The Clinton Legacy War
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; 8:25 AM
Well, shots are being fired from all directions, just as I predicted.
Bill Clinton remains the politician who millions love and millions hate, but no one loves him more than the journalists, bloggers and other opinion-slingers who get to keep arguing about him until the end of recorded history.
The former president, of course, wants to talk about the Oslo accords and Kosovo and a balanced budget and the creation of 20 million jobs. And the rest of the world wants to talk about Monica. In fact, I was surprised by how much of "60 Minutes," which was boiled down from more than four hours of interviews, was devoted to Lewinsky-related matters.
There's a certain role reversal here, as my Post colleague John Harris has observed. When Clinton was in office, he and his allies wanted everyone to "move on" and stop obsessing on his personal life. Now that he's selling a book, he's the one talking about his sexual "demons" and moral error and sleeping on the couch and anger at Ken Starr. Which, of course, gives Clinton's critics a free pass to do the same.
I wonder if there would have been this much media interest in Clinton's book if he hadn't put the country through the Lewinsky wringer. (And would Hillary's have been a monster best-seller without the section on wanting to wring Bill's neck?) People don't ordinarily rush out to buy presidential memoirs, but "My Life" topped the Amazon charts well before it was released. I doubt that's because of the section on welfare reform.
As for the notion that John Kerry would be helped by Clinton talking about the good old days of a booming economy, that won't be true if the media coverage continues to focus on the bad old days of Lewinsky and Tripp and Starr and impeachment.
Is everyone just dusting off their 1998 talking points? You be the judge.
"Here's a guy who desperately doesn't want to be defined by impeachment, but the bulk of the program was taken up by impeachment and his conduct that led to it," says National Review's Rich Lowry.
"First of all, the interview reminded me of how Clinton has a real winsome way about him. I know he drives some conservatives nuts (especially with mannerisms like those pursed lips when he said how much he hates the nickname 'Slick Willie'), but there is a reason he always thought he could talk his way out of any problem.
"All the childhood stuff also sets conservatives teeth on edge, but it is all true. No, it doesn't excuse anything, but as Clinton said last night, it does explain a lot. The fact is that Clinton is a very weird man with quite serious 'issues,' to use the jargon, and that affected his presidency in many ways -- from his odd secret relationship with Dick Morris, to his desperate need for approval in the polls, to his fling with Monica Lewinsky, and so on.
"He was smart last night to say at some point that he didn't want to talk about his personal life anymore besides Monica, since he can't tell the truth about any of the other women. He can be relatively forthright about Monica (although I doubt he comes clean in his book about when their relationship started -- well before they were 'friends'), since he had already been forced to confess before by the stain on her dress. But it would be too painful and too embarrassing to his supporters to admit that something like what Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey described actually happened -- as it almost certainly did."
Fred Barnes dismisses the Clinton presidency (in a Weekly Standard issue followed by several paeans to Reagan), but I give him credit for not mentioning Monica:
"A book cannot elevate a president. That's true even for a book marketed by Dan Rather for an hour on 60 Minutes, its publication treated like a show-stopping event by the media, its author's tour seen as the equivalent of a high-octane political campaign, and its importance signified by the expectation of an entire summer in which the author will never be far from the spotlight. Bill Clinton should not get his hopes up. Presidents are judged by their record, not their memoirs. At best, Clinton is Calvin Coolidge without the ethics and the self-restraint.
"Clinton is not a failed president, only an insignificant one. In his interview with Rather to plug My Life, he claims two great accomplishments. One is 'the creation of 22 million jobs.' The other is the toppling of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkan war. So Clinton takes credit, above all, for high job growth and a positive outcome in a relatively minor foreign policy crisis. One qualification: On jobs, while Clinton deserves credit, presidents merely make jobs a bit easier or harder for the economy to create. They don't create jobs themselves, except by expanding government.
"In sum, Clinton's twin achievements match Coolidge's almost exactly. The highlights of Coolidge's term were a flourishing economy and triumph in three minor foreign ventures."
Bill Clinton isn't sure he would have ever told his wife and daughter about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky if Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr hadn't uncovered it, says USA Today.
"'I think that whether I would have ever said anything to my family or not, I don't know,' Clinton said Monday in his first newspaper interview about his memoir, My Life, which is out today. 'I know that I would have done my best to make it up to my family because I stopped having any kind of contact with her months and months before it ever came out. . . . (Infidelity) happens to a lot of people every day, and it shouldn't have come out.'"
American Prospect's Michael Tomasky is already reviewing the reviewer:
"I haven't read Bill Clinton's book yet, so I should say up front that I have no trouble imagining that it's sprawling, unfocused, not rigorously edited (few editors, even the estimable Robert Gottlieb, are going to get too bossy with a former president), superfluous and soggy in places, and, yes, even self-serving (which we know would make it dramatically different from other presidential memoirs, wouldn't it, now?).
"But I don't even need to have read it to know this much, which anyone could have predicted from the moment Clinton signed the deal: that its release would do little more than provide one more opportunity for conservatives to trash Clinton, and, more tellingly, for the liberal baby boomers of the cultural elite to use Clinton as the vehicle to work out their anxieties about themselves and their own generational shortcomings and contradictions.
"The conservative response is, of course, boringly predictable, and deserving of examination only insofar as it's worth monitoring some of the insane statements that will once again erupt from certain mouths. . . .
"The self-righteous irritation on display in Michiko Kakutani's review of My Life in Sunday's Times is in tone and spirit exactly the same as that expressed down the years by Tim Russert and Chris Matthews, of a piece with the feral anguish that oozed out of the editorials penned during the Clinton presidency by former Times-man Howell Raines. But where conservative hatred of Clinton is easily explained, liberal anxiety about him is deep and weird and dark; it will never be resolved, and so it will never -- ever -- end."
