I wrote not long ago about Bill as the “Clinton Albatross,” but now it is more apt to compare him to an attack dog unleashed. His (not her) victory speech in Nevada was quite extraordinary: He went on and on, while she stood next to him, mute. He gloated over her comeback, took digs at the other candidates, referenced himself of course, and was reluctant to give up his iron grip on the microphone.
Her expression was that of a classic “Don’t dare ask me to muzzle that Doberman!” frozen bystander. If she can’t control him, how could she control the country — or is that a fair comparison, given that his pathologies are far greater than those of our collective nation? It defies the laws of physics for such a narcissist to recede into the shadows, or yield to his wife, or play a private role, quietly calling in political debts.
In 2000, George Bush Sr. was careful not to be too partisan and mostly kept out of the campaign limelight. There was no sense that a vote for W. was simply an endorsement of a Bush I continuance. So Bill’s ubiquity on the campaign — sharp partisan attacks and caricatures, misinformation about his own record, fiery outbursts to reporters — is quite unprecedented for an emeritus president, especially one who had so carefully cultivated his image as a global insider and international humanitarian.
If between 2001 and 2008 the Clinton legacy was something to be defended by all Democrats, Hillary’s candidacy and Bill’s unseemly behavior are calling it into question. Who knows — soon Democrats themselves, either Obama supporters or disillusioned Clintonites, may grudgingly concede to critics, “Yeah, you were right about that guy all along.” If Bill keeps up the attack on Obama, he may become the first unblack president.
Of course, Bill sees his wife’s election as a referendum on himself, a way to redeem himself for his impeachment and tawdry exit from the presidency, and a co-presidency — if the prefix “co-,” in any sense, can ever be applicable to someone of such an extraordinary ego. Again, I pass on the Freudian aspect of him in part wanting her to lose. Handlers may think that Hillary’s bounce came from Bill’s suddenly frenetic pace, and indeed, he surely claims as much. But it is more like a shot of adrenalin to a floundering patient — necessary perhaps for one-time revival, but fatal if resorted to on a daily basis.
Again, the surprise is not that he has gnawed himself free, but rather how and why the old pros in the Clinton campaign did not have a steel chain rather than a mere leash. So far Obama has played off this gaffe in good fashion — when attacked, being both pained and confused in just the right mixture. But it would be wise for him to counter Bill a bit more, drawing on his much-more-even-tempered perplexity and sadness to challenge Bill’s mendacity. If he does that and keeps his cool, it will remind voters that Hillary apparently has willingly chosen bystander status — and sooner or later, Bill will blow up bigtime and irrevocably harm Hillary’s candidacy. The Clintons know his snapping and biting must cease, but they also know he can’t stop — sort of like the frustrated Queensland Heeler that has gone through extensive obedience training, only to snap at the first stranger he sees.
In the meantime, we witness the odd effect that the more Bill presses the attack, the more sympathetic and likable — and presidential — Obama becomes. How odd that, on the campaign trail, Obama appears more like a calm ex-president, while Bill comes off as the overeager, grasping wannabe we remember so well from the late 1980s.
–-Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, most recently, of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.