But both Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton, on their not-so-excellent (and competing)
adventures, will do much to shape the legacy of the man they are each trying to escape, for how they fare in their respective campaigns will partly determine how Clinton is viewed in the years to come. If his partner-in-politics and his number-one-defender are rejected by the voters, that will constitute a judgment of Bill Clinton. You can toss into the mix the fact that when Clinton arrived in Washington, his party had firm control of Congress. When he departs, that will likely not be the case. At best, the Democrats may wrest back the House, albeit with a slim majority. (The recent Democratic giddiness concerning their prospects in the House is premature.) As for the Senate, no one in Washington believes the Democrats can overthrow the Republicans there.
Regarding the legacy matter, one question is, who will be left standing with the President at the end of the Clinton era? If you believe the current polls, it will not be his number two, and it will not be his wife. Granted, these surveys don't mean much at this time, but both Clinton spin-offs have shown more problems than promise in their initial efforts. Gore, of course, had little choice but to run for president. He was bred to be a presidential candidate. When he worked at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1970s, his colleagues created a timeline for Al that had him going for the White House in 2008. Luck?if you can call it that?made him the party front-runner at the end of the Clinton years. (In a recent poll conducted for Hotline, the political tip sheet, 39 percent of the respondents identified Gore's "association with Clinton" as his biggest problem; his personality ranked second, with 26 percent.) Hillary, though, had options.
By announcing she will announce, she has defied the naysayers who were predicting she would chicken out, such as Clinton friend-turned-foe Dick Morris. (My theory: she went for it just to prove Morris wrong. Another theory: Morris was trying to push her buttons so she would enter the race and then be humiliated. The Hillary show is politics as soap opera.) But Hillary, with her recent declaration, has not achieved independence from her husband. In fact, she has just volunteered to be something of a stand-in for him, the vehicle for that final political judgment of Bill Clinton. The wiser course would have been to distance herself before running for anything. Vacate the White House in 2001. Do television. Be a university president. Work with the UN. (Jimmy Carter could have provided some useful suggestions.) Maybe even reside in the state where she wants to seek public office. Then return to the electoral arena. But that would have required patience.
Instead, Hillary elected to capitalize on the victimization that lifted?temporarily, it appears?her popularity. Had it not been for Monica, Hillary probably would not now be memorizing the names of Adirondack towns and the lineup of the Knicks. But being cheated on will only get you so far in New York politics. That boost is long gone. Rather than running as a Clinton victim, she will be running as a Clinton. That means she will be carrying much carpetbaggage. With each day, Clinton's Monica foolishness and the GOP's impeachment foolishness?both of which might have prompted some New Yorkers to regard Hillary favorably?recede. More and more, this Arkansan-Illinoisan who has never campaigned as a candidate has to run in New York on her own record and life story, which are intricately bound to the man she married. A house in Chappaqua does not a separation make.
The day before Hillary said she definitely would flee the White House for meet-and-greets in Syracuse, Morris predicted to Paula Zahn that Bill Clinton would be supportive of his wife's pre-campaign campaign for a month or two and then, before it was too late, convince her to bail, so she does not end their White House days as a spurned senatorial candidate. With her announcement, Hillary indicated she was not playing by Morris' imagined script. She took the plunge. Now she can't get out without looking all wet. But given how this could well end, she and Bill might want to listen to Morris one more time.
Knicks Are for Kids? When I was 11 years old, I wanted to be Bill Bradley. After all, I was a nerdy hoop-loving white kid who couldn't jump, living in a suburb outside of New York City, where my teachers and parents were already drumming into me the above-all importance of an Ivy League education. Bradley was a Princeton-educated member of an NBA championship team whose basketball success was due more to his diligence and how-to-move-without-the-ball smarts (hey, I had some of that) than innate physical ability (which I lacked). I was realistic to know I had no chance of growing up and becoming Wilt Chamberlain. But Bill Bradley...well, that seemed a fantasy within reach.
