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Escape Artist In the White House

The eminent historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., has just presided over the taking of a poll that is bound to catch President Clinton's eye: Thirty-two of the nation's leading historians have rated our nation's presidents over the years and have determined that, as of now, Mr. Clinton can be judged only "average."

The poll, carried out by The New York Times, has these findings:

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Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are at the top, rated "great."

Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman come next with a "near great" rating.

Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Harding, Hoover, and Nixon are considered "failures" by the panel.

On rating Clinton, Mr. Schlesinger reports that "some of the historians think it premature to judge; but two vote him Near Great and two more a Failure, and he ends up Average. The second term gives him his opportunity to move up - or down."

Where Schlesinger really grabs my attention is when he predicts that there will be "storms ahead" for Clinton and then adds that the president has shown a resource for dealing with such adversity: "His Houdini-like agility in getting out of tight spots."

If you think about it, Clinton, from the time he first ran for president, right on through his first term, has always been in one kind of a "tight spot" or another. And now, as Schlesinger points out, "Whitewater, Kenneth Starr, Paula Jones, and the Indonesian philanthropists lie in wait."

I hadn't thought about that before. This president is, indeed, a political Houdini, a genius at getting out of jams. Apart from problems dealing with his personal behavior, Clinton also has shown his agility in wriggling out of political adversity.

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Remember how far down he was following the 1994 election? He was being called a "failed" president by his friends as well as his opponents.

Even a year ago Clinton was still viewed as a loser. But he somehow got out of that box and, long before the November election, he was looking like a champion. What an escape artist he has proved to be!

AS an eight-year-old lad back in the early 1920s I saw Houdini perform at the Orpheum Theater in Champaign, Ill. I couldn't believe what I saw. Houdini started out by asking our police chief to come up and put him in handcuffs. Then the magician got into a straitjacket and crawled into a trunk which was wrapped with chains and locked. Again, he was out of all that in a twinkling.

At one point Houdini invited "some young boy" to come up to assist him in his next act. I pulled away from my mother and started up the aisle. But my friend, Billy DeTurk, beat me there - one of my life's biggest disappointments.

Billy's job was to hand a glass of water to Houdini every few seconds as the magician swallowed handfuls of needles. Then Houdini pulled out a ribbon from his pocket that was at least a yard long and apparently swallowed that. Again Billy provided water.

How envious I was of him! And then - as the audience gasped - Houdini reached into his mouth and pulled out this long ribbon with all the needles attached to it. Or, at least, that's what appeared to be happening.

There's a new book out entitled, "Houdini!!!" by Kenneth Silverman. One reviewer of the book underscores Houdini's high standing when he writes, "Ask the guy next to you on the bus to name a magician, and 9 times out of 10 he'll say, 'Houdini.' "

Will Clinton "do a Houdini" and make it through the storms that probably lie ahead?

Will he rise above "average" and become a "near-great" or even a "great" president?

As historian Schlesinger writes: The second term gives him this opportunity.

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