Politics & Policy

Remembrance of Clintons Past

Senator Clinton in 2006 (Brendan Smialowski/Getty)
A look back at some of the more colorful episodes involving America’s most shameless first family.

An abscess of anger seems to gnaw at Hillary Clinton, but the reasons for her resentments remain unclear. The world’s oldest party, which governed the nation during two world wars and is the primary architect of America’s regulatory and redistributive state, is eager to give her its presidential nomination, in recognition of . . . what?

The party, adrift in identity politics, clings, as shipwrecked sailors do to floating debris, to this odd feminist heroine. Wafted into the upper reaches of American politics by stolid participation in her eventful marriage to a serial philanderer, her performance in governance has been defined by three failures.

Her husband, having assured the 1992 electorate that voting for him meant getting “two for the price of one,” entrusted to her the project that he, in a harbinger of the next Democratic president’s mistake, made his immediate priority — health-care reform. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan urged him to begin with welfare reform, just as wise Democrats wanted President Obama to devote 2009 to economic recovery rather than health care, perhaps sparing the nation six years and counting of economic sluggishness.

Hillary Clinton enveloped her health-care deliberations in secrecy, assembling behind closed doors battalions of the best and the brightest — think of many Jonathan Grubers weaving complexities for the good of, but beyond the comprehension of, the public. When their handiwork was unveiled, it was so baroque that neither house of a Congress controlled by her party would even vote on it. This was one reason that in 1994 Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years — a harbinger of 2010, when Obamacare helped end Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as the first female speaker.

Clinton’s Senate interlude was an uneventful prelude to her 2008 presidential quest, which earned her, as a consolation prize, the State Department. There her tenure was defined by the “reset” with Russia and by regime-change-by-bombers in Libya.

Russia has responded by violently dismembering a European nation. Libya was the object of “humanitarian intervention,” an echo of Bill Clinton’s engagement in the Balkans that appealed to progressives because it was connected only tenuously, if at all, to the U.S. national interest. Today, Libya is a humanitarian calamity, a failed state convulsed by civil war and exporting jihadists.

These episodes supposedly recommend a re-immersion in Clintonism, a phenomenon that in 2001 moved the Washington Post to say, more in anger than in sorrow, that “the Clintons’ defining characteristic” is that “they have no capacity for embarrassment.” This judgment was rendered as two episodes were demonstrating that the Clintons in power were defined by their manner of leaving it.

Bill Clinton punctuated his presidency by pardoning the late Marc Rich, a fugitive who 17 years earlier had been indicted for tax evasion, fraud, and racketeering. He also traded with Libya and South Africa in contravention of embargos, and traded with Iran during the hostage crisis. Rich’s former wife reportedly contributed more than $1 million to assorted Democratic causes, $450,000 for Clinton’s presidential library, and $10,000 to the legal-defense fund necessitated by Clinton’s glandular life that led to the Supreme Court effectively disbarring him from practicing before it.

A year before the Clintons decamped from Washington to begin planning their return to it, they began trucking away from the White House $190,000 worth of furnishings. Perhaps exigencies dictated this; the couple was, Hillary Clinton says, “dead broke.” The furnishings became, as things often do with the Clintons, another occasion for an “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” tiptoe along the ledge of illegality. The White House chief usher thought many of the items were government property donated in 1993 to a redecoration project. Several donors of items said they were told this. Although the Clintons said that all the removed furnishings were personal gifts, they returned $28,000 worth of them.

As Hillary Clinton begins her campaign to again reside with the White House furnishings, remember an episode perhaps pertinent to the family penchant for secrecy and to her personal e-mail server. Sandy Berger, who had been President Clinton’s national-security adviser, was Clinton’s designated representative to the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks that occurred less than nine months after Clinton left office. While representing Clinton, Berger frequented the National Archives. Later, he was fined $50,000 for surreptitiously taking highly classified documents from the Archives and destroying some of them.

Another Clinton presidency probably would include a reprise of the couple’s well-known patterns of behavior. Voters will make an informed choice.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post

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