Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist who sips wine and gossips with the not-so-slowly vanishing media elite, has unwittingly answered the question that has left Bill Clinton stumped. What will be the legacy of the 42nd President of the United States? Clinton has publicly, and crassly, speculated about the judgment that future historians will bestow upon him; as with much of this gifted politician's obsessive-compulsive behavior, the Arkansan has fretted endlessly about where he'll wind up in the ranking of U.S. commanders-in-chief. My view is that it'll be somewhere between Warren G. Harding and James Polk, but let's get back to the seer Cohen.
In a May 16 piece called "The Unhinging of Peggy Noonan," a scurrilous and vicious attack on the talented journalist and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Cohen solved the President's problem. Bill Clinton's enduring legacy is the human wreckage he's left behind in his solipsistic whirlwind of self-promotion. Despite the thousands of speeches Clinton has delivered in the past eight years about helping the poor people of this country (even though he's often fundraising in Hollywood or among the corporate fatcats he pretends to despise), and despite his patronizing of hardworking Americans who "play by the rules" (never mind that he doesn't apply the same rules to himself or his wife), when all the debris is collected from his failed presidency one truth will endure: Bill Clinton was interested in Bill Clinton. Me, myself and I.
Cohen writes about Noonan: "Among the several gifts of Bill Clinton, consider this one: He has the ability to drive his critics crazy. This is what happened to Peggy Noonan, the best-selling author and political columnist. Years of Clinton have taken their toll. The poor woman may be his last female victim."
It's ludicrous to claim Noonan "may be" Clinton's last female victim: the man's only 53, after all. What irked Cohen was that Noonan had the audacity, in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, to question the motives of Clinton and his puppet Attorney General Janet Reno in the ham-handed seizure of Elian Gonzalez. Noonan, aside from criticizing the Easter weekend military maneuver in Little Havana, wondered whether Clinton had another agenda, or maybe five, informing his decision to send the six-year-old boy back to a life of certain misery in Cuba.
Cohen wonders: "But maybe, just maybe, the president was merely returning the boy to his father. Maybe what the Clinton administration did was so consistent with the law, as well as American popular opinion, that to wonder about blackmail, boatlifts and normalization of relations with Cuba is just plain over the top." You'd think that The Washington Post's editors would have gut instincts about the intelligence and gullibility of their political pundits?it's only the paper's reputation that's at stake. But Cohen, through some sort of deal, has a get-out-of-jail-free card.
How could anyone but the most partisan Clinton apologist think that anything this man does is dictated by compassion, common sense, humility or honesty? Jimmy Carter was overwhelmed by the presidency, but one senses that he was and is a decent man. Clinton, who has pollsters determine whether or not he should have extra pickles on his Big Mac, is the most transparently devious president the country has ever suffered. This is the man who "saved the Constitution" by lying under oath to a grand jury; who humiliated his inexplicably loyal staff and own wife and daughter by covering up a tawdry affair with a young intern; who illegally accepted campaign contributions in '96 from a hostile country?the quid pro quo of which is still not fully known?just to have the money to air another ad against the weakest GOP candidate in decades.
Last Monday, a committee of the Arkansas Supreme Court recommended that Clinton be disbarred for his "serious misconduct" in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, specifically for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton is whining about this decision, afraid that it will further tarnish his legacy. "It's not right," he told NBC News. Never mind that the President settled his suit with Jones for $850,000; or that on April 12, 1999, he was found in contempt of court and fined $90,000 by Judge Susan Webber Wright. The judge said last year that Clinton had "undermined the integrity of the judicial system."
New York's Sen. Charles Schumer, who as a House member in 1998 said that Clinton had committed perjury, has now rushed to his President's defense in this election year, thundering against the "kangaroo court" in Arkansas. On Tuesday, Schumer said, "The sentiment I would have is: 'Enough is enough.' They've already gotten their pound of flesh." He didn't specify who "they" are, but one assumes he's referring to the vast right-wing conspiracy. I wonder in what fashion Schumer was bought off.
But Cohen is correct: Bill Clinton has the ability to drive people crazy and, on occasion, ruin their lives. The list of victims doesn't stop with his critics; in fact, the saddest cases are far more likely to be people who were once Friends of Bill (FOBs). Just the thought of that now-dated acronym is enough to make you recall almost fondly the WIN buttons from the days of the hapless Gerald Ford administration.
Who's in the scrap heap of Clinton's casualties could be argued about for days, but let me point out just some of the most obvious cases:
? Lani Guinier was an old chum of the Clintons back at Yale Law School, and together the three of them thought about ebony and ivory and social justice and saving the world. In 1993 Guinier was tapped to head the Justice Dept.'s civil rights division. When some of her law review articles about the Voting Rights Act proved controversial, however, the new President tossed her aside like an old "Power to the People" badge. Guinier told The Washington Post in December of '93: "I think maybe I'm sadder than I'm letting on. Not sad that I didn't get this job, but sad that I was not treated in a way we want to believe we treat even common criminals."
And I doubt that Kimba Wood or Zoe Baird remembers the Clintons fondly. To say nothing of Billy Dale, whose firing from the White House travel office, in favor of a distant Clinton relative, touched off one of the first administration scandals. That Dale was prosecuted on trumped-up charges (and subsequently acquitted) certainly wouldn't have bothered the President, except for the political fallout.
? The gay community was almost immediately double-crossed by Clinton, who'd admirably enlisted gays' help in his winning '92 campaign. However, after one sharp rebuke from (Democratic) Sen. Sam Nunn, his liberalized gays-in-the-military plan was scuttled.
