said-but Mr. Clay laid the foundation for federal aggrandizement.

Here's another comparison: Journalists often used words such as "heartless," "selfish," and "spoiled child of society" to describe Mr. Clay, but when he was caught in a lie he played the aggrieved party, saying, "How could you suppose I mean to offend you. There was nothing farther from my thoughts, and I am astonished that you should think so." Just as Sen. Bob Kerry (D-Neb.) several years back called Bill Clinton an exceptionally fine liar, so early 19th-century leaders like John Quincy Adams noted that Henry Clay was "essentially a gamester" always searching for a "killing."

So what are we to make of such parallels? Here's one big difference between then and now: Henry Clay was often the person journalists thought most likely to succeed to the presidency, but Americans never voted him into the White House, as we did with Bill Clinton. One supporter complained that Mr. Clay "could get more men to run after him to hear him speak, and fewer to vote for him than any man in America."

For a time Henry Clay could blame defeats on the popularity of Andrew Jackson, who beat him twice, but as he lost to lesser candidates the message became clear: Adulterers and liars did not belong in the White House. Mr. Clay became bitter, but he also wondered: Might the American people be right?

Such thinking led to a second Clay/Clinton difference: Defeat turned out to be a lifesaver to Mr. Clay. Once his presidential ambitions were finally dashed, he set his sights on a better destination than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1847, at age 70, the consummate cynic astounded observers by publicly trusting in Christ and proclaiming his reliance not on voters but on a God who is not fooled.

Henry Clay's apparent redemption turned all his losses into a great victory. When Sen. Clay was at the height of his power, the Charleston Mercury complained of his "temper, unrestrained ... though he often wins a shrewd trick, and dips deeply into the bank, he loses in the long run." But when Mr. Clay lost all, that is when he won in the long run. He died proclaiming his faith in Christ.

My prayer, again, is for President Clinton to be convicted-by God. I pray not that he be forced out of office in disgrace, but that he similarly encounter God's grace.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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