Politics & Policy

Got a Case of Clinton Nostalgia?

Put some ice on it.

’This is so pernicious. Look at these people lapping this up,” exclaimed my dinner date at the White House Correspondents Dinner. “Do you know how bad it is that he charms them this way?” she said to me as the crowd rose to its feet cheering President Clinton’s passive-aggressive, hangdog video. “It’s not even what ends up in print, it’s the fact that these baby-boomers see him as ‘one of us.’ Look at them, it’s disgusting.”

She was right, as always. But I wasn’t prepared for how fast the revisionism would come. In less than two weeks since the Correspondents Dinner on April 29th, the new conventional wisdom is that America is suffering from Clinton nostalgia. That’s right, nostalgia.

The media is fond of creating fads. Every third cover of Newsweek or Time is usually about some journalistic confabulation. The entire Generation X frenzy of the last decade was largely the result of bored baby-boomer journalists in search of a funky shorthand for “these damned kids today.” Sometimes these fads are fairly pernicious wishing-makes-it-so thinking, like the bogus Church Burning or wives-get-beaten-during-Super-Bowl stories. But other times, they’re just slow-news-day dreck.

But this is ridiculous.

On the Monday after the dinner — a week ago today — the normally reliable John Harris of the Washington Post started this Pokemon-like frenzy (and when you think about it pokey-man is not a bad pun for Clinton). He wrote a page one story headlined, “As Term Wanes, ‘Clinton Fatigue’ Yields to Nostalgia.”

It seems the entire piece was written simply to put the phrase “Clinton nostalgia” in the Lexis-Nexis bloodstream. That’s the only conclusion you can draw, because the article itself is honest to a fault about the fact that it barely exists.

“A year ago, ‘Clinton fatigue’ was predicted to be a crucial factor in the 2000 elections.” Harris writes, “Even Gore, confidants say, was in distress about how his link to the incumbent could hurt him. Among some independent voters polling suggests that disdain for Clinton and his scandals may influence voting patterns this fall. But particularly among Democrats, there are signs of a countervailing trend: Call it ‘Clinton nostalgia.’”

And this was supposed to be the bold assertive nut graph declaration.

Let’s parse this, as they say in Clinton circles. Independent voters — the universally agreed-upon crucial swing voters in this year’s election — may vote against the vice president because of their “disdain” for the Chief-in-Pants. But whoa-ho! There’s a “countervailing trend” — or rather, “signs” of a “countervailing trend” — which suggests that among Democratic voters there are some people who have something called “Clinton nostalgia.”

Harris, being an honest reporter, can’t actually bring himself to lie about what this “nostalgia” actually is. It’s not that anybody but yellow-dog, knee-jerk, and deliberately silly Democrats would actually want Clinton for a third term, it’s that they think his replacement stinks. Indeed, the piece begins with a story about how a union audience went nuts for Clinton but was merely tepid for Gore. And Harris throws in another example about a New York fundraiser where the audience went cuckoo for Clinton but counted the tines on their forks during Gore’s remarks.

Harris does cite some polling data. For example, a Harris Poll survey “found that if Clinton were allowed to run again, 43 percent of all voters would prefer him as the Democratic nominee, compared with 39 percent for Gore.” Among self-identified Democrats, a full 60% preferred Clinton to Gore (34%) as a 2000 candidate.

Now is this a sign that America is suffering from Clinton nostalgia, or is it an indication that even 40% of Democrats think Al Gore is a bad joke?

Moreover, Harris is incapable of finding a pollster who honestly believes that Clinton nostalgia actually exists. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center — who first identified Clinton fatigue — says that Clinton’s favorable numbers are the result of that fact that Clinton isn’t on the ballot, so the angry voters don’t have a good outlet, while the forgive- and-forget crowd can be charitable because he’s a lame duck and so they don’t actually have to make a choice. Even the anonymous Democratic pollster Harris talks to is skeptical that Clinton nostalgia exists.

To recap, the article essentially says that among voters who are not blindly loyal Democrats and Clinton-voluptuaries, a significant number of people are sick of Clinton. Meanwhile, his replacement is as appealing as a day-old fried egg in an ashtray.

So what happened next? Frank Rich used the Clinton-nostalgia idea as lipstick for a giant pucker on Bill Clinton’s dimpled posterior. In a New York Times essay, he makes the case that everybody will miss Clinton. He quotes Sean Wilentz’s monumental suck-up [Link defunct] to Clinton from earlier this year. Still, Rich’s larger point is that Clinton was entertaining for cynical reporters and comics in search of good material. Howard Fineman made exactly that point on the Hardball segment dedicated to this by Chris Matthews.

The story has spread far and wide. The Agence France-Presse picked up the Post’s Clinton nostalgia story, summarizing it down to: America is finally realizing how good they had it with a de facto French president. The London Guardian and the Scotsman picked up the stories too. But these are merely the articles that used the phrase “Clinton nostalgia.” There seems to be dozens of new cutesy stories out there every day about Bill Clinton, even as the unanswered questions — about rape, obstruction of justice, perjury, and other things the President claims “saved” the Constitution — collect dust.

And that brings us back to the pernicious part – as my date pointed out. It’s not that a bunch of people are talking about Clinton nostalgia. It’s that so many of these sycophants feel nostalgia in the first place.


The response to my Africa column was stunning. I have received more e-mail than I have in a year. What was especially stunning, though, was that the bulk of the response was extremely favorable. I will be writing about the topic more, but I feel like I should wade through the e-mail more — albeit like a fat man through Jell-O. Thanks very much for the feedback, pro and con, and my apologies if I can’t respond to all of them, even if I am reading all of them.

You may not have heard this before, but the Vice President of the United States sometimes says things that are not always factually accurate. We have launched a wonderful new feature cataloguing these terminological inexactitudes. Please check it often, and feel free to submit new ones. But please, include as much back-up material, and as little ranting, as possible.

Also, I’m pleased to announce that NRO will start running new, up-to-date movie reviews. Rich Lowry started things off with his review of The Virgin Suicides. I’m off to see a gladiator movie tonight, but that’s a personal thing, right Timmy?

You heard it here first: The new line on NBC’s West Wing is that President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) is not actually Bill Clinton or even what liberals hoped Bill Clinton would be. He is a liberal Ronald Reagan. They’ve taken to the phrase “Let Bartlett be Bartlett,” and I think this will be another sign of liberal sour grapes. “You guys got a passionate and popular ideologue and all we got was this guy who eats mayo from the jar with a spoon.” I know this isn’t really an announcement, but I didn’t want to do a whole column on this, but I think I’m right and I wanted to get my marker down.

Congrats to our own Ben Domenech who had a nice profile of him in the Washington Post this weekend.


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