Clinton Memoir Reopens Culture War
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; 9:07 AM
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 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.
As if to underscore my point, here's a story from today's New York Times:
"As a core of Democratic partisans cheer the return of their champion, Bill Clinton, to the limelight in time to pitch in on the campaign trail, many of his old antagonists are gearing up again. . . .
"Citizens United -- a conservative lobbying group whose president, David Bossie, Mr. Clinton writes, helped to foment the Whitewater scandal -- bought advertising time in several markets during Mr. Clinton's interview on '60 Minutes' to argue that the former president was responsible for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. . . .
"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."
The New York Times sure rained on Clinton's literary parade. Not only did it obtain an advance copy of the book (as the AP did), but reviewer Michiko Kakutani slams it:
"The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull -- the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history."
Newsweek offers this summary:
"Clinton doesn't directly blame unresolved feelings about his troubled childhood for his marital infidelities and other lapses, but he comes pretty close. In the book, which NEWSWEEK obtained from a bookstore last week, he writes that Hillary and Chelsea barely spoke to him after he came clean about Lewinsky, and that the president wound up sleeping on the couch for two months. But during the year of marriage counseling that followed, Clinton says he learned that when he was angry or tired, the painful secrets of his childhood would bubble forth, making him prone to self-destructive behavior.
"During the 1995 government shutdown (when he first met Lewinsky), he writes, 'I was engaged in two titanic struggles: a public one with Congress over the future of our country, and a private one to hold the old demons at bay.' "
There's another debate brewing about whether Clinton is a political asset:
"As former president Bill Clinton releases his memoir about his long political career, there are high expectations in his home state about his role in the current campaign," says USA Today.
"In stark contrast to four years ago, when then-Democratic nominee Al Gore kept Clinton at a distance, Democrats plan to make the former president an integral part of this year's campaign. While the former president's book tour will keep him occupied much of the summer, aides are already trying to work political appearances around his domestic travels."
But the Philadelphia Inquirer finds Clinton more radioactive:
"David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist, says, with great diplomacy, that Clinton 'could be a high-class Kerry surrogate for selected events.' That's code for saying that Clinton probably should be dispatched to safe venues where he is still popular -- most notably, the African American community, where he might be effective in stoking a higher Democratic turnout. . . .
"Yet some Democrats insist that the memoir will make people feel nostalgic for the recent past -- the good old days, when, on Clinton's watch, 20 million jobs were created and the budget was in the black."
Slate's Fred Kaplan tries to unravel the 9/11 dispute and finds Bush downright Clintonian:
"Talking to reporters after his Cabinet meeting, President Bush disputed the 9/11 commission's conclusion that no 'collaborative relationship' existed between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. 'There was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda,' Bush insisted. Then the president drew a distinction:
"The administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence agents met with bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda in Sudan.
"Let's examine these words closely because President Bush clearly chose them carefully. The latest chapter of the 9/11 commission's report, which was released Wednesday, notes that there were -- as Bush put it -- 'numerous contacts' between the two entities. It cites the same meetings with Iraqi intelligence agents that Bush cited. So Bush's 'dispute' with the commission's findings isn't a dispute at all. He just meant to make it look like a dispute -- to make some people think the commission might be wrong.
"This stratagem is in keeping with the president's rhetoric on this issue all along. He has never precisely alleged that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He's just meant for his words to look like allegations.
"The operative word in the commission's finding is 'collaborative.' Contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida, it reported, 'do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.' Bush doesn't dispute this either. In fact, he agrees; he claims that he never said that Saddam and Bin Laden 'orchestrated' the attacks.
"But didn't he at one point? Wasn't the claim of collaboration a rationale for invading Iraq? On Sept. 25, 2002, Bush said, 'You can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.' On May 1, 2003, aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, beneath the 'Mission Accomplished' banner, he declared, 'We have removed an ally of al-Qaeda and cut off a source of terrorist funding.'
"Again, look closely. He never said outright that Saddam had connections with 9/11. He suggested connections -- and did so repeatedly until a majority of Americans believed Saddam was somehow involved in the attacks."
If you missed my weekend piece on the New Republic wrestling with its support for the Iraq war, you can find it here. The magazine didn't apologize, though.
The Wall Street Journal's John Harwood writes about all the press chatter on John Edwards leading the veepstakes -- and essentially disses the press:
"The catch: There is little evidence the speculation reflects Mr. Kerry's thinking. From the outset he has said he intends to conduct an unusually secretive vice presidential selection. 'Nobody knows,' including perhaps Mr. Kerry, said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, recalling how Bill Clinton's own thinking shifted late in his 1992 selection process.
"By speculating, added Tony Coehlo, who headed up Al Gore's White House bid for part of the 2000 campaign, 'People want to create the impression they know something when in fact they don't.' "
He nailed it.
"The questions about Mr. Edwards are whether he is sufficiently experienced after six years in public life and whether he could deliver electoral votes given his home state's Republican bent."
The Boston Globe reports on what might be called the C-SPAN strategy: House Republicans using floor time to blast away at Kerry:
"Many of the remarks -- made under a rule that allows any member to talk about any topic for one minute at the start of daily sessions -- have been focused on Kerry's criticism of the Vietnam War and the handling of the postwar situation in Iraq. House rules for all floor discussions forbid members from 'characterizing another member's personal intent or motives, and discussing personalities.' House decorum also bars lawmakers from ''referring to the specific votes of particular senators.'
"During the speeches, GOP lawmakers have called Kerry 'Hanoi John,' and accused him of everything from undermining US troops to promoting policies Republicans say would cut jobs. Democrats say the attacks are clear violations of House protocol and should stop. The continued attacks, they say, show a body that has abandoned bipartisan legislative debate for campaign-season attacks."
This Associated Press report could spell trouble for Kerry:
"John Kerry's campaign collected a maximum $2,000 check from the recently arrested son of South Korea's disgraced former president, and some of its fund-raisers met several times with a South Korean government official who was trying to organize a Korean-American political group.
"The Kerry campaign said it did not know about the $2,000 donation from Chun Jae-yong or his background until informed by The Associated Press and has decided to return the money to avoid any appearance of impropriety."
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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