The Contemporary Presidency: The Greats and the Great Debate: President William J. Clinton's Use of Presidential Exemplars


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wish to thank Ronald Hatzenbuehler, Philip Abbott, Charles Walcott, and James P. Pfiffner for their comments and suggestions. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Western Political Science Association annual conference, March 16-20, 2006, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Lara M. Brown is an adjunct professor of political science at California State University, Channel Islands.


This article examines President William J. Clinton's use of presidential exemplars from 1991 to 2001. While many observers have called attention to the fact that Clinton made efforts to connect his presidency to Democratic “greats” Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt, his rhetoric reveals a more complex pattern of identification and use of his predecessors. Not only did he reference Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt—Republican “greats”—as often as Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt, but he appears to have used them to talk across party lines and move his fellow partisans to the center. This rhetorical pattern became more prominent after the 1994 midterm election, when the Republicans won majority control of Congress. Hence, this article asserts that Clinton used his predecessors to help him carry out his political agenda and his constitutional duties. Further, he learned from his predecessors about how they had used ideological and partisan constructs during their administrations, and this led to his reconsidering the “great debate” between Jefferson and Hamilton. This research concludes that President William J. Clinton left a Hamiltonian—not Jeffersonian—legacy for the Democratic party.