I knew I could count on Peggy Noonan to score the Hillary-Obama fight correctly.
Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman and an emerging dark prince among political operatives–he is, in the strange way of Washington, admired by journalists for his ability to mislead them–quickly responded with a challenge: If Mr. Obama is a good man, he’ll renounce Mr. Geffen and give back the money he contributed in his famous Hollywood fund-raiser. This was widely considered a brilliant move. Is it? Now everyone who follows politics even cursorily will have to have an opinion on whether Mr. Obama should apologize, which means they’ll have to know exactly what Mr. Geffen said, which, again, boiled down, is: I’ve known them intimately for almost 20 years, and they’re bad people and bringers of trouble. It’s good for Mrs. Clinton that America is going to spend the weekend discussing this? It’s good that Mr. Geffen’s comments, which focused on the area on which she is most touchy and most vulnerable–the character issue–will be aired over and over again? Mr. Wolfson might have been better off with, “We’re sorry to hear it, as Mrs. Clinton thinks the world of David.”
Mrs. Clinton has never gone after a fellow Democrat quite the way she’s going after Mr. Obama, and it’s an indication of how threatened she is not only by his candidacy but, one suspects, his freshness. He makes her look like yesterday. He makes her look like the old slash-and-burn. I doubted he could do her serious damage. Now I wonder.
What Mrs. Clinton is trying to establish is this: to criticize her–to speak of her critically as a human being, as a person with a record and a history and a style and attitudes–is, ipso facto, to be dirty, and low, and destructive. To air and raise questions about who she is, how she operates, and what can be inferred from her past actions is by definition an unjust act.
But Americans have always–always–looked at and judged the character and personality of their candidates for president. And they have been right to do so. It mattered that Lincoln was Honest Abe, Washington had no personal lust for power, that FDR was an optimist and a manipulator, that Adams was a man of rectitude and no small amount of stubbornness. These facts, these aspects of their nature, had policy implications and leadership implications. They couldn’t be more pertinent. They still are.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This knee-jerk invocation of deflecting all criticism with laments of “The Politics of Personal Destruction™” is the conversational equivalent of invoking cloture, an effort to cut off further debate and discussion.
It’s lame, it’s stupid, and it should not have worked for as long as it has. It has turned into an all-purpose deflective technique to avoid accountability and honest debate:
“Senator, why did you vote to raise taxes on middle-income families?”
“You know, I think Americans are tired of these kinds of personal attacks…”