Here was Bill Clinton up in New Hampshire, his hair now silver-gray, leaning comfortably against the lectern, microphone in hand, surrounded by rows of rapt students and framed against a giant blue banner for his wife’s campaign. He wore a sports jacket without a tie and could have been an associate professor easing back into the job after semester break.
Here was Bill Clinton, still every bit The Natural, as an adoring media once dubbed him, still every bit the easy-going charmer with the manly swagger who once swayed a nation with that throaty growl, the saxophone-honking hipster who felt our pain. Here was Bill Clinton, a walking reminder of better times, of a surging economy, of a time before Enron, before Cheney, before war.
And then suddenly here was another Bill Clinton, this one also familiar. Now he was shaking his head and stabbing a finger at his audience. His raspy voice went up half an octave in indignation, the same way it did long ago when he angrily insisted there was nothing to the tale about himself and “that woman.” This time he was denouncing the “biggest fairy tale” he’d ever seen. The fairy tale, he told the students as the cameras rolled, had been foisted on the public by a pliant press unwilling to take on Hillary Clinton’s surging challenger, Barack Obama.
The ex-president gave the air a vicious slice with an open hand. “Give me a break!” he cried.
Forget Hillary Clinton’s near-tears episode in the Portsmouth diner. Forget her sudden and belated discovery of her “own voice.” The most illuminating Clintonian moment of the New Hampshire primary was Bill Clinton standing before dazed-looking students at Dartmouth , shaking his head in outrage and wagging that finger, insisting that his wife’s opponent—a man who had openly condemned the war even before it started, and whose candidacy had sparked a wildfire of excitement among young people like those before him—was getting a free ride. The obvious message was that Barack Obama’s entire campaign was a media-fueled fantasy.
“Let’s go over this again,” the exasperated visiting professor told the students. “That is the central argument for his campaign: ‘It doesn’t matter that I started running for president less than a year after I got to the Senate from the Illinois state senate. I am a great speaker and a charismatic figure, and I am the only one who had the judgment to oppose this war from the beginning, always, always, always.’ ”
That seemed to sum up his opinion on his wife’s rival pretty clearly. But a day later, there was Bill Clinton calling in to Al Sharpton’s radio show, insisting that he’d been misunderstood, that he hadn’t meant to question Obama’s presidential bid. “It’s real and strong, and he might win,” an apologetic-sounding Clinton said.
Listening to this furious backpedaling unleashed a flood of Clintonian memories, few of them pleasant—instances when the truth was conveniently shaved, when positions were suddenly reversed without explanation, when the lower, more expedient road was quietly taken. These are the Clinton memories that so many Democrats are trying so hard to repress as they look toward the future, dreaming of a liberated White House.
One such recollection is particularly fresh. The ex-president was stumping through Iowa for his wife in late November when he suddenly announced that he’d been against the Iraq War “from the beginning.” This was nonsense, of course. “I don’t think it will be a big military problem if we do it,” he had said back in 2002 as war loomed. In 2003, he said with apparent pride: “I supported the president when he asked the Congress for authority to stand up against weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
As reporters searched out these old quotes, Clinton’s aides hastened to explain that the ex-president had been forced to keep his true feelings to himself at the time because of his standing as a former commander in chief.
And yet, back then, Clinton’s former vice president, Al Gore, had no such qualms about speaking his mind: Stay focused on Al Qaeda, Gore warned in the fall of 2002 as Bush and Cheney taunted Democrats in Congress, daring them to vote against their war. “Do not jump from one unfinished task to another,” he said. Bush had said nothing about his plans after the invasion, Gore noted. For Gore, a former hawk, it was thoughtful stuff, reasoning that we now know to have been prophetic.
Presumably, even an ex-president’s discretion would not have prevented Bill Clinton from advising Hillary Clinton as she made her own decision. Whatever he told her, she nevertheless voted with the majority to authorize the war. It was the most critical vote she ever cast, Hillary has acknowledged. And yet, as New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. reported in their book,
Her Way, she never got around to reading the classified National Intelligence Estimate. Former Florida Senator Bob Graham read the 90-page document and urged his colleagues to do likewise, saying it raised big questions for him as to whether the administration even knew what it was talking about regarding events inside Iraq. Graham voted against the war.
Nor was it the only time Senator Clinton voted with Bush on Iraq. As the Voice‘s Wayne Barrett pointed out in a 2004 look at Hillary’s term in office, the junior senator from New York voted against three earlier amendments that would have curbed Bush’s rush to war. One of them, a measure introduced by Dick Durbin of Illinois and which drew 30 votes in support, would have compelled the president to demonstrate an “imminent threat” prior to any invasion. Nothing doing, she decided.
And those are just the most recent doubts that linger about Team Clinton. Watching Bill Clinton in New Hampshire was a reminder as well about how he had handled the terrible question about the death penalty that had so unnerved Michael Dukakis, the previous Democratic presidential nominee.
Clinton solved that problem by interrupting his own primary campaign in New Hampshire in 1992 to fly back to Arkansas, where he oversaw the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, the cop-killer whose failed suicide attempt had left him a mental cripple. Despite Rector’s defects, clemency was inappropriate, Clinton insisted, allowing the execution to go forward. Rector had such a firm grip on reality that he decided to leave his pecan pie uneaten as guards led him to his death. He’d have it when he got back, he said.
Hillary Clinton may well turn out to be the best chance that the Democrats have of winning the White House this year. If so, those people weary of the dynastic parade of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton will simply have to adjust their hopes and expectations and learn to live once again with the world as it is, not what it could be. But if that’s to be the upshot of this primary, Team Clinton would be well-served to incorporate as much as it can of the hopeful upsurge that the Obama campaign has come to represent.
In the debate last week in Las Vegas, newsman Tim Russert asked Hillary Clinton a simple, direct question. It was the kind of basic, threshold query that presupposes the unity required once the primaries are finished: Did she, asked Russert, believe that Obama and John Edwards were qualified to be president? Clinton sat tight-lipped with her hands folded before her and refused to say. “I think that that’s up to the voters to decide,” she said. She did not seem likable enough as she said it.