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Why Did So Many People Hate Bill Clinton? An Exchange Among Conservatives

In a recent essay in the NYT Book Review of John F. Harris's The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, Alan Ehrenhalt speculated about the reasons Clinton was so disliked. This sparked a rigorous debate on Richard Jensen's list, ConservativeNet. Below, a sampling of opinion.

Alan Ehrenhalt's Review

Millions of Americans despise Bill Clinton. They have done so since he became a presence in national politics in the early 1990's, and they continue to do so today, more than four years after his retirement from public office.

The passion of the Clinton haters is a phenomenon without equal in recent American politics. It is not based on any specific policies that Clinton promoted or implemented during his years in office. It is almost entirely personal. In its persistence and intensity, it goes far beyond anything that comparable numbers of people have felt about Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or either of the presidents Bush. It surpasses even the liberals' longstanding detestation of Richard Nixon. The only political obsession comparable to it in the past century is the hatred that a significant minority of Americans felt for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In this respect the phenomenon is all the more puzzling. Roosevelt made enormous and sometimes reckless changes in the American government and economy, and when his critics loathed him for it, he loathed them back. ''They are unanimous in their hate for me'' he said of them in his 1936 re-election campaign, ''and I welcome their hatred.'' Clinton, on the other hand, was a centrist who undertook no dramatic transformations of society or government and, what was more, showed himself to be an instinctive conciliator who believed in compromise almost to a fault.

Viewed in historical perspective, Clinton-hatred is not easy to explain. Certainly the Monica Lewinsky affair does not explain it. The people who detested the president after that dalliance became public were essentially the same ones who had detested him in 1992. They merely grew louder.

There is, of course, a simpler argument that some Clinton haters use to explain the persistence of their passion. They say that he was, to put it bluntly, a very bad president -- immature, self-absorbed, indecisive in domestic affairs and disastrously weak when it came to representing America in the affairs of the world...

If, as Harris believes, Clinton was in the most important ways a competent president -- and certainly not a combative or ideological one -- then the conundrum of Clinton-hatred remains essentially unsolved. Harris does try to explain it. He suggests -- as others have -- that Clinton, not entirely through his own doing, suffered as the embodiment of a generation and a set of values that much of the country had never understood or been willing to accept. He was the tangible symbol of the Baby Boom, its conceits, its self-absorption, its lack of discipline and failures of responsibility. He was a child of the 1960's preaching to millions of people who had never come to terms with the 1960's and didn't want to be reminded of them.

Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary and close friend since their Oxford days together, told Harris that Clinton's personal history of youthful rebellion and conventional adult success, all achieved without significant personal sacrifice, was threatening to many Americans, even if they themselves did not entirely understand why. And so they despised him. And they despised his wife. Whether Hillary Clinton manages in the end to overcome this generational taint may be one of the more significant political questions of the next few years.

The generational issue is surely not the only explanation of Clinton hatred, but it may be the most persuasive one anybody has presented so far. Ultimately there will be others. The debate about Bill Clinton, about his character and achievements and moral worth, will go on long after the subject himself has departed from the scene. Clinton ''was too vital and too vexing a character to be easily forgotten or dismissed,'' Harris writes. This is a complex, interesting and subtle book about a complex, interesting and subtle man.


David Horowitz (Mr. Horowitz is the founder of frontpagemag.com)

This is an interesting review, but I strongly demur from the view that Clinton hatred exceeds Bush hatred by any measure. Conservatives are more disgusted by Clinton; but they are not so blinded by their negative feelings that they don't appreciate Clinton's achievements, the centrism of his policy (when he wasn't surrendering his better judgment to interest groups), his brilliance as a politician. By contrast so-called liberals and leftists have a hatred of Bush that is so intense it reduces their view of him to absurdities -- he's a moron, a liar and evil. None of these are remotely related to any truth of the man or his presidency and the passion of belief in them is so strong that obscures any appreciation for his achievements in the war on terror and foreign policy generally which far surpass anything Clinton was able to do.

Larry Schweikart (Mr. Schweikart is Professor of History, University of Dayton and co-author of the recently published, A Patriot's History)

David Horowitz is right. As one who despised Clinton for what he did to the office of the presidency---in my view, every bit as dangerous and abusive as Nixon---it was always clear that Clinton would, in the end, do what the public wanted. (That was not so clear about She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named). I didn't "hate" Clinton so much as pitied him---the product of an alcohol-abusive family that learned how to please everyone, that wanted everyone to like him, thus one who developed no core beliefs of his own (exactly what Stephanopolous, I think, said).

The notion of "getting" Clinton was less an opposition to his policies, which, as David points out, were at times "conservative" (balanced budgets, NAFTA), but more a dogmatic demand that the law be followed because not to follow it would invite further, more egregious violations from Clinton and his wife. Thankfully, the impeachment neutered him, killed Al Gore's chances, and destroyed his "legacy." Bush hatred, though, as I have said here on numerous occasions, is essentially religious in nature. Most of all, the Bush-haters fear Bush's certainty of purpose which is given him by God. "No one can be that sure of himself," they mourn. Well, yes, one can.

