A fella by the name of Rich Lowry has written a long-awaited book on the Clinton presidency called Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. Okay, so–he’s actually the boss in these parts. But, since we have him nearby, we thought it might be wise to make him work a little more on this book–to convince you that it is something worth spending your greenbacks (or borrowed plastic) on. In that spirit, Rich chatted with NRO’s editor earlier this week. The Q&A may read a little like a Larry King interview in places (Larry to FILL-IN-THE-BLANK WITH THE NAME OF A RICH, FAMOUS CELEB: “That was a great party at Prince Bandar’s house last night, wasn’t it? Your twelfth wife is quite the looker.”) O.K., so not Bandar’s house, but you get the idea. It’s worth reading, nevertheless.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why write a book about Bill Clinton? Is there anything new to say?
Rich Lowry: Come on Kathryn, I thought this was going to be a softball interview.
Lopez: Fine, Lowry–that was my softball. I’ll have to use my Katie Couric script: Mr. Lowry, do you sing Jesus hymns around the office? At what age did WFB issue you your VRWC membership card? Do you have to surrender it if you do not prove your loyalty on some kind of regular schedule? Do you have a secret handshake? Do you sacrifice animals?…
Lowry: Um, it was a joke, Kathryn. I’ll go ahead and answer that first question.
Lopez: I thought you would.
Lowry: First of all, it’s a necessary book in light of the effort of Sydney Blumenthal, John Podesta et al., and Bill and Hillary themselves to rehabilitate his legacy and make him seem a combination of FDR and Ronald Reagan, with a little Thomas Jefferson sprinkled on top. Second, there’s plenty new to say. Conservatives hounded Clinton on the scandals throughout his time in office and there’s been marvelous reporting about aspects of the Clinton administration and some good memoirs. But there hasn’t been a substantive conservative accounting of his record. Third, the Clinton legacy is the background to almost every contemporary political dispute. You can’t know the answer to many current criticisms of Bush without having a solid understanding of what really happened in the 1990s.
Lopez: At the beginning of Legacy, you claim you’re not a “Clinton hater”–and yet, you have an entire chapter called “Sex: Grope First, Smear Later,” and yet another on impeachment. Why?
Lowry: I have never considered myself a Clinton hater, although we all know people who would wear the label gladly. I have always found Clinton appalling, frustrating, and amusing. There’s something too fleshy and needy about him to hate. And his lies are as likely to make you guffaw as to make you crazy with anger.
All that said, I wrote about sex because it is so important to Bill Clinton (and I don’t mean that in a snarky way–it was very important to his self-image) and he made it such a key part of his public life. (I know that there have been comparisons with Arnold Schwarzenegger lately–but let’s wait and see if Arnold uses California state troopers to procure women for him.) You can’t understand Clinton, and what he did with Monica Lewinsky, without understanding his pattern, which is very clear and was set very early on.
As for impeachment, Blumenthal and Hillary cried out for a rejoinder on the topic. In Legacy, they get it.
Lopez: I wonder how many times you can mention Legacy during the course of a conversation.
Lowry: I’m testing the limits.
Lopez: I’ll say.
Rich, you write, “On September 11, Clinton’s most important legacy arrived in horrifying form, and settled in a pile of rubble seven stories high in downtown Manhattan.” Is that fair to blame Bill Clinton for 9/11?
Lowry: Well, obviously, Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. But the September 11th attacks were clearly Clinton’s most consequential legacy. The way he had hamstrung the CIA, handcuffed the FBI, neglected airport security, and, most importantly, left a nest of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan unmolested–knowing, knowing they were there–created the ticking time bomb that went off on September 11th. Should Bush have done more during the eight months he was in office? Absolutely. But much of his work would have been–and has been–undoing the mistakes of the Clinton administration.
