Water Man Spouts

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Clinton Melodrama

(NOTE: This is an essay I posted on the Democratic Underground political discussion forum.)

{1} "Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed."
--Mao Zedong; 1938

Yesterday I posted an essay about Senator Barack Obama’s difficult campaign choices ("Hamlet’s Soliloquy"). I thought that it might be of interest to those DUers who, even if they endorse one candidate or another, appreciated the complexities of the primary season. Today I am hoping to spark some interest in a discussion of the Hillary Clinton campaign.

As the South Carolina vote approaches, Senator Clinton has opted to spend time outside of the state. She has been represented there by her capable daughter, Chelsea, and by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Much of the media attention – and debating on DU – has focused on the role of President Clinton. Indeed, my piece on Senator Obama had to do with his options for responding to Bill Clinton’s attacks.

Hillary and Bill Clinton represent, as much as any democratic politicians, the concept that politics is war. Frequently, like their republican counterparts, they are viewed as ruthless in their campaign tactics. One may question if this reputation is fair, but not that it is part of the public perception of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

{2} "There is an evident disjunction between the media people, who are obsessed with the scandals and many of whom manifest deep dislike for Clinton, and the ordinary people, who may gulp in the endless flow of stories but still like Clinton, want him to stay on as President and wish the scandals would go away. His approval rating for presidential performance remains high, even as his character and morals seem to be heading towards a free fall. Blacks are especially united and vehement in his support."
--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; Journals; September 19, 1998

In their attempts to sell their product, and to influence the public’s perception, the news media often presents issues in rather shallow, stark, and black-versus-white terms. This method generally works best for communicating with republicans. However, there are also many non-republican citizens who limit their thinking to binary options.

Bill Clinton is a prime example of a person who is often portrayed in the media in good-versus-bad terms. The former president makes a fascinating study at the severe limitations of these attempts to define him, and the way democrats tend to view him. Let’s take a look at why.

Clinton is a complex figure. His public life can be broken into at least five phases: the young man who was a student not only in college, but who studied the system closely; the young politician who showed the ability to move from the state level to the national field; the candidate for president; the president; and, of course, the former president.

Like all human beings, Bill Clinton is a mixture of good and bad qualities. Being a high-functioning person, Clinton’s range for both good and bad has stood out from the average person’s. Unlike the average person, however, a significant portion of Bill Clinton’s adult life has been viewed through the lens of the corporate media. Again, this results in a percentage of the public – including both democrats and republicans – seeing Clinton in rather concrete terms: he becomes their projection of a super hero or a fraudulent villain.

Discussions with those who think in concrete terms are often difficult, because they lack the capacity to see that Bill Clinton is both good and bad. That includes Bill the man, Bill the politician, and Bill on the campaign trail today.

On the internet today, some of the Clinton campaign supporters have pointed to a poll that indicates Bill Clinton enjoys a 70% approval rating among democrats in South Carolina as evidence that his anti-Obama rhetoric has not offended black voters. This is concrete thinking: it leaves no room for the many voters who like Bill Clinton, but do not think his recent behavior is dignified.

{3} "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs."
--Enoch Powell; 1977

I never cared for the conservative British academic and politician Powell, and quote him here because of the timing. When US citizens think of 1977, it was at a time when the republican party had been damaged by the crimes and humiliation of Richard Nixon. And, as historian Robert Dallek pointed out, Nixon was a true "comeback kid" long before Bill Clinton was.

Liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., considered Nixon the worst president ever. Schlesinger had started his classic work on impeachment, "The Imperial Presidency," before events unfolded to force Nixon’s resignation. Arthur felt that Nixon’s good qualities were overshadowed by his criminal nature. Yet he understood that no one was either all good or all bad.

In his next book, "Robert Kennedy and his times," he included Jules Feiffer’s classic 1967 cartoon about the "Bobby twins." The six panels compared the "good Bobby," who was a courageous reformer, civil libertarian, and civil rights advocate, with the "bad Bobby," who made deals, appointed racist judges, and approved wire taps. It ended by saying, "If you want one Bobby to be your president, you will have to take both … because Bobbies are widely noted for their family unity." (page 868)

In terms of Clinton’s problems, Schlesinger wrote in his private journal: "If Clinton is forced to resign, it will be because of self-inflicted wounds." Still, Schlesinger was among the academics who testified before congress on the inappropriateness of efforts to impeach Clinton. Arthur was subjected to vicious attacks by the self-righteous South Carolina Representative Bob Inglis at the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution ("That is typical of these sophisticated people. It is Schlesinger’s view that you can lie as you choose because it doesn’t matter. Lie, lie, lie – that is what Schlesinger advocates! …. But we simple, unsophisticated people down in South Carolina believe in telling the truth.").

Other examples of simplistic, dishonest reporting of Arthur’s position came from journalists including Christopher Hitchens and Michael Steinberger. As too often is the case, the media made it a black-versus-white issue, as if because he opposed impeachment, that Schlesinger was okaying Clinton’s personal baggage.

It is interesting to note that Clinton, who has falsely accused Barack Obama of approving of the policies of Ronald Reagan, was the first President to actively seek the advice of Richard Nixon on the issues involving Russia. It was Clinton who was both intelligent enough and decent enough to recognize that, although he did not approve of Watergate, that Nixon had some valuable insight on foreign affairs.

It is ironic that Clinton’s attempt to heal some of the growing divides between the political parties by showing Nixon a degree of respect, would not register with the concrete-thinking rabid republicans. The impeachment of Bill Clinton was largely done as an attempt to get revenge for Nixon’s being disgraced.

{4} "It is an easy thing for one whose foot
Is outside of calamity
To give advice and to rebuke the sufferer."
--Aeschylus; Prometheus Bound

Richard Nixon told people that once a man has been in the seat of power known as the Oval Office, he will spend much of his later life wishing he were the president again. One suspects that this is something that Bill Clinton could relate to. Surely, if the law had allowed it, President Clinton would have been easily re-elected in 2000.

However, it is Hillary Clinton who is running for the democratic nomination in 2008. It is up to Senator Clinton to make the decisions about to what extent Bill Clinton will go on the attack against Barack Obama after tomorrow’s South Carolina primary.

The issues involve things that go far deeper than the reactions of Obama supporters to some of the provocative things President Clinton has been saying. Some of them are part of the usual give-and-take of the sport of politics. And some of the things he has said have been offensive to people – including but not limited to black democrats – who like Bill, but are unhappy with his behavior.

It may be that he believes this is war without bloodshed, and that after the democratic convention, all will be forgotten or forgiven. But there are a growing number of neutral democrats who are requesting Bill Clinton to stop what he is doing, because there can be long-term consequences.

If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, and then the general election, having Bill Clinton as a resource will be a huge advantage. His grasp of international politics, and his already well-established relationship with foreign leaders, is significant. But that does not mean that Hillary Clinton does not need to give close examination to the negative potential that Good Bill’s twin, Bad Bill, brings. Because, as we know, the Clintons are widely known for their family loyalty.


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