Politics & Policy

The Incredible Shrinking Clinton

A shabby presidency.

In 2002, Adam Garfinkle, then of The National Interest, wrote a wonderful essay about Saudi Arabia. He quoted R. G. Collingwood’s observation that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way,” and proceeded to argue that at least part of what Collingwood meant by this “is that what interests us about the past is at least partly a function of what bothers us or makes us curious in the present.”

For example, for the French and British, when war broke out in 1939, the years 1918-19 became less significant and the years 1870-1871 loomed large. Or, when the Berlin Wall fell, 1917–the year of the Russian Revolution–suddenly became much less interesting, but 1914–the dawn of imperial implosion and nationalist explosion–became much more important. This is all a lesson in the obvious for my beloved bride, who studied U.S.-Soviet relations in graduate school. By the time the ink was dry on her diploma, there was no Soviet Union.

The point of all this for Garfinkle was that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a whole new narrative of the 20th century was written. While on September 10, the years 1914, 1945, and 1989 seemed of paramount importance to historians, on September 12, the year 1924 suddenly leapt onto the stage–that was the year the House of Saud emerged as the dominant power on the Arabian continent. Before that, 1924 was the answer to a few trivia questions and little more (e.g., In what year was the People’s Republic of Mongolia established? When was Frank Lautenberg born?).

I bring all of this up as a kindness to Bill Clinton. After all, if that day could rearrange the tectonics of the entire landscape of the 20th century, rendering giants like Lenin, Roosevelt, and Churchill even slightly diminished in significance, surely it’s no surprise that Bill Clinton’s administration should dry up and blow away in the face of that mighty wind.

Now, Bill Clinton did some good things of lasting significance. Well, to be more accurate: He didn’t muck up a few important things. He agreed to sign Republican welfare reform. He agreed to support NAFTA. He didn’t mess up the economic boom, which is an accomplishment for a Democratic president.

Of course, since he also believed his own press releases and thought he was so singularly responsible for the roaring economy, he saw no need to prepare anyone for the inevitable popping of the bubble. For to do so would be to admit that the “economic miracle” was neither as sound nor as much his own doing as he liked to pretend.

He was, of course, also the shabbiest man to occupy the Oval Office in the modern era, a point underscored by these countless interviews in which–under the rubric of “talking responsibility”–Clinton blames a Republican Congress and Ken Starr for his diddling the intern. Sorry: “Mentoring” the intern.

But just to avoid the predictable e-mail from people who think I’m concealing something, I should once again play the full-disclosure game. As some readers may or may not know, I was involved in the most famous chapter of what Clinton now calls his demon-wrestling, a not-particularly-kind or romantic way to describe his baron-and-the-milkmaid act with Monica Lewinsky. My mother was the one who advised Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Lewinsky and to save the dress. I was privy to some of that stuff, and when the administration set about to destroy Lewinsky, Tripp, and my mom, I defended my mom and by extension Tripp. To this day I see nothing wrong with what I did and I remain as convinced as ever that, were it not for the tapes and that dress, Bill Clinton would have demolished Lewinsky and Tripp (he largely succeeded on this front anyway) as he did every other politically inconvenient woman in his life. Without the tapes, Tripp would have been dismissed as a liar in a single news cycle. Without the dress, Clinton would have succeeded in branding Lewinsky as a stalker, as was his first instinct.

It was a symptom of Bill Clinton’s tackiness that he inverted the old axiom that “everyone lies about sex.” It’s true, gentlemen did lie about sex to protect the honor of women. Bill Clinton lied about the honor of women he had sex with to protect himself.

But enough of all that. Despite the fact that I am still convinced that much of this story has not been told and that Lewinsky did not write the “talking points” alone, I have zero desire to have those arguments again. I did my bit in the trenches of Clinton’s trousers.

But what I do find fascinating is the media’s response to the publication of Clinton’s book. 60 Minutes launched the blitz with a full hour hosted by Dan Rather, a.k.a. the only journalist in America to go on record saying he actually likes Clinton’s book. The 60 Minutes piece seems to have set or merely predicted the tone for all the other interviews: about two-thirds Lewinsky and impeachment, and the rest about Bill’s childhood, his accomplishments, Arafat, Marc Rich, etc.