I talked to a lot of former FBI officials, and they just can’t believe the weakness of Clinton in response to the terror threat. After the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, in which Iran was implicated, Clinton made a semi-apology to Iran while the investigation was still underway. After al Qaeda nearly leveled two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, Clinton responded with pinprick cruise-missile strikes, one of which was against a probably mistaken target. After the Cole bombing in 2000, Clinton did nothing.
Here’s what Mike Rolince, a top-level FBI counterterrorism official during the Clinton administration told me: “I think the question you have to ask yourself is, Why didn’t we finish the job? We didn’t go back. We never went back to the camps and dismantled the neighborhood where these people were allowed to train, test chemicals, recruit, plan operations. On a regular basis, we saw intelligence that documented what they were, where they were, how big they were, how many people were going through there, and the administration lacked the political will to go in there and do something about it. 9/11 happened for a number of different reasons–one of which is, we gave the enemy, who numbered in the thousands, a free arena to get ready for the attack.”
Anyway, I think it’s clear that these failures were Clinton’s most important legacy. What was more important? V-chips?
Lopez: How was Mogadishu “one of the opening shots in the United States’s war with terrorism”?
Lowry: By most accounts, al Qaeda trained the Somali fighters to down our Black Hawk helicopters. Then, after losing 18 dead, we retreated, signaling that spilling American blood would inevitably lead to American retreat. Osama bin Laden learned the lesson well.
Lopez: You’ve got some dumbfounding quotes that many of us have probably forgotten, or maybe never knew about. One such: Clintonite Martin Indyk on Palestinian terror groups: “They’re yesterday’s men, who speak only the language of violence and terrorism and rejection. Why President Khatami would want to associate himself with these people is, I have to say, beyond me.” How did such cluelessness find its way to the White House?
Lowry: It’s not that people like Indyk weren’t bright, talented, and well-informed. They were. The problem was that they had an ideology of cluelessness. In keeping with a deep-seated liberal faith, they thought most problems could be talked out and the world was full of rational and well-meaning–if perhaps misunderstood and misunderstanding–people. This was a disastrous attitude, especially with regard to the Middle East. They never got that Middle Eastern radicals were attached to the continuing state of war in the region as part of their very being.
Then there was Clinton’s temperament. A man who always needed to be loved, he didn’t understand that most Middle Eastern regimes would always hate the United States. The only variable was whether they would hate us, and also fear us. Whatever else can be said about the repressive governments of the Middle East–about their cruelty, their close-mindedness, and their folly–none of them were so stupendously foolish as to think they had to fear Bill Clinton.
Lopez: Former Clinton officials, and Clinton himself, talk of how Bush has alienated the world, with a clear implication that they did a better job of winning sympathy for the U.S. overseas. Did they?
Lowry: Well, yeah. If you let France set the limits of your actions, the French will love you. But there’s obviously a cost. Clinton waited two-and-a-half years, for instance, to stop the Serbs’ slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia, because Britain and France didn’t want to initiate a serious bombing campaign. Only when the French flipped, and favored a more aggressive policy, did Clinton begin to move. But not before Jacques Chirac–of all people–declared in disgust at Clinton’s passivity that “the position of Leader of the Free World is vacant.”
To take another example, Clinton said all the same things about Iraq that Bush did–that Saddam had WMDs, that he would use them, that he was a threat, etc. But he didn’t do anything about it because he couldn’t get French and Russian support for taking any action. Under Clinton, the inspections had ended, and the sanctions would eventually have ended too–because that’s what the French wanted.
Lopez: In Legacy, you take on Clinton not just on terrorism and impeachment, but on the economy, welfare, crime, and even the sacred Mideast process, among other areas. Did the Clinton administration have any legitimate successes?
Lowry: Sure. Clinton pushed through NAFTA and other free-trade measures. He expanded NATO. He, eventually, bombed the Serbs in the Bosnian war, although after too much agonizing. He had some sound economic policies, although not the ones you usually hear about from him and his defenders (I wrote about this yesterday). He signed welfare reform, if for the wrong reasons. He didn’t interfere with get-tough-on-crime policies. Of course, any Republican would have done these things too. A more distinctive success was his relentless push to expand the earned-income tax credit. And, of course, he got laid (well sort of).
