Alan Abelson thanked Bill Clinton as he was leaving the White House in 2001 for “eight great years of extraordinary spectacle and inexhaustibly abundant material for these scribblings.”
While Abelson had high hopes for the next administration, he admits that “even a proven word mangler” like George W. Bush would have trouble filling the “void left by Ol’ Bill.”
It was a rare Up & Down Wall Street column in which Abelson didn’t skewer the latest crop of Washington leaders.
The longtime Barron’s reporter, columnist, and editor began writing Up & Down on Jan. 24, 1966. Abelson stuck close to the market in the early years, but eventually Washington became a staple, even if was just the opportunity for a good one-liner. Like in 1986, when he noted that the sponsors of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act were “the most famous threesome since Larry, Moe, and Curly.”
By the time of Abelson’s final column, on Feb. 11, 2013, three months before his death, he had lampooned several generations of politicians. As we approach Inauguration Day, here are some of his observations on U.S. presidents coming and going, through the decades.
Abelson didn’t address Richard Nixon’s first inauguration, in 1969, and he took a somber look at the problems facing Nixon in his second term, including a slowing economy and overseas entanglements. “Call us a cockeyed optimist,” Abelson wrote on Jan. 22, 1973, “but we think the pause that depresses will end when the war in Vietnam does.”
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He had fun with the arrival of Jimmy Carter four years later, observing on Jan. 24, 1977, how “our new President strode, those magnificent choppers aflash, from the Capitol to the White House, unencumbered by fur hat or earmuffs or muffler” despite subfreezing temperatures. Perhaps, Abelson speculated, politicians “are so full of hot air that they are insulated against the worst of winter’s blasts.” As for outgoing President Gerald Ford, he “wore a reserved countenance” that seemed to ask of his successor, “why is that man smiling?”
The voters duly sent Carter back to Georgia in 1980, with Ronald Reagan sweeping into town under the slogan “New beginnings”— which Abelson takes issue with. Americans “didn’t want a fresh face,” he writes on Jan. 26, 1981; folks elected “a fellow most of them had known all their lives, a man they’d benignly watched for years, first on the big screen and then on the little one.” Abelson notes that Reagan was “69 years old, to boot,” back when that seemed old for a president.
As for redecorating the Oval Office, Abelson was for it. “After all, who wants the president to meet such greats as Brezhnev, Mrs. Thatcher, Tip O’Neill, or Frank Sinatra in shabby surroundings?”
Abelson addressed new faces in Reagan’s cabinet on Jan. 7, 1985, noting that Edwin Meese had finally qualified for attorney general by “demonstrating his incompetence in financial matters.” He decried James Watt’s “bald advocacy” for Interior secretary, and applauded Michael Deaver’s decision to leave Washington and seek “more gainful employment.”
Deaver had company in 1989, Abelson wrote on Jan. 23, as “Mr. Reagan’s team of unreconstructed monetarists, unrepentant supply-siders, and ideology hustlers had either left town and found gainful employment or stayed in Washington and become consultants.” As for new President George H.W. Bush, “he has been Vice President for eight years, which means for eight years he hasn’t had to think anything about anything.”
The Clinton era fittingly began in scandal, with Abelson writing on Jan. 25, 1993, that “Ol’ Bubba got egg on his face even before he sat down at his first Washington breakfast” over the “Zoë Baird business.” Baird was at the center of “Nannygate” for hiring undocumented immigrants, and Abelson suggested that Clinton “should have granted Zoë a pardon.”
Things got worse for Clinton, of course, and four years later the Supreme Court was preparing to hear arguments in Paula Jones’ sexual-harassment case as to whether a sitting president could be sued. “Mr. Clinton,” Abelson wryly pointed out on Jan. 20, 1997, “was neither President nor sitting, according to the plaintiff, when he allegedly committed his transgression.”
George W. Bush, Abelson wrote in February 2001, had a singular problem, having “so successfully cultivated an unfamiliarity with the English language” that it’s all but impossible “that he’ll say what he means.”
Then came the 2008 presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama, which, in Abelson’s view, pitted “a candidate who should have been president eight years ago against a candidate who should be president eight years from now.’’
At Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Abelson concluded that Dick Cheney arrived in a wheelchair because he “decided he’d be damned” if he’d stand for the new president. Also on hand was Bill Clinton, “embracing everybody in sight but his wife.”
Of course, Abelson by this time was quite familiar with the ways of Washington’s rich and powerful. He knew what really drove them to attend the inauguration of the new leader of the Free World: the “rumor of free eats.”
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