Never is a long time.
Dan Kennedy speeds up the news cycle:
"Clinton is well known for his eagerness to please, and I'm sure he realizes that his tawdry personal life will sell far more books than a recitation of how he managed to balance the budget.
"Among the oddities of the book world's blockbuster mentality is that a phenomenon like Clinton's My Life starts to seem old even before anyone has had a chance to read it. At 957 pages, the book is going to feel like a project to those who actually determine to read the thing."
So the book is so yesterday even before it's out?
Wonkette naturally focuses on the kissing issue:
"As Clinton explained to Dan Rather, he wasn't about to have the Middle East peace process derailed by Arafat planting a big wet one on him:
"CLINTON: Tony Lake, my National Security Adviser, has a wonderful sense of humor, says, well, I know how to do this. Well, now you be Arafat and I will be you and you try to kiss me. And I'll show you what do. . . .
"RATHER: I'm not sure I want to do this.
"CLINTON:So, I shook hands . . . and he put his hand like this, in my elbow. And he says, 'If you've got your hand in your elbow, he can't kiss you.'
"Presumably, the White House staffer who was supposed to teach this trick to interns fell down on the job."
And here's a New York Post report on Clinton's Big Apple party:
President Bush takes a hit in the latest Washington Post survey:
"Exactly half the country now approves of the way Bush is managing the U.S. war on terrorism, down 13 points since April, according to the poll. Barely two months ago, Bush comfortably led Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by 21 percentage points when voters were asked which man they trusted to deal with the terrorist threat. Today the country is evenly divided, with 48 percent. . . .
"Overall the poll had mixed news for both candidates. Bush's marks for handling the economy and Iraq both rose slightly during the past month, but his overall approval rating remains below 50 percent. Kerry leads Bush in a three-way test that includes independent Ralph Nader and is seen as more honest and trustworthy than the president, but those surveyed question whether he has a plan of his own for Iraq.
"Fewer than half of those surveyed -- 47 percent -- say the war in Iraq was worth fighting, while 52 percent say it was not, the highest level of disapproval recorded in Post-ABC News polls."
Connecticut's governor has finally stepped down rather than face impeachment, as the Hartford Courant reports:
"Gov. John G. Rowland, dogged for months by a federal corruption investigation and legislative impeachment hearings into free gifts, trips and favors he received from state contractors and employees, said in an address televised live that he has decided to resign.
" 'I acknowledge that my poor judgment has brought us here,' Rowland said, standing on the back lawn of the governor's mansion, his wife Patty by his side. He became the seventh Connecticut governor to resign, the first in the 365-year history of the colony and state to do so under a cloud."
Imagine how much national coverage this would have gotten if sex had been involved!
Kerry plays the stem-cell card, as the New York Times observes:
"Backed by the unusual endorsement of 48 Nobel laureates, Senator John Kerry on Monday accused the Bush administration of letting ideology trump science, and promised to lift the ban on federal financing of stem-cell research and to build an economy 'based on innovation, ingenuity and imagination.' "
This wouldn't have anything to do with former president Ronald Reagan's death, would it?
"Mr. Kerry also invoked the recent death of President Ronald Reagan from Alzheimer's disease and echoed Nancy Reagan's call for stem-cell research 'to tear down every wall today that keeps us from finding the cures of tomorrow.' "
Noam Scheiber engages in what he calls "Highly Irresponsible Veep Speculation" in the New Republic (which we irresponsibly reproduce here), running through a list of speculative factors to conclude:
"Put all this together and you have to admit that Gephardt is the clear favorite at this point. And I think he remains the favorite even if you expand the pool of potential candidates beyond him and Edwards. Bob Graham and Wesley Clark look like longshots. . . . Iowa governor Tom Vilsack has many of the same flaws as Edwards, with the exception of his personal rapport with Kerry. Bill Richardson probably presents serious upstaging/future ambition risks, and it's not clear that he survived Kerry's vetting process."
That's not all that's not clear.
Another veepstakes mystery, though, has been solved, with the choice of a man familiar to Californians, as the Los Angeles Times reports:
"Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader named Green Party activist Peter Camejo as his vice presidential running mate Monday, adding to his ticket a two-time contender for governor in California who once ran for president as a Socialist.
"Nader's selection of Camejo gives further shape to a left-leaning, antiwar campaign many Democrats fear will spoil their effort to unseat President Bush. It bolstered Nader's quest to win an endorsement from the Greens at their national convention, which begins Wednesday in Milwaukee. If Nader succeeds, he could win ballot access in 22 states -- including California -- and the District of Columbia."
I'll give Roger Simon the last word on the VP guessing game:
"Is there one name that leaps from that list in terms of being ready to be president from Day One?
"Would it be John Edwards in his first term as a U.S. Senator from North Carolina, having previously been a personal injury lawyer?
"Would it be John Vilsack, in his second term as governor of Iowa, having previously been an Iowa state senator and the mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa?
"Or would it be Dick Gephardt, in his 14th term as a U.S. Representative from Missouri?
"Did you pick Edwards? If you did, you are probably a member of the media, who have been swooning over Edwards ever since he began campaigning for president last year.
"By the end of his campaign, Edwards had won exactly one primary, his birth state of South Carolina. Edwards kept telling voters he could carry the South in the fall, but he was savvy enough to drop out the week before primaries in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida. If Edwards had entered those primaries and lost, his southern support would have been exposed as mythical, which might have made it hard for him to run again.
"Edwards proved himself to be a spirited and eloquent campaigner. . . . Edwards's supporters . . . have a sense of entitlement: John Edwards is entitled to be vice president because . . . well, because he is that's all. He is handsome and articulate and exciting and Kerry better pick him if Kerry knows what's good for him."
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