Now, one of the interesting things about this is that, in 1998 and 1999, Dan Rather famously complained about how he hated the Lewinsky story and didn’t want to cover it. On numerous occasions he talked as if he was too good to cover it. On Dec. 3, 1998, he told Larry King, for example, “I have no apology. I hate it. I have hated it all the way through.” Rather tried to stay in Cuba to cover the Pope’s visit but couldn’t. “I just said, oh, we have got a great story, the Pope in Cuba, and we’re going to go back to cover something as sleazy as this. Naturally, we all came back and the rest is history. But I hate it, as well.”

Fair enough. But if that’s the case, why did Rather spend so much time on the Lewinsky scandal in his interview with the former president? Here was Rather’s opportunity to show there were more important stories to cover–and he chose to go with the Lewinsky thing.

As I said, he wasn’t alone. Which is itself ironic since so many journalists on camera and off explicitly agreed with the whole Democratic party’s “move on” spin. (Indeed, that’s where MoveOn.org comes from. They of course swore they weren’t a partisan organization. They lied too.) Well, if the whole story wasn’t worth the coverage it got then, why is it the only thing worth discussing now?

There are three answers, all mutually reinforcing. First, the press is made up of hypocritical ratings whores who claim to be above exactly what they do day in and day out.

Second, Bill Clinton wants it this way so he can sell books and paint himself as a victim (which helps sell books). In fact, Bill is simply borrowing from his wife’s playbook. When the supposed feminist heroine and dashboard saint of tough, unapologetic liberalism came out with her book, her publicity was carefully choreographed so that she played the victim and nothing else. She talked about how hard it was to be a professional woman and a wife and–of course–how the people who hate her also hate puppies and sunny days. But when it came to what she believed in her own right, this putative power player declined to say much of anything. When the Washington’s Post’s David Von Drehle tried to interview her about the political content of her book, she “declined to be interviewed about the political content of her book.”

Note: She didn’t decline to be interviewed. Superwoman Senator Hillary simply declined to be interviewed about politics. At least Von Drehle notified readers to that fact. At the same time, however, Barbara Walters treated Mrs. Clinton as if her political greatness were already a settled issue.

Then there’s the third reason the press is overplaying the Lewinsky and impeachment stuff. It’s the only really interesting part of his presidency. Sure, political junkies would love to hear more about the non-Lewinsky-related ins-and-outs of his years in the Oval Office. But when it comes to the sort of thing that gets you serious ratings, Clinton doesn’t have much to offer that people care about.

And that’s the point. Bill Clinton for reasons complex and simple orchestrated his presidency so that it wouldn’t matter much beyond his time in office. That’s probably not the way he went in, but it is surely the way he went out. Once he started talking about school uniforms and the V-chip and began polling for vacation spots, you knew this was an presidency unconcerned or incapable of achieving great things. Even Joe Klein has come to believe that Clinton’s greatest accomplishments were, for the most part, tiny adjustments to the welfare state. Yawn-o-rama.

Clinton confirmed this once again in his 60 Minutes interview. Dan Rather asked if he regretted the Mark Rich pardon, “Looking back on that, if you had to do over again, would you still do it?”

Clinton responded, “No, but mostly because of all the grief I got that came out of it. But on the merits, nobody’s yet made a case to me that it was a wrong decision.”

Wait. So Clinton still believes it was the right thing to do (which, of course, is both a lie and stupid). But he says he wouldn’t do it again because of the “grief” he got even though he was a private citizen when he got that grief. What a hero.

Clinton came into office, famously, as the man who would have voted with the majority but agreed with the minority. And he left the same way. He was a man, despite all of his statements to the contrary, who simply enjoyed being president more than doing anything in particular. He whined to confidants that he wished he could have had a monumental war or crisis on his watch to prove his greatness, but he never got one because, in reality, that’s the way he wanted it. Meanwhile, on his watch the past became prologue to 9/11 and he did next to nothing to stop it. These events were larger than Clinton, to be sure, but Clinton did everything in his power to make sure that would be so. And now he is the man who diddled while America slept.


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