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It's Come To This: A Nickname That's Proven Hard to Slip

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  • By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page F01

    Eighteen years ago, in a tiny town in a small Southern state, a man was given a nickname. The nickname grew into a national image and the image became a parody. The parody left an impression and the impression never went away. It became an identity, a burden, a weakness. The weakness was exploited by the man's opponents, and yesterday the man was impeached.

    The nickname: Slick Willie.

    You don't have to believe in this caricature. You don't have to embrace the talk show wisecracks or chortle as you surf the kazillion Web sites set up to demean William Jefferson Clinton, with their snide Pinocchio -nosed drawings and jokes about his sex life. But to understand how a twice-elected president, handsome and popular and backed by a strong economy, could unravel like kite string, it's helpful to revisit the saga of Slick Willie.

    First, the origin.

    "Slick Willie's birthday is Sept. 27, 1980. He was born on a Saturday edition of the Pine Bluff Commercial."

    That's Paul Greenberg talking. Paul Greenberg invented Slick Willie. His voice is all Discovery Channel. He's erudite with a whimsically brutal pen that he now wields for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and papers that run his syndicated column. But back then he was editorial page editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas and facing a stiff reelection challenge from Republican Frank White, who ultimately beat him.

    Greenberg had read the news coverage of Clinton's speech before the state Democratic convention in which he portrayed himself as one of the progressive Arkansas governors in the post-Orval Faubus era -- a lineage that extended from Winthrop Rockefeller to Dale Bumpers to David Pryor to Bill Clinton. Greenberg, however, saw something else: a trimmer.

    What repulsed him in particular was Clinton's dance regarding the large number of Cuban refugees who were being housed temporarily at an Arkansas army base. The refugees were part of the Mariel boatlift to Florida, and Clinton had initially welcomed them to his state and sympathized with their "desire for freedom." But by September, following a riot by refugees at Fort Chaffee, following White's TV ads associating Clinton with the disturbance, following the expressed fears of Arkansas citizens, Clinton's rhetoric grew tougher.

    Greenberg sat down and wrote his editorial:

    "But what made the young governor's aligning himself with the Rockefeller-Bumpers-Pryor tradition even more piquant was his having blown into Hot Springs just after demagoguin' the Cuban issue in the best, or worst, tradition of Orval E. Faubus -- who might well be his mentor when it comes to appealing to the worst in the electorate. Nor is that the only disturbing similarity between Slick Willie and old Orv."

    And that was Slick Willie's first breath of life.

    Greenberg saw Slick Willie as a waffler, a zigzagger, a master of obfuscation -- the unworthy alter-ego of Clinton, the compassionate idealist. Greenberg concluded that, like Faubus, Clinton had presented a facade of making great progress during his first term when he had retreated on his basic promises. He talked about preserving the environment, for instance, but appeased the chicken industry. Slick Willie became a recurring character for Greenberg. All other Clinton monikers -- "Kid Clinton," "Boy Governor," "Young Smoothie" -- were retired.

    In Slick Willie, Greenberg felt, he had found the perfect coinage. "It doesn't mean liar. It means dissembler," he explains now. "This is a particular subspecies of lying. It's a very lawyerly, sophisticated, elastic lie. In my opinion, the old-fashioned lie would be a step up."

    When Clinton ran for president in 1992, Slick Willie moved from Arkansas to New Hampshire and Iowa and New York. He became a huge star on the main stage -- thanks in part to Clinton's enemies, who were thrilled to flack the sobriquet. And so Slick Willie evolved. He became a particular brand of explanation on subjects ranging from whether Clinton slipped the draft to whether he smoked marijuana to whether he slept with Gennifer Flowers. And he became -- most annoyingly to Clinton's enemies -- the symbol of getting away with it.

    As in: Marge, you're not gonna believe what I'm seeing. There's a fella outside ice-skating on sand. That fella was Slick Willie.

    He followed Bill Clinton everywhere after he made it to the White House, and Clinton's enemies were not far behind. Slick Willie has a paperback in his name and an international following -- you can find mentions in the Jerusalem Post, in the Financial Times of London and in Japan's Daily Yomiuri.

    He was a handy fella, and repeatedly came to Clinton's aid. He explained what happened to proposed tax cuts for the middle class and why big donors were granted overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom. But then he got tripped up at the Paula Jones deposition when asked about Monica Lewinsky.

    He made matters worse with that finger-wagging thing ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky"). He really slipped with his legal-beagle answers to Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde's 81 questions and his 11th-hour plea for censure on the eve of a Mideast trip. And yesterday, the absolute worst thing happened to Slick Willie, the caricature: The House approved two articles of impeachment against the real Bill Clinton.

