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Hail to the Chief of Staff

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

At the most recent Democratic debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer referred to "a dream ticket for the White House" -- either Hillary Clinton for president and Barack Obama for veep or the other way around. Both candidates demurred, giving me the opportunity to describe my own dream ticket: Obama for president; Clinton for chief of staff.

That's the long and short of it. Just about everything Clinton says about herself -- her experience, her indomitability, her presumed ability to work long hours -- says to me that she would make a swell chief of staff. Beyond that, she either lacks the qualities that would make a great -- not merely competent -- president or hides them from us, as she has occasionally done with her own pain.

My conclusions about Clinton, forced upon me by the need to vote in a Super Tuesday primary, come from her own campaign. Whether she meant to or not, she has presented herself as a model of caution, of experience hard-earned and not enjoyed, and an inability to admit fault or lousy judgment.

Two matters stand out. The first, of course, is her vote in favor of the Iraq war. I, too, supported going to war, so I don't think this alone disqualifies her from the presidency. I do think, though, that her refusal to simply admit that her judgment -- not simply her facts -- was faulty says something about her. We all knew George Bush was going to launch the invasion and was not merely seeking permission to stare down Saddam Hussein. If Clinton did not know that, her judgment was doubly faulty.

Her refusal -- her inability -- to simply confess poor judgment says to me that her vote was politically motivated. In that, she was not alone. All of her 2008 Democratic primary colleagues who were in the Senate at the time voted for the war resolution. Many other Senate Democrats voted against it -- on the basis not of different facts but of a different judgment about the same facts.

If that were the only example of Clinton's voting suspiciously like a presidential candidate, I would not be troubled. But in 2005, she co-sponsored a bill that would make flag-burning illegal. It just so happened that around that time I heard Justice Antonin Scalia explain why he, a conservative so conservative you cannot be more conservative, considered flag-burning a form of political expression. It was therefore, he said, protected. Precisely so.

I was not alone in suggesting that on the flag issue, Clinton was readying herself for a presidential race and trying to blunt her image as a harridan of the political left. The New York Times reached the same conclusion and accused her of pandering. Again, precisely so.

Look, I know what Barack Obama was doing when he refused to confront his minister about the latter's embrace of Louis Farrakhan. He was ducking an issue with no upside for him. He will not get my Profiles in Courage award for this, but the rest of his record overwhelms this one chintzy act.

Not so with Clinton. In the first place, you don't get to pander with the First Amendment. It is just too important, too central, not merely an amendment but a commandment: Thou Shalt Not Abridge Speech. In the second place, this ugly lurch to the political right is not outweighed by a spectacular stand on some other matter of principle.

The fact is that as a politician, Hillary Clinton is a creature of her husband. This is reality, not a put-down. In this respect, she is like George W. Bush or any of the Kennedys now out there telling us how to vote. Even the mighty Teddy is the product of nepotistic politics, and his adoration of Obama is, I suspect, partly a function of Obama's qualities and partly a function of the perceived slight of John F. Kennedy by Hillary Clinton some weeks ago.

But for Hillary Clinton, the Bill thing looms larger. He remains, as Wordsworth might put it, too much with us. He was a good president with bad associations -- beginning with Jim McDougal of Whitewater fame and ending with Marc Rich of pardon infamy. Bill Clinton has a tropism for the faintly corrupt, and his wife has more than a tropism for him. He would stalk her presidency as he has her campaign, and when she vows that she alone would rule the White House, she is talking personnel, not marriage. It ain't the same.

So I vote, as I must, for Obama and against Hillary. I would have liked more time because this is not an easy choice. But the time has come and, really, hers has gone.

cohenr@washpost.com


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