? Webb Hubbell, one of the unfortunate rubes from Mrs. Clinton's Rose Law Firm who came to Washington for the brave new administration, ended up in the slammer, ostensibly for self-inflicted offenses. Yet a taped conversation in which he said he'd have to "roll over again" for the Clintons suggests it wasn't just padding his own legal fees that brought him down.
? Perhaps we'll never know why Vince Foster, another Rose Law Firm alum, took his own life not seven months after arriving at the Clinton White House, but the stench of that tragedy leads right to the Oval Office.
? Let's not forget all the Clinton aides, both of the President and First Lady, who were steadfast in their loyalty to the couple and as a reward wound up with huge legal bills, with no suck-up savior like David Geffen to pay them off. Now, it's a two-way street. None of these people had to remain on the team. But I don't think either Clinton loses much sleep wondering about the whereabouts of Josh Steiner, Maggie Williams, Ira Magaziner, Bernard Nussbaum, William Kennedy or even Lanny Davis, who made such a fool out of himself, appearing night after night on television defending Clinton during the Lewinsky proceedings. Davis is now a lobbyist/lawyer at Patton Boggs, the DC firm that's engaged in the unseemly schmoozing for dollars on Capitol Hill that Democrats are supposed to abhor.
? On a more global scale, what about the civilians in Iraq who were killed when, all of a sudden, Clinton decided he had to take action against the dictator Saddam Hussein? Don't get me wrong: there's nothing fair about war, and Hussein's a madman, but that the beleaguered President chose to bomb on the eve of the House's vote on impeachment demonstrated once again that foreign policy played fifth fiddle to Bill Clinton's desire to alter the news cycle.
Tony Blankley, formerly Newt Gingrich's press secretary, and Nat Hentoff, the Village Voice columnist who writes eloquently about civil rights, wouldn't seem to have much in common. But both were appalled at the obsequious behavior of the elite media at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner on April 29. Bill Clinton, with jokes written by Mark Katz, made light of the various scandals that've sullied the very office of the presidency.
Blankley wrote in the May 3 Washington Times: "The Washington Post, reflecting perfectly the mood in the audience that night, totally missed the point, reporting: 'Clinton stole the show with his mix of self-deprecation and cautiously placed barbs.' Good grief. Mr. Clinton was not deprecating himself, he was rubbing the nation's nose in his dirty business. At previous press dinners, Mr. Clinton has made fun of his obstructing justice, perjury and the Lincoln Bedroom campaign finance abuses... The fact that the jokes might be funny and well-delivered doesn't mean the audience ought to laugh with Mr. Clinton. Decent people no longer laugh at racist jokes because there is nothing funny about racism. And there is nothing funny about Bill Clinton's shameful conduct as president."
Hentoff, also writing in The Washington Times, agreed with Blankley's assessment. In a May 22 piece headlined "Presidential con game," Hentoff wrote: "[Blankley] was not alone. During several standing ovations for the president, I remained seated. And although many laughed at his jokes until there were tears in their eyes, I was disgusted, not amused... At last I know who the inveterate Washington insiders are. They're the press corps."
Finally, as I've written countless times before in this space, Bill Clinton's last victim (the last person he'll victimize during his presidency, at least) will be Al Gore. Clinton has done nothing but interfere with Gore's campaign, offering suggestions to the press, hogging the spotlight at fundraisers and refusing to let Gore escape his boss' shadow. In 1988, President Reagan had the grace to wander off into lame-duckville, allowing Vice President Bush to create his own persona. Gore isn't as fortunate.
Here's a prime example. On May 24, the day Clinton won the House's approval for China's permanent trading status with the U.S.?a measure supported by both Gore and George W. Bush?the next stop after the Rose Garden press conference was the biggest fundraiser in political history. Orchestrated by Terry McAuliffe, the sleazy money-grubber who brags about his ability to scam people for contributions, the fest bagged $26 million in both hard and soft money for the Democratic National Committee. Gore had the gall, after calling McAuliffe the "greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe," to tell the crowd that he'd make campaign finance reform the top priority in his administration were he entrusted with the presidency. Right. And Tom DeLay will be his secretary of state.
On May 23, Jeff Birnbaum, Washington bureau chief of Fortune and a Fox News contributor, interviewed McAuliffe at the MCI Center in DC, site of the following night's bash. McAuliffe, who one hopes will be penning memoirs in Allenwood one day for his shady business practices, preened for Birnbaum, telling him what a down-home event he was manipulating. He said: "The dress code'll be bluejeans and boots. As you know, the Republicans had a beautiful?about a month ago?black-tie event with creamy goat cheese and stuff I don't even know how to pronounce... We're with the people. We're having barbecue, and we're bringing barbecue up from Tennessee and Arkansas. We'll be in boots and jeans, with that great music. So the crowd'll be rocking."
I don't know. Laying out half a mil to "rock" to the musical tastes of McAuliffe, Gore and Clinton isn't my idea of money well spent. But the following day, there was the picture in The New York Times of the Gores and Clintons, indeed dressed in jeans, trying desperately to evoke memories of 1992, when the quartet went on a bus trip across the country and bonded.
Eight years later, Tipper Gore's a chronic depressive, Al Gore is losing in the polls?and letting Bush shape the campaign?and the Clintons, one imagines, can barely stand to be in the same room with each other.
Richard Cohen says that Peggy Noonan is "unhinged"? Seems to me he's the one who needs to spend about a year with a shrink.