    "What I failed to see was the inevitability of it," Greenberg says. "His whole political career has been a confirmation that he can get away with it. . . . It was working out golden for him. Then he got to playing with the truth. It's not a thing to be toyed with. It'll come back to slap you."

    The political cost for Clinton is squandered credibility.

    This even his friends understand, even as they trash the merits of the impeachment articles, even as they rail about the unfairness of being denied a vote on censure.

    "I think he has eroded his credibility with everybody and that's unfortunate," Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview before yesterday's day of doom. "All of us personally have been disappointed and angered by his conduct."

    Having said that, Hoyer added his caveat: "If we impeached every president who eroded his credibility during the course of his presidency, we would be impeaching practically every president."

    George Bush's credibility was undermined when he reneged on his "read-my-lips" no-new-taxes pledge. Ronald Reagan's was damaged by Iran-contra. The phrase "credibility gap" originated in the Lyndon Johnson era. Johnson lost such credibility with the public over Vietnam that a common Washington parlor joke went: "How do you know when LBJ is telling the truth? When he rubs his chin and pulls his ear lobe, he's telling the truth. When he moves his lips, he's lying."

    In Clinton's case, he's been accused of lying repeatedly, but the public has not ditched him. His approval ratings -- in the low 60s in some recent polls -- have not tanked under the weight of Slick Willie or the Starr report.

    Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the newly elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has a story:

    On Election Day this year, Clyburn bumped into a 75-year-old black man at a polling location in his district. The man needed some help navigating the voting booth. The man was upset that Bill Clinton was getting such rough treatment in Washington.

    "You know, when I was growing up," the man told Clyburn, "they used to do a lot of bad things to black people. The only people they treated worse were white people who treated us with dignity."

    Bill Clinton had credibility with that man. "I've never forgotten that conversation," Clyburn says. That conversation sums up why he will never believe in the legend of Slick Willie.

    But will others?

    John Rother is legislative director for the AARP. He is savvy in Washington's ways. At the White House's behest, his organization co-sponsored three town-hall meetings on Social Security reform, the issue Clinton says the nation must return to even on the day of his impeachment.

    "He probably has the most credibility of anyone in public life on benefit program issues," Rother says. "It comes from his record of defending those programs under attack and in articulating acceptable reforms."

    But from here on, Clinton must operate in an unusual climate.

    "What I'm most concerned with right now," Rother says, "is I can't recall ever a time when there's been less willingness to find a middle ground. That's not a function of his credibility but a function of all of these other forces -- the increasing polarization of the parties, the role the extreme right plays and the role the extreme left plays and a weakening of the institutional processes in Congress that usually let people find a middle ground."

    Clinton himself said yesterday, after he was slammed with the Republican majority's two impeachment counts, that we need a "presumption of good faith" to make government work.

    But how?

    The reason Slick Willie has become a cultural icon, Democrats say, is because Republicans are so consumed with personal animus for Clinton that their judgments on his presidency are dripping with venom.

    "There are a lot of people in the Republican Party who hate this president," Hoyer says. "Not disagree with him, but who think he is a bad human being."

    There were no Slick Willie citations on the House floor during the impeachment debate. House rules don't allow such mockery of the president. But House rules don't stop a member from thinking such thoughts and sharing them outside the chamber.

    "I won't get into the Slick Willie issue," says Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the new GOP conference chairman. "But Jimmy Carter's poll numbers went through the floor near the end of his presidency during the Iran hostage crisis. . . . But no one ever questioned his integrity on the issue. So that gives you two different models."

    Watts was alluding to the extraordinary way in which some of his GOP colleagues questioned whether the president had launched a bombing attack on Iraq to delay a vote on impeachment.

    "What I find amazing is the number of people who embrace that idea," said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) That Defense Secretary William Cohen had to "take a blood oath," as Hayworth put it, to knock down the speculation, "is amazing in itself."

    Which brings us back to Slick Willie.

    "You get these nicknames for some reason," says Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.).

    Richard Nixon could never live down Tricky Dick. Harry Truman struggled so much after Franklin Roosevelt's death that his critics tagged him with this: "To err is Truman." But that didn't have much staying power. Slick Willie, on the other hand, is headed for the Hall of Fame. That is, if he ever retires.

    "The fact that he is so slick means he can turn on a dime," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. "He's got the most amazing resilience that we've ever seen in American politics.

    "You keep thinking that this time he's gone. Like the cat's going to catch the mouse in 'Tom & Jerry.' Like finally Charlie Brown is going to kick the football."

    Like finally Slick Willie slides into a mess he can't slip out of.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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