By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, September 29, 2006
Bill Clinton's eruption on "Fox News Sunday" last weekend over questions about his administration's handling of terrorism was a long time coming and has political implications that go beyond this fall's elections.
By choosing to intervene in the terror debate in a way that no one could miss, Clinton forced an argument about the past that had up to now been largely a one-sided propaganda war waged by the right. The conservative movement understands the political value of controlling the interpretation of history. Now its control is finally being contested.
How long have Clinton's resentments been simmering? We remember the period immediately after Sept. 11 as a time when partisanship melted away. That is largely true, especially because Democrats rallied behind President Bush. For months after the attacks, Democrats did not raise questions about why they had happened on Bush's watch.
But not everyone was nonpartisan. On Oct. 4, 2001, a mere three weeks and a couple of days after the twin towers fell and the Pentagon was hit, there was Rush Limbaugh arguing on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page: "If we're serious about avoiding past mistakes and improving national security, we can't duck some serious questions about Mr. Clinton's presidency."
To this day I remain astonished at Limbaugh's gall -- and at his shrewdness. Republicans were arguing simultaneously that it was treasonous finger-pointing to question what Bush did or failed to do to prevent the attacks, but patriotic to go after Clinton. Thus did they build up a mythology that cast Bush as the tough hero in confronting the terrorist threat and Clinton as the shirker. Bad history. Smart politics.
Moreover, when Democrats, notably former House minority leader Richard Gephardt, finally put their heads up in the late spring of 2002 to ask questions about that Aug. 6, 2001, memo warning of the possibility of terrorist attacks, the Republican pushback was furious.
Vice President Cheney, addressing his Democratic "friends" in Congress, said on May 16, 2002, that "they need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some today, that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11. Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."
Boy, that was defensive, wasn't it? Funny that Cheney didn't respond that way when Limbaugh made his incendiary attack on Clinton. Opportunistic and inconsistent? Sure, but again, smart politics.
This is just a fragment of a long history of evasion and blame-shifting by the administration and its supporters. And the polemical distortions of history came roaring back earlier this month in ABC's fictionalized account of the Sept. 11 events that butchered the Clinton record.
This history-as-attack-ad approach won praise from none other than Limbaugh, who described the film's screenwriter as a friend. Limbaugh was pleased that the film was "just devastating to the Clinton administration" and attacked its critics as "just a bunch of thin-skinned bullies." Pot-and-kettle metaphors don't begin to do justice to the hilarity of Limbaugh's saying such a thing.
And so Clinton exploded. My canvassing of Clinton insiders suggests two things about his outburst on "Fox News Sunday." First, he did not go into the studio knowing he would do it. There was, they say, a spontaneity to his anger. But, second, he had thought long and hard about comparisons between his record on terrorism and Bush's. He had his lines down pat from private musing about how he had been turned into a punching bag by the right. Something like this, one adviser said, was bound to happen eventually.
Sober, moderate opinion will say what sober, moderate opinion always says about an episode of this sort: Tut tut, Clinton looked unpresidential, we should worry about the future, not the past, blah, blah, blah.
But sober, moderate opinion was largely silent as the right wing slashed and distorted Clinton's record on terrorism. It largely stood by as the Bush administration tried to intimidate its own critics into silence. As a result, the day-to-day political conversation was tilted toward a distorted view of the past. All the sins of omission and commission were piled onto Clinton while Bush was cast as the nation's angelic avenger. And as conservatives understand, our view of the past greatly influences what we do in the present.
A genuinely sober and moderate view would recognize that it's time the scales of history were righted. Propagandistic accounts need to be challenged, systematically and consistently. The debate needed a very hard shove. Clinton delivered it.