White House press secretary Ari Fleischer misfired last week when he accused former president Bill Clinton of shooting the moon. "You can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted," President Bush's spokesman said of Clinton's Middle East peace efforts.
Fleischer later withdrew his pointed finger under pressure. But why?
Blaming predecessors for everything but the weather is a time-honored tradition in the White House. And with global warming, presidents now can even blame their predecessors for the weather. Clinton blamed the first President George Bush for a recession and budget deficits. Ronald Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter for making a mess of Iran. Carter blamed Gerald Ford for unemployment and inflation. Presidents have blamed predecessors all the way back to George Washington who, with no predecessor to blame, kicked the dog.
The current administration is no novice at the blame game. In late January, amid a swirl of questions about Bush's ties to Enron Corp., presidential counselor Karen P. Hughes went on CNN to say Bush's men "did nothing inappropriate or unethical." The Clinton administration, she said, was another matter: "Many of the things at Enron that went wrong occurred back in 1997 and 1998, during the Clinton administration. And I think there are legitimate questions."
From the start, Bush blamed Clinton for the recession. "Many people are losing their jobs as the result of a slowdown that began when Dick [Cheney] and I were campaigning across our country last summer," Bush said in early September 2001.
Since Sept. 11, some allies of the administration have blamed Clinton for terrorism. "We had Bill Clinton backing off, letting the Taliban go, over and over again," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).
Bush advisers say they draw the line at assigning causation or culpability. "It's not blame," a senior Bush aide said. "We're stating a fact."
Clinton loyalists say it's a bit rich for Bush to blame Clinton for the nation's woes after Bush campaigned against a culture that says, "If you've got a problem, blame somebody else."
"This is an administration that campaigned on ushering in the era of responsibility, and what have they done since? They've done nothing but blame," said Paul Begala, a former Clinton hand. When Begala saw Hughes on TV implicating Clinton in the Enron mess, he called reporters in a rage and e-mailed them a document he wrote, titled "How the Clinton Administration and Democrats Tried to Prevent the Enron Disaster from Happening."
As a Clinton spinmeister, Begala was not above the idea of blaming predecessors himself. He said he showed Clinton speeches by Franklin Roosevelt blaming Herbert Hoover and suggested Clinton do the same to Reagan and Bush's father. "I'm not going to do it," Begala recalls Clinton saying.
Well, maybe a little.
"This chart shows that if we do nothing, the inherited deficit, what we found when I came into office, will go up by 1998 to about $400 billion a year," Clinton said at one of his first press conferences.
What goes around comes around in the blame game. These days, Democrats like to finger Reagan-era tax cuts and military spending for the deficits of the 1990s. Back in 1980, Reagan blamed the Democrats for the same. Carter "made the greatest single contribution of any president to the national debt," Reagan said. He also blamed Carter for illegal drugs, the terrorist attack on U.S. Marines in Lebanon, an "explosive crisis" in housing and the American hostages in Iran.
A battered Carter, responding to then-President Reagan's accusations at the time of the professional football walkout, deadpanned: "I'm not the one responsible for the National Football League strike."
Yet Carter was hardly blameless himself in the blame game, having taken every opportunity during the 1976 campaign to blame Ford for unemployment and inflation. In the 1980s, Carter condemned "the errors of the Reagan government" in the Middle East, essentially blaming Reagan for rising Middle East violence.
At least Reagan did not try to shoot the moon.