I just finished a long interview with USA Today, due for the 4th of July period, on "Patriotism," which essentially dealt with "Are liberals unpatriotic?" My answer was "No, but they consistently adopt positions that make them appear unpatriotic. Dems have positioned themselves so that they can only win if there is bad news for America." (We'll see if I get quoted correctly, because several times the reporter tried to get me to say "liberals are unpatriotic." Well, she asked, isn't it impossible not to be critical of the opposition if you are the party out of power? And here is what the Dems/libs don't get . . .

The party out of power MUST be critical, but it can be "patriotically" critical---i.e., its criticism doesn't have to presume a weaker, more vulnerable, "less American" America. For example, early in the War on Terror, the Dems made a HUGE strategic mistake by not moving to the right of Bush, saying, "Bush isn't doing enough on the WOT. Afghanistan is fine, but we need to get rid of all the threats, including Syria and Iran!" This would have presumed that a) there was a threat; b) it wasn't our fault ("why do they hate us?") and c) there is a response that doesn't condemn the U.S. in every single statement. But, of course, the lefty-loonies in the Dem Party could never take that approach (thank God). Another example is immigration. Here is a PERFECT opportunity for the Dems to "patriotically" outflank Bush and siphon off just enough votes to win, by coming down hard on illegal immigration. Or China. The Dems could have said, "We need to be the strongest nation on earth and shipping key technology to China just so we can open some Wal Marts harms us. We need to develop a military strategy to counter China." But they can't adopt any of these positions because fundamentally most libs/Dems do not like America being strong; they hate us being the sole superpower; they revel in Vietnam and, by transference, by any setbacks in Iraq, which then puts them in the position of celebrating defeats. The interviewer was stunned when I said that during Vietnam, the Left actually cheered the "body counts" every night, and thought it wasn't true, till I gave her evidence from no less than Abbe Hoffman's book---then brought up Jane Fonda on the AA gun. So I think there is a gulf of difference in the views of Clinton by the right and the attacks on Bush by the left.

Paul Gottfried (Mr. Gottfried is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt)

Looking at the two last presidents as someone who has expressed deep reservations about both, it seems to me that the reasons they have evoked hostility are different.

Republicans and movement conservatives disliked Clinton because they were genuinely turned off by his personal immorality and even more by the casuistry in which feminist groups engaged in order to justify his predatory sex life. I for one found Clinton to be a shabby clown and the embattled feminists who went to his aid seemed to have about as much credibility as the Communists who defended the Soviet-Nazi Pact.

But, unlike David and Larry, I'm not sure that the attacks on Bush are more personal and more biting than those that Republicans unleashed against Clinton. What bothers me is exactly the opposite, namely that the savaging of W is being done pro forma. It is the way the liberal media and academics and Democrats treat Republican presidents, even those who equivocate on affirmative action and become ultraliberals in dealing with illegal immigration. After all, Republicans are supposed to be ultra-rightwingers and morons. Does anyone here think that Democrats would be screaming about fascist dangers if Kerry had become president and had decided to continue the war in Iraq? Where was the liberal talk about militarism when Clinton dropped bombs on the Serbs and on aspirin factories in North Africa? The sickening thing for me is that the caterwauling from Democrats and Hollywood is about partisanship, getting Democrats into and Republicans out of office.

Gene Kizer (Mr. Kizer is a free lance writer/editor and graduate student working on an M.A. in English at the University of Charleston, South Carolina)

People hated Clinton and still do because the entire time he was president, he was a monumental LIAR. His "Slick Willie" moniker is true, but understates his level of dishonesty. My entire life, when any president would come on TV, I would tune right in with full attention because it would be something important and, at least, appear truthful. When Clinton came on, I had to change the channel as quick as I could get to the TV, I mean I would jump up and fly across the room because I could not stand to even look at Clinton. He was so phony, so fake, and every word out of his mouth was some kind of lie.

Clinton is probably the best pure "politician" in American history, but that is no compliment. It's a testament to his skill as a liar and ability to get away with it (I'm surprised he didn't bite off that lower lip). Just imagine the sincerity of a Ronald Reagan in comparison to Slick Willie.

I agree with Larry Schweikart that the impeachment "neutered" Clinton, and the things Clinton has done since being president are fine, even dignified, unlike when he was in office.

I would bet that Clinton got away with a lot more than the public knows. One of the networks did finally run that story about Clinton raping some woman, biting her face and lips severely, but they carefully timed it to run after the election. The real Bill Clinton was a rapist and abuser of power, a liar and phony, and the only pain he ever felt was his own. That's why I could not stand to even look at him, and those who hate him feel the same way.

I admit that he governed as a centrist, stealing most of his ideas from a forward-thinking Republican agenda, but he didn't originate those centrist ideas. He stole them in typical Clinton fashion. Clinton's damage has been his leftist appointments to the judiciary.

If it had not been for the anomaly of Ross Perot, we would never have had to endure Clinton. Clinton's re-election occurred because of the power of incumbency, but even then, he did not get a majority of the popular vote.

I admit that I can tolerate Clinton now and even appreciate the benign, humanitarian things he does like all former presidents. But count me among those who considered him extremely dangerous and who hated his guts when he was in office.