Sunday, June 20, 2004

Refighting "The Clinton Wars"

As I think I mentioned last week, I've been reading Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars and thinking a lot about how Bill Clinton, for all his faults and failures, really did yeoman work in transforming the Democratic Party from a splintered, almost tribalized amalgam of identity-politics fetishists, dogmatic pacifists and intellectually bankrupt careerists into an organization that could offer Americans viable solutions to all kinds of economic, cultural and military/diplomatic troubles. He didn't finish the job, but he probably got us 75 percent of the way there; if John Kerry wins this fall, I think it will be because he'll have covered most of the remaining distance by restoring the Democrats' credibility on national security (another post topic for another day; suffice it to say this is another reason why I'd love to see General Wesley Clark running with Kerry).

I actually left my copy of Blumenthal's book in Philadelphia this afternoon, so more ruminations on this will have to wait till I get it back. But with Clinton's "60 Minutes" appearance tonight and early reaction from many of the same media outlets who showed so much less wisdom than the electorate in pushing for him to resign in 1998, it's depressingly clear that we're about to revisit some contested ground:

In the buildup to the release of "My Life," the talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, another villain of Mr. Clinton's narrative, has begun calling the book "My Lie." And a column in the American Spectator, once the leading journal of Clinton-bashing and another target in his book, pronounced "a long hot Clinton summer is upon us" and derided Mr. Clinton's expressions of contrition for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"Yes, it's terrible to be caught," the Spectator wrote, "though rather delightful to commit moral error when no one is looking."

In the conservative Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes, the executive editor, called Mr. Clinton "Calvin Coolidge without the ethics and self-restraint."


To drive home the point, Bush campaign allies are reviving talk about the honor and dignity of the Oval Office in thinly veiled references to the Clinton years.

"I have found that the best way to get a rousing response from a crowd is to say that whatever disagreements you may have with President Bush on one issue or another, nobody can argue that he hasn't restored honor to the White house," said Gary L. Bauer, chairman of the organization American Values.

I read stuff like this and wonder what planet these guys are on. Aside from the question of whether Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke, John DiIulio, Richard Foster, Rand Beers and lord only knows who else would agree with this assessment, there's...

Valerie Plame?
Medicare drug benefit?
Abu friggin' Ghraib?

A bit ironically, it's Maureen Dowd--whose catty potshots at Clinton through the late '90s at least rendered her a fellow traveler of the right-wingers she claimed to deplore--who got it right today: Dowd points out that the same sort of executive arrogance that led Clinton to accept hummers from sad, slutty Monica guided Bush into lying the country into war (among other misdeeds).

I can't dig too deeply into this Clinton scandal stuff anymore. I was furious when it all came out in January 1998, and more than six years later I'm still angry at how this self-indulgent sensualist almost destroyed himself and surely set back progressive causes for years to come... not to mention helped pave the way for Bush's election and arguably made it impossible to take the steps that would have been necessary to prevent September 11.

But as has always been the case, Clinton never looks better than in contrast with his enemies. This applies not only to the Limbaughs and Starrs and DeLays of this world, but to the credulous mediots who urged him to resign during Blowgate and thus validate the extralegal, open-ended "government by investigation" Newt Gingrich called for when he got his House majority. He was right to fight it, and the American people did themselves credit by voting against the Republicans in the 1998 midterm elections... thus freeing up Newt to write more reviews (see below).

All that said, I did read a somewhat haunting commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer today that, for the first time, makes a compelling argument about how the nation might have benefitted from a Clinton resignation. The author of the piece--who admits to urging the president to resign twice over the course of the scandal in 1998, doesn't go so far as to claim he had any of this in mind at the time, but the hindsight perspective doesn't diminish the power of the case: editor Chris Satullo basically argues that if Gore had succeeded Clinton in 1998, the resultant wave of revulsion at Republican excess, as well as the benefits of two years of incumbency, might have swept Gore into a full term two years later--and without the distraction of the president's sexcapades and the incessant "Wag the Dog" accusations every time he tried to do something on foreign policy, perhaps 9/11 could have been avoided.

Now, I'm not sure I buy this; just as they did anyway, the Republicans would have tried to tar Gore by association with Clinton, and I'm not sure we wouldn't have seen the Gore of later caricature--the exaggerator, the shady fund-raiser, the man in search of himself--anyway. Perhaps the election wouldn't even have been as close as it was. I guess the key point is whether the backlash against Republican inquisitorial excess would have been even worse if they'd succeeded in driving Clinton from office. This seems like just enough of a Nader-like "things must get worse to get better" scenario that I have trouble crediting it, but it is not impossible to imagine.

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