Note To Readers: This Column was actually written yesterday, but for reasons beyond Goldberg’s control, the technology Gods would not allow it to be filed until this morning.
Michael Kelly noticed the same thing I did. Last Sunday, in the New York Times review of the ignorable new book by Clinton apologist Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, the reviewer, Neil Lewis, asked an interesting question. “Why has this couple evoked such strong feelings?” In other words, Why hate the Clintons? Other presidents have been hated for good or bad reasons — but always understandable ones. But the hatred that Clinton inspires seems somehow different. Kelly — who ignores, as I will, Hillary — obliquely offers an answer; Clinton is like Nixon.
Surely there is much truth to this. Nixon had grave trouble with the truth. Nixon cut corners. Nixon was astigmatic when it came to seeing the line between the law and his own interests. Nixon demagogically ranted about his enemies and claimed the American people were on his side, even if the establishment wasn’t. Nixon exploited his political base to get elected and then betrayed it once he was in office. Indeed, when it comes to domestic policy, Nixon was the most liberal Republican of the modern era — he created the EPA, codified affirmative action, détente.
On all of these scores, and many others, Nixon and Clinton are twins in spirit. Kelly makes some excellent points about the perpetual denial of Clinton boosters. To the Conasons and Lanny Davises of the world, anybody who is critical of Clinton must be a hater and a right-winger (synonymous terms, to be sure).
Obviously, these people are willing fools. The ranks of Leftists and former Clinton colleagues who despise Clinton are almost as thick as the ranks of right-wingers who hated him from the get-go.
But that raises my disagreement with Kelly. What about the people who hated Clinton from the get-go? Yes, Kelly’s right that the ur-Clinton haters were the people who knew him best in Arkansas — including the women who did not want to know him as well as they were forced to. Clinton earned the sobriquet Slick Willie because — whatever his intentions may be or have been — he is a dedicated and selfish liar. This is a fact that Clinton voluptuaries are incapable of recognizing. But what about the thousands or millions of Clinton despisers who had never heard of the man until 1991 or 1992? Most normal people did not follow the internecine squabbles of Arkansas. Most people probably hadn’t even heard of Bill Clinton until the famous 60 Minutes interview in which he promised that all of his Lewinskying was in the past. Kelly doesn’t mention these people, perhaps because his distaste for Clinton came later.
To explain why hatred for Clinton blossomed overnight, there has to be something more than his Nixon-like governing style, because he was disliked by so many before he started to govern. And here again the Clinton apologists have it all wrong. They would have us believe that Clinton hatred manifested itself out of a deliberate effort to thwart Clinton’s progressive and forward-looking agenda. The theory goes: Bill Clinton was dedicated to make America safe for Swedish economics and Parisian culture, and we angry, hate-filled conservatives – most of whom look like the little bald dude from Monopoly — were determined to stop him at any cost. This, of course, is revisionism of the silliest sort.
Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992 as one of the most conservative Democrats in a generation. He wanted to “end welfare as we know it.” He campaigned on a huge tax cut (which he promptly abandoned upon election). He moved to the right of George Bush on foreign policy. He was pro-death penalty, taking time out from his campaign to execute a brain-damaged man. He didn’t even balance his ticket by tapping a liberal for his VP, picking instead another Southern moderate. He antagonized his base by shunning Jesse Jackson and “dissing” Sister Souljah. He was the first Democrat in years to win over major conservative ex-Democrats. Hell, William Safire endorsed him. And yet we conservatives were supposed to think this guy was a Fabian Anti-Christ?
To be sure there was still plenty for conservatives to dislike about Governor Clinton’s politics, but were his views so much worse than Paul Tsongas’s or Walter Mondale’s? Hardly. No, there must be something else that explains the instantaneous dislike.
I think it has to do with the man, pure and simple. Just as there is something about Bill Clinton that makes a certain breed of self-indulgent, usually female liberal baby-boomer swoon, there is something about Bill Clinton that drives other people nuts.
Perhaps it is his ability to over-dramatize any inconvenience in his life; to transform it into a heroic triumph. For example, Bill Clinton campaigned on his “troubled” childhood. In “The Man From Hope” campaign video, Bill Clinton is portrayed as an incredible success story, overcoming the hardship of an abusive alcoholic father — as if no president has had such a childhood. The reality of course is that compared to the childhood trials of Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and even Gerald Ford, Clinton’s boyhood was unremarkable, though certainly not ideal (see G-File 8/3/99).
It is what Bill Clinton learned from his childhood that is significant. President Clinton is a man who wallows in self-pity. There is nothing wrong with turning defeats into victories — all great politicians do that, and Clinton is no exception. But Clinton enjoys being the victim, he seems to savor it. His body language and rhetoric are always tinged with a profoundly manipulative “poor me” attitude. While Ronald Reagan rarely spoke about his alcoholic father, Bill Clinton bragged about his. Franklin Roosevelt strove to conceal his polio, allowing only two pictures of him in a wheelchair to survive. JFK hid his poor health and constant back pain. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton made a bigger deal about his sprained knee than John McCain did about the fact he couldn’t lift his arms above his shoulders because they were broken so many times by the Viet Cong. And how did Bill Clinton hurt his knee? We’re still not sure, but it seems that after years of practice, Bill still hasn’t learned how to navigate a flight of stairs with his pants around his ankles.
There is something distinctly baby-boomer in everything he does, but most of all in his eagerness to be a victim. Baby-boomers — as a generalization — have an overweening sense of entitlement. Maybe it was the fluoride in the water, or maybe it was the lessons of Dr. Spock, but liberal baby boomers seem utterly convinced that they are extremely special. Anytime they do something they do not enjoy they seem to expect a merit badge. Bill Clinton is the poster boy of such self-indulgence. He constantly refers to the fact that he’s been “working so hard.” As with so many baby boomers, blame is always unfair because, for this generation, blame is an affront to self-esteem and high self-esteem is a birthright. It takes a subpoena (at least) or perhaps some terrifying poll data to get him to take responsibility for something he’s done and even then half-heartedly, throwing the real blame in someone else’s lap. But he’s always eager to apologize for other people. At this point, is there anything about the Cold War he hasn’t apologized for?
And there is something that makes people hate Bill Clinton that goes beyond personifying the worst aspects of his generation. He is a liar. He lies about big things and small things. He lies when it might be necessary and he lies when it is necessary not to lie. He takes offense when confronted with his lies because he considers that a form of blame, and we know what he thinks about blame. And because he believes words are a substitute for action, he considers questioning his words mean-spirited and reactionary.
I don’t pretend to have put my finger on it. But I think there is something deep in the genetic code of the American body politic that causes some people to have a visceral allergic reaction to Bill Clinton. It may be irrational and it may be futile — for all we know Bill Clinton is the new archetype of the American male. But it doesn’t mean that people who dislike the man are wrong in their facts just because they are especially motivated to unearth them. For if there’s one thing we do know about Bill Clinton, it’s that he’s earned most of his enemies.