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. . . What She Ducked

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

If there is a phrase more closely associated with both Hillary and Bill Clinton than "the politics of personal destruction," it does not come to mind. All the others -- "It's the economy, stupid," for instance -- are linked to one or the other, but "the politics of personal destruction" is a phrase both Clintons have used repeatedly -- so much so, it seems, that for Hillary it has lost all meaning. When, for instance, Gen. David Petraeus was slimed as "General Betray Us," Hillary Clinton looked the other way. This was the politics of personal expediency.

The swipe at Petraeus was contained in a full-page ad the antiwar group MoveOn.org placed in the New York Times last week. It charged that Petraeus was "cooking the books" about conditions in Iraq and cited statements of his that have turned out to be either (1) not true, (2) no longer true, (3) possibly not true or (4) like everything else in Iraq, impossible to tell. Whatever the case, using "betray" -- a word associated with treason -- recalls the ugly McCarthy era, when for too many Republicans dissent corresponded with disloyalty. MoveOn.org and the late senator from Wisconsin share a certain fondness for the low blow.

Almost instantly, though, it got pretty hard to find a Democratic presidential candidate willing to dispute MoveOn.org. To his credit, Joe Biden did. "I don't buy into that," he said. "This is an honorable guy. He's telling the truth." But lonesome Joe, whose virtues have yet to come to the attention of the vast and apathetic electorate, was seconded only by Joe Lieberman, not a presidential candidate, and John Kerry, a man whose tomorrow is yesterday. When Clinton was asked about the ad, she avoided answering.

It may seem unfair to single out Clinton in this matter when the bunker in which she took shelter was crowded with her fellow quivering candidates. But Clinton is the front-runner, quite possibly the next president of the United States, so it is reasonable to focus on her and wonder if, as some allege, she does indeed have a spine. In this instance, it was nowhere to be found.

It is an odd standard Clinton has when it comes to smears. When the entertainment mogul David Geffen, once a Clinton supporter, called both Bill and Hillary liars, Hillary not only decried the remark as a particularly vivid example of the "politics of personal destruction," but she also demanded that Barack Obama do the same -- and return a $2,300 donation from Geffen. Yet when Clinton herself was asked to repudiate the abuse of Petraeus, she either saw no reason to do so or, much more likely, was afraid to alienate an important constituency, the 3.3 million members of MoveOn.org, who stand symbolically at the frontiers of New Hampshire and Iowa. She would, it seems, rather be president than be right.

Yesterday, Clinton announced her health-care plan. Good for her. But you never had any doubt, did you, that she was going to have one -- and a plan for everything else. The issue with Hillary Clinton is not whether she's smart or experienced but whether she has -- how do we say this? -- the character to be president. Behind her, after all, trails the lingering vapor of all those gates: Travel, File, Whitewater and other scandals to which she was a party only through marriage. In a hatless society, she is always wearing a question mark.

Certain Republicans, particularly Rudy Giuliani, have attempted to exploit the MoveOn.org ad for their own political purposes, even wondering whether the Times violated election law by selling the page at a (standard) discount. This is silly. But it is not silly to wonder -- yet again -- about what makes Hillary run.

The MoveOn.org ad was the moment for Clinton to rise above hackdom. It was a moment for her to insist that the business of politics, not to mention governing, is made even uglier and more difficult when people who merely differ with one another resort to insult. It was a moment for her to say that an Army general, under orders and attempting to fulfill a mission, should not be so casually trashed -- especially since she herself has been on the other side of the Iraq war issue and said things she must now regret. And it was a moment for her to trot out her favorite phrase and use it, not in her own defense for once but in defense of someone else. That moment is gone -- maybe because for Hillary Clinton it never arrived in the first place.

cohenr@washpost.com


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