Opinion: Hillary would not be first president to mix messages

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in New York on Aug. 18. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Hillary Clinton’s highly paid Wall Street speeches show that she says different things in private than she does in public.

The speeches, recently made public by WikiLeaks, reveal the Democratic presidential candidate’s basic bent toward free trade, her coziness with Wall Street, and her consideration of changes in Social Security down the road. These are positions opposite of what she has said in her campaign speeches, in which she basically endorses Bernie Sanders’s views.


Will this trouble Democrats and progressives who thought Clinton had turned completely in their direction?  Probably. But it does not mean she is totally believed by those Wall Street moguls either.

In truth, most successful presidents have been “flexible” in their public and private utterances. What they say is not a set of clues as to the final form of their presidency. And this applies to Hillary Clinton.

The most successful American presidents in domestic affairs are those who engage in such flexibility. Among the chief executives who employed that approach were Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.  All three knew how to “work” Congress privately while playing the public “game.”

Consider Lincoln’s work on the passage of the 13th Amendment, and his actions moving toward the Emancipation Proclamation. Consider as well the tactics FDR used to gain so much new economic and social legislation during the New Deal during the 1930s, and to create stronger executive leadership in many areas — yet he charmed members of Congress.  Consider, most particularly, LBJ’s wheeling and dealing when pushing through his Great Society agenda in the 1960s.

Lincoln was always very cordial with members of his party, stroking their egos when necessary, and accepting criticism when unavoidable. He knew how to influence and lobby for what he wanted on the 13th Amendment, and he knew it was essential to play different groups within the party and within his cabinet (a group of headstrong and egotistical characters). He was extremely effective, as portrayed in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s study of Lincoln and his cabinet, “Team of Rivals.”

FDR was a cagey leader, who said some things to some congressional leaders and cabinet members, and other things to others, and managed to be very effective in accomplishing his goals. He was called crafty, charming and brilliant by many, but also manipulative, capable of lying to one’s face and willing to mislead to gain his goals. He was a great crisis leader in the mode of Lincoln.

And then there’s LBJ. He was the true master of being cordial, kind, charming at times with certain members of Congress and cabinet officers, and yet aggressive, persistent, domineering and threatening with others, to achieve his goals of changing the nations’ domestic agenda. If only Johnson had been as effective in foreign affairs, he would rank much higher among the presidents.

All three presidents — Lincoln, Roosevelt and Johnson — had to deal with intransigent groups on many different matters, and yet, while not totally pleasing everyone, which is impossible in any case, they accomplished great deeds.  Let us hope a President Hillary Clinton could do the same. She would enter office with more total government experience than either Lincoln or FDR, and with an expertise in world affairs that would be rare.

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers).

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