It would be swell to be cheering Bradley on three decades later?especially as he campaigns to the left by calling for expanding health insurance coverage, campaign finance reform and gun registration. My inner child would be pleased. But Bradley has made it hard to believe in him as I once did. It's not only the memory of my first encounter with him. (During college, on my first visit to Washington, I toured Capitol Hill with a friend and stopped by Bradley's Senate office. As we gawked at the Knicks-era photos on the wall of the reception area, he emerged from his office and happily greeted us. But once he learned we were from New York, not potential voters from New Jersey, his demeanor changed and he walked away abruptly without saying goodbye.)
It's not only that he voted for Contra aid and Reagan's budget cuts in the 1980s. It's not only that when he was a senator he chose not to raise the bold and progressive issues he now hawks as a presidential candidate who must court left-leaning Democratic primary voters. It's not only that he petulantly refused to name any of his favorite books when I asked him to do so while covering him in New Hampshire earlier this year. There's something else. Bradley is a pain. He can be funny, self-deprecating, inspiring, insightful. He comes across as damn earnest. But he appears to hate to be challenged. He wants to play by his rules. (In the Senate, he rarely worked in coalition with progressive Democrats or citizens' groups. His attitude, one senator told me, was, since I know best, I can go my own way. Question him about an action and he strikes a quiet but sharp how-dare-you stance. I'm not sure I want to be on a team with a fellow who believes he's smarter and better than the rest of us and beyond all reproach.
Here's a case in point. Recently, the Center for Responsive Politics released a report noting that Bradley is a leader among the presidential contenders in accepting "bundled" campaign contributions. These are donations that usually come from corporate executives. On the campaign trail, Bradley often slaps himself on the back for not accepting contributions from political action committees, many of which are affiliated with corporations. He makes a big deal of this to prove he walks his talk of campaign finance reform. PACs can give $5000 to a candidate, and that limit was designed to curtail the influence of any particular PAC on a candidate. But with bundling, Bradley and other candidates easily evade this limit. They do so by collecting individual contributions from the top dogs of a corporation. Often, they find a CEO or another influential executive who will hit up his or her fellow execs for donations. It's hard to say no to the boss. The result is a "bundle" of individual checks that allows a candidate to gather far more from a corporation than $5000. The largest bundle of the year so far?$209,500 from executives of Goldman Sachs, the investment firm?went to Bradley the Reformer. (Bradley, who has staked out the left in this campaign, has done exceptionally well shaking the money-trees of Wall Street. Go figure.) Texas Governor George W. Bush placed second in bundling, with $185,100 from the Houston law firm of Vinson & Elkins.
Bradley has banked bundles from other companies, and during his Senate years he was a master of bundling. He certainly is for campaign finance reform and he has justifiably tried to remind voters of the campaign finance sleaze in which Gore participated in 1996. Still, Bradley is not shy about exploiting a loophole. What stinks is that he's not straight about that. When a reporter asked him last week to explain why bundled contributions should be considered different from the PAC contributions he eschews, Bradley replied, "I certainly do see them as different... It's a zero problem... It's often a charge that's made that's without substance because no one can say to me what [bundling] means."
That's not an honest answer. Why decry $5000 PAC contributions, when you are snatching hundreds of thousands of dollars from people associated with the PAC's parent? And anyone who knows anything about campaign finance can explain a bundle. Prominent campaign finance reform advocates do consider bundling a problem. But not Bradley. He could say, "I have to play by the rules that now exist in a sorry campaign finance system and would like to see those rules changed." However, such an explanation would conflict with his above-it-all sales pitch. He is unwilling to concede he engages in a problematic activity. Now that certainly doesn't render him unique among politicians, and it might be unfair to turn on him for such an infraction. But Bradley claims to be running to set a higher standard. Thus, it's reasonable to hold him to higher standards. Consequently, his doubledribbles are more disappointing than those of his competitors?and especially disappointing to one who used to root for him.