Pitcher "Three Finger" Mordecai Brown retired from baseball in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson successfully ran for reelection. Wilson ran on a "He kept us out of war" plank, since most Americans did not want to involve themselves in what we now call World War I, but he brought us into war soon after his second inauguration. Not my fault, Wilson said: Circumstances made me do it.
Democratic convention speakers, offering an apologetic for continued bad economic news, are stressing the difficult circumstances Barack Obama has faced during his term of office. But Mordecai Brown would need only two fingers of his farm-machinery-damaged hand to count the number of presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries who did not face difficult circumstances. Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s, maybe - but then came the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. The second "fortunate" president: Bill Clinton.
President Clinton last night spoke of the good times rolling in his administration, but he won election one year after the Soviet Union collapsed, and left office eight months before 9/11 signaled the start of a new cold (and sometimes hot) war. He benefited economically from the computer revolution and politically from the conservative defeat of Hillarycare and the arrival of a Republican Congress that held down expenditures. Together, the economic and political changes led to that rarest of Washington creatures, a balanced budget.
Clinton does deserve credit for not having messed up the economy. Unlike President Obama, Clinton gave up on government-run medicine when voters showed their opposition. Unlike Obama, Clinton made peace with the conservative push for welfare reform, and might have succeeded in reforming Social Security and Medicare - see Steven Gillon, The Pact - had he not messed up personally and acted in ways that led to his impeachment. Clinton even talked, hypocritically, about making abortion "safe, legal, and rare," because he knew it's a horrible thing - which this week's convention Democrats who omit the "rare" seem unwilling to admit.
But is Clinton a role model? No. And does Obama deserve sympathy because he has such a "bad hand" to work with? No, because he doesn't have a harder task than most other presidents. And, as Mordecai Brown found after he lost parts of two fingers, a bad hand can still lead to a Hall of Fame career, when a thrower learns how to pitch.