Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, both flawed but brilliant men who rose to power from humble origins, earned nicknames that stuck to them like glue. President Nixon was Tricky Dick. President Clinton is Slick Willie. Although the two men were quite different on the surface, the similarities between the two presidents - elected a generation apart - are striking.
And as we weigh the qualities of the people who would replace Clinton as president, it may be useful to consider what brand of leader the nation needs, or wants, standing behind the bully pulpit.
Richard Nixon saw clever foreign policy as the key to power in his time. Rich people were afraid of communism, so that's where the votes were. Thus, he became a Republican and a champion of the anti-communists.
Bill Clinton's focus has always been on domestic policy. He came of age in the time when his generation found no comfort in the ranks of the GOP. His mission as a Democrat has always been giving the Baby Boomers what they want from their government.
Nixon played the piano, Clinton plays the sax. OK, so much for their differences.
In part, both men earned their colorful appellations by seeming to feel free to torture the truth whenever it served their purpose. Beyond that, both were resented for what was perceived as their lack of ruling-class breeding.
Either man played the Machiavellian card whenever it suited him. Consequently, that meant both had to suffer attacks from their opposition fueled by purple righteous indignation. Nixon's enemies saw him as evil incarnate, as have Clinton's.
However, as a serving president neither man proved to be the ideologue he was originally thought to be by allies or opponents. In looking back, it seems more likely that both used the passion of their parties' true believers as if it was just another tool to gain power.
If you put aside Vietnam, President Nixon was a moderate by most accounts. The best example of that might be the surprising opening to China by the same man who so skillfully surfed the wave of Red paranoia that followed World War II.
President Clinton has proven to be anything but a left-winger in his two terms, in spite of all the carping from the likes of Jesse Helms. What Clinton has done with welfare reform hardly flows from the last 40 years of traditional liberal thinking.
Thus, the two men disappointed many of the people who voted for them but won re-election anyway. Then both Nixon and Clinton faced impeachment hearings in their second term in office.
Both men, acting as Commander in Chief, ordered the dropping of a lot of bombs on far away lands that were in the midst of civil wars.
Nixon relentlessly bombed what is now the northern part of Vietnam and environs, in support of what was then South Vietnam. Clinton has bombed parts of Yugoslavia into dust, in support of Albanians who lived in another part of Yugoslavia. Both campaigns were aspects of policies that sought to force a recalcitrant regime to change its behavior with regard to people far from where the bombs were actually exploding.
There are wags who would suggest that the biggest difference between such massive operations and the small terrorist bombs that explode in European cafes is the budget of the bombers.
Both Tricky and Slick ignored criticism of that stripe because winning the game interested them much more than what they saw as useless and archaic notions about honorable warfare.
Nixon didn't win much for his effort, except for maybe costing the Russians precious money to back North Vietnam.
The jury is still out for Clinton in the unfolding horror story in Kosovo. Calling what has happened in Serbia "victory" may be tempting to those seeking to justify what has been done, but such bravado invites more trouble.
By their actions, which frequently were at odds with their words, both of these presidents forced us to confront an age-old dilemma for democratic societies: What counts for more in the game of holding power and using it wisely - winning, or how you play the game? Is it today's bottom line, or what we pray is best in the long run?
Both Nixon and Clinton needed to win and were good at it. But as public officials they should be anything but role models.
In November 2000, Americans will choose a new president. This time around, do we want a president who can out-smart his enemies and will say or do whatever it takes to win? Or, do we need a president who is forthright and sets a good example by walking the walk?
If we must make a choice between skill or truth, what do the times require? And in the end, what will we settle for?
F.T. Rea is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.