Bill Clinton's Aura: Still at the Cleaners
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page C01
Bill Clinton, having delivered a command performance in launching his book blitz with Dan Rather last night, is in no danger of getting the Ronald Reagan treatment.
Liberal commentators, some swallowing hard, may have hailed the 93-year-old Gipper as he passed from the scene. But there is no cultural cease-fire for the 57-year-old Democrat who left office less than four years ago.
"The respect and honor that Democrats have shown, in an appropriate way, for President Reagan will not be shown to President Clinton," says former White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "They don't live by the same credo. They're mean and nasty people. . . . They aren't self-aware enough to understand the image they'll create for themselves when they trash Clinton at every turn."
National Review Editor Rich Lowry says Clinton's book "will go over like a lead balloon with conservatives -- a very large, 950-pound lead balloon. It will prompt an orgy of argument over what happened in the 1990s and who was responsible."
When some conservatives buy Lowry's book "Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years," they rip off the dust jacket because it has a somewhat flattering picture of the 42nd president. "It's too soon for any nostalgia, even if justified," Lowry says. "He doesn't have any Reagan-like grand accomplishments everyone can coalesce around."
Some obvious caveats: Reagan, despite the Iran-contra scandal, left office a popular figure; Clinton's departure came two years after he was impeached and was clouded by his wave of last-minute pardons. Reagan was idolized by conservative opinion-mongers; liberal commentators were more conflicted about Clinton, especially after his sex-and-lying scandal.
More important, while Alzheimer's disease had sidelined Reagan for a decade, Clinton remains a player who is actively backing John Kerry -- and has a wife in the Senate who could run for his old job.
"Bill Clinton is still a radioactive figure," says historian Douglas Brinkley. "He raises more money than anyone else, and Republicans raise money against him."
What's more, says Brinkley, "we live in a sound-bite culture. Ronald Reagan's sound bite is, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.' Bill Clinton's sound bite is, 'I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.' . . . Take a swipe at Reagan at your peril. Take a swipe at Clinton, and you get laughs and applause."
The sound-bite war began even before the book was obtained by the New York Times and the Associated Press in advance of tomorrow's publication date. Clinton's Monica mea culpa, part of which was aired by CBS last week, amounted to tossing red meat at hungry pundits.
Fox commentator Oliver North scoffed at "the idea of infidelity being something you just dismiss, and that his lying before a grand jury isn't worthy of impeachment or a resignation."
CNN host James Carville said what his former boss did is less important than the Bush administration understating the cost of the prescription drug law: "Scandals? What scandal? He had sex with an intern, okay?"
Clinton's smooth, soul-searching style was on display last night as he parried Rather's questions, from his best day in the White House (his daughter's high school graduation) to his betrayal of his family ("no rational explanation for what I did"). He was candid enough to say he wanted to "slug" "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft over the 1992 interview on Gennifer Flowers (which was, after all, why he had agreed to come on) and adept enough to defend his spotty record on terrorism. Clinton was an effective pitchman for his book (which was trashed by a New York Times reviewer yesterday as "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull").
In short, the interview was like the Clinton presidency itself -- serious issues like Middle East peace often overshadowed by his grappling with his personal failings.
Rather says he doesn't expect universal applause for the interview, the first stop on Clinton's media tour for his book "My Life." "I have no illusions," Rather says. "Those who are virulently opposed to President Clinton will say he can never say enough. . . . To those who love him to the point of blindness to his flaws, he can always say too much."
In terms of White House memoirs, Richard Nixon provides a parallel. When his autobiography was published in 1978, four years after that final wave from the helicopter on the South Lawn, Nixon was still so controversial that he was hit with a "Don't Buy Books From Crooks" campaign. But the book sold well.
Instant replays of those left-right slugfests of the late '90s are underway, despite President Bush's gracious comments about his predecessor at the unveiling of Clinton's White House portrait. Will Clinton's conservative detractors ever grow tired of kicking him around?
"There are a lot of people whose existence is based on it," Lockhart says. "A lot of people have made a lot of money and garnered a lot of fame." Of course, with a $10 million deal and more than 2 million copies ordered in advance, Clinton is raking in the big bucks as well.
Tim Russert has told the Buffalo News he regrets an error he made in a recent Washington Post Magazine interview.
Russert had said he never called News reporter Mark Sommer to complain about a negative review of his performance in moderating a Hillary Clinton-Rick Lazio Senate debate in 2000. But Sommer says in an interview that Russert called him twice about the piece and "was furious. . . . I was struck how a guy who basks in the reputation of being a tough reporter can't handle criticism when it applies to himself."
"I just plain didn't remember it," Russert says in an interview, adding that he's "been called a lot of things by a lot of people" and doesn't object to criticism. His beef, which had led to a clarification in the News, was Sommer's assertion that "Clinton had already answered similar questions" before Russert asked about her charge that a vast right-wing conspiracy was out to get her husband.
Russert "was correct on a technicality," says Sommer, in that Clinton hadn't responded to a journalist's question on the subject. But Russert says Sommer mangled the facts and should apologize.
The Orlando Sentinel has run a lengthy correction for articles in 2002 and 2003 saying federal authorities had confirmed that a jailed Jordanian had advance knowledge of the World Trade Center attack. The actual source was a lawyer for the Jordanian, and even he says the information was unconfirmed.
The Sentinel declined to name the reporter. It was Doris Bloodsworth, who resigned earlier this year after botching a story about an OxyContin patient who turned out to have had a cocaine conviction.
Big Bucks Battle
Jon Elsen, the New York Post's business editor, has been all over Dick Grasso, who's being sued by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to return more than $100 million he received as chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.
"Spitzer has decided to go after the truly most guilty," Elsen wrote, including Grasso, whom Elsen has accused of "arrogance" and "blatant corruption."
Now Grasso's spokesman complains that the tabloid should have mentioned, in a brief accompanying story on a $1.5 million Spitzer fundraiser, that it was co-chaired by Jan Constantine -- senior deputy general counsel of News Corp., the Post's corporate parent. "One would expect you to disclose your vested interest in the matter," Grasso spokesman Eric Starkman wrote Elsen.
Elsen says he didn't know of Constantine's role, but "if I did know, it wouldn't have made any difference. Dick Grasso understandably is trying to change the subject to divert attention away from the real issue, his conduct as chairman of the New York Stock Exchange."
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