David Greenberg: In Defense of Bill Clinton
Whenever Bill Clinton opens his mouth, he’s accused of saying something dishonest, self-serving, or at best politically unwise. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I think this has less to do with any difficulty that Clinton has had in accommodating himself to the You Tube era--which is not, after all, such a quantum leap away from the 24/7 news environment in which he successfully conducted his presidency--than with a desire on the part of the Washington media panjandrums to exact some revenge.
For example, in The New Yorker today there is a dig at the former president that repeats Barack Obama’s false claim that jobs “fell through the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration.” Oddly, the piece--by Ryan Lizza, late of this magazine, and by all accounts a fair and careful reporter--fails to state explicitly, as a factual matter, that Obama was simply wrong about this claim. (See Paul Krugman.) Lizza leaves it to Bill Clinton to do say merely, “Now, if you believe that, you should probably vote for [Obama], but you get a very bad grade in history.” But since the piece generally paints Clinton as concerned only with burnishing his own record, it leaves readers who don’t know better unaware that unemployment really did fall under Clinton, across the board.
The article then moves on to refer to "the mysterious theory that Obama had played the race card against" Bill Clinton. Yet no one who has followed the campaign closely can believe there’s anything “mysterious” about this "theory." Do we need to be reminded of the Obama campaign's well-known memo seeking to construe innocent remarks by Bill and Hillary and their supporters as racist? Indeed, Sean Wilentz documented the effort to unfairly tarnish the Clintons at length in TNR many weeks ago. Now, I realize Wilentz’s case was not convincing to everyone--though even if one strips away Wilentz’s overall argument, one has to contend with the several pieces of hard evidence that he adduced to show how Obama’s team injected allegations of racism into the campaign. So while this “theory” may be unconvincing to some--especially to those predisposed to think highly of Obama--it's certainly not "mysterious."
Meanwhile, TheNew York Times reviews a new book by Carol Felsenthal, whose biographies were once described by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in TNR as “pathography” (the term is Joyce Carol Oates’s). The target: Bill Clinton in his post-presidency. To her credit, reviewer Janet Maslin thinks little of the book. But she allows Felsenthal to get away with the claim that "all the wondrous works in the years ahead may enhance his reputation as an ex-president but not as a president"--another historically false claim, insofar as it suggests that Clintons’ impeachment (by a Republican-controlled House) and subsequent acquittal (by a Republican-controlled Senate) will come to reflect worse on him than on his Republican and media persecutors. In fact, the opposite has already proven to be the case.
Even more astonishing, Felsenthal approvingly quotes Don Hewitt of “60 Minutes"--why Hewitt has any authority on this matter is not explained--saying that if not for Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, "there’s not one kid who has died in Iraq who wouldn’t be alive today." Not only is the claim based on so many flawed assumptions of causality as to be absurd as a matter of logic; it is also simply vile to blame Bill Clinton's marital infidelity for the deaths of 4000 Americans in a war launched by George W. Bush. Does Monica Lewinsky therefore have their blood on her hands as well?
Someone will have to write a long piece on the resurgent antipathy of late toward Bill Clinton, who after all left the White House with the highest approval ratings of any departing president in Gallup polling history. The new hostility goes beyond the lingering sore feelings among media types about having been bested during the impeachment struggle, or among leftists for his New Democratic heresies. Unintentionally, Hewitt's comment may provide some of the answer, insofar as it suggest that some of this anger is a displacement of hostility toward Bush. But whatever its sources, the newfound Clinton-hatred is most assuredly not a product of the former president's purported negative campaigning against Obama. Quite the contrary, the idea that he has campaigned with particular negativity against Obama is itself the product, in part, of the Clinton-hatred coursing anew through the Washington establishment.
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