Lopez: What made you most angry while you were writing this book?
Lowry: Rwanda. You can’t research how the Clinton administration handled the crisis–the dishonesty, the stonewalling–without getting sick to your stomach. I’m not a fan of humanitarian interventions generally, but it was just wrong.
Just to give you a flavor: The administration went to agonizing lengths to avoid using the word “genocide” for legalistic reasons, while hundreds of thousands of people were being hacked to death. Asked whether she had guidance to avoid saying “genocide,” a State Department spokesman said: “I have guidance which, which, to which I–which I tried to use as best I can. I’m not–I have–there are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of. I don’t have an absolute categorical prescription against something, but I have the definitions. I have a phraseology which has been carefully examined and arrived at.” The preferred formulation was “acts of genocide may have occurred”–a chillingly Clintonesque term.
Lopez: What was the hardest thing about writing a book?
Lowry: It’s a three-way tie between the loneliness, the intolerable workload, and having to read Living History.
Lopez: We hear so much about “character” when people, especially critics, talk about Clinton. What’s your take?
Lowry: I always thought that the George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole campaigns against Clinton based on character were lame. And they largely were–they were a substitute for making arguments on the issues. But their essential point was correct.
It doesn’t take much time thinking and talking to people about Bill Clinton before you realize the absolute centrality of character. Some people take the word “character” as a euphemism for Clinton’s womanizing. Well, that’s part of it, but not the most important part. It was his weakness, his indecisiveness, his overweening need to please, his selfishness, and his shamelessness that most affected his ability to lead. His willingness to paper over problems, for instance, and pass them onto the next guy was clearly a reflection of a character weakness.
There are two crucial ingredients to presidential leadership: having principles and having character. Clinton had neither.
Lopez: When Hillary runs for president, will it help or hurt her to have the former president by her side–or to even use his name?
Lowry: It depends on how Clinton and his legacy come to be perceived. In other words, you should…
Lopez: I know what’s coming…
Lowry: O.K., I won’t say it.
Lopez: Rich, you call Hillary’s election as senator “his most enduring political legacy”; to what extent is New York’s junior senator to blame for the failure that was the Clinton administration?
Lowry: She had a huge hand in the health-care debacle, of course. But at least the health-care plan was bold. After that, it was all maneuver and school uniforms. Hillary is interesting. She could be as pragmatic and cold-blooded as Bill, but she embodied a distinct strand in his liberalism: the suffocating succor of the nanny-state, with its constraining net of rules and regulations and its touchy-feely sensibility. Bill, with his ready tears and warm hugs, best represented the emotional style of this liberalism. Hillary best represented its substance–its emphasis on health and safety, feminism, and above all, “the children.”
Lopez: Do you have any reason to believe that Bill Clinton knows he was a failure? Or will he likely spin it all away.
Lowry: It’s very difficult to know Clinton’s level of self-awareness. But he is said to be a worrier when he is alone. I suspect he knows his administration went wrong and–with his knowledge of history–he must know at some level that he will rank among the presidential also-rans. But he will fight this awareness with every fiber of his energy, raging against his own political inconsequence and failure.
Lopez: On that note…
Lowry: Actually, I wanted to ask you a question.
Lowry: Is it true that you have a macro on your computer that spits out “buy Legacy“?
Lopez: Hah. It’s right next to the one that spits out “Sign up for NR Digital.”
Lowry: You know, I don’t think the deal with Regnery to give you a royalties cut is going to come through.
Lopez: Oh, stop. No really, stop. But if that deal doesn’t come through I might have to tell people to buy Alan Colmes’s new book instead.
Lowry: One last question: You do know what a marvelous job you do with NRO, how much we all rely on you here, and how much people out there admire your work and spirit?
Lopez: Yeah, yeah. I bet Alan’d love me too.