‘Ability,” Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have proposed, “is of little account without opportunity.” In our modern vernacular, this idea would be put a trifle differently: “You can be good,” we might posit, “but you also need to be lucky.” Has there ever been a family to which this maxim could be more appropriately attached than the Clintons?
Perhaps the most talented national politician of his generation, Bill Clinton was nevertheless a routine beneficiary of improbable good fortune. During the 1992 election season, Clinton managed to walk calmly across No Man’s Land without catching so much as a scratch. During the primary, his late-stage rival Jerry Brown gaffed his way out of a mathematically unassailable polling advantage and permitted the less-known Clinton to sneak to victory against all the odds. During the general election, a deteriorating economy, a spate of Republican infighting, and the vagarious behavior of a popular third-party candidate helped Clinton overcome his manifold character deficiencies and pull off a historic upset against an overqualified opponent, who, just a year earlier, had commanded a public approval rating of 89 percent. As he racked up his successes, the press came to see Clinton as the “comeback kid.” In truth, “fortunate kid” would have been more on the mark.
How could a commander-in-chief survive a sex scandal and a perjury charge? Ken Starr and 4 percent growth, that’s how.
If 1992 served as a comedy of serendipities for the Clintons, 1996 and 1998 hinted at Providence itself. In ’96, the Republican party nominated Bob Dole as its presidential candidate, and then proceeded to split down the middle having done so. In 1998, a year that should have been infamous for Clinton, the GOP disastrously overplayed its hand and thereby managed to turn a story about the president’s arrogance, mendacity, and adulterousness into a distressing tale of tone-deafness and overreach. As ever, Clinton was lucky in his foes and fortunate to have inherited a prosperous backdrop against which the notion of impeachment held limited luster. How could a commander-in-chief survive a sex scandal and a perjury charge? Ken Starr and 4 percent growth, that’s how.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is the editor of National Review Online.