Water Man Spouts

Thursday, March 27, 2008

All in the Family

One of the curious aspects of the 2008 primary is how different groups of democrats view Bill and Hillary Clinton, and how those different groups view each other. I think it is interesting to compare what is happening today with some history from the 1990s. Let’s take a few minutes to review some information from the journals of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Schlesinger was a liberal democratic historian, who is most closely associated with John and Robert Kennedy. He had worked with Adlai Stevenson before the Kennedys, and continued to be active in liberal circles until his recent death. He was a strong opponent of Richard Nixon, and authored "The Imperial Presidency," which remains one of the best books on impeachment.

In the late 1980s, Schlesinger believed that the liberal wing of the democratic party had two potentially strong national leaders. Both were experienced governors: Mario Cuomo and Bill Clinton. He believed that either of the two would be able to provide the leadership the party needed in 1988

Schlesinger was pleased when Clinton did enter the ’92 race. He assisted the Clinton campaign in the general election. One of the things that stands out in his journals is that when the media began to attack candidate Clinton, that Arthur was uncomfortable with Bill’s response.

On February 20, 1993, Arthur and some democratic members of Congress were discussing concerns with the way the media was defining President Clinton. Schlesinger felt that some members of the press had been pro-Clinton early in the election, and were trying to compensate in the early days of the administration by attacking him. He disagreed with his friends’ belief that President Clinton should react by attacking the media. He said that "every time a politician wants to win applause from a crowd, all he has to do is attack the press." (page 743) Instead, Schlesinger advocated that Clinton use the tactics that JFK used when dealing with reporters.

On August 3, 1994, Schlesinger and friends were concerned that the media was being used in a manner that took the Clinton administration off course. A friend attempted to talk to President Clinton about changing his approach to the media. But she told Schlesinger that "it’s very difficult to know how much of it really penetrates. He feels so terribly hurt and frustrated and beleaguered and sees himself as the object of persecution by the press." When he asked if Hillary was any help, his friend said, "No. She is worse."

Schlesinger wrote, "Presidents are congenitally angry at the press and never feel they are getting the credit due them. But Clinton seems to lack both the temperamental detachment and historical perspective. JFK, though he would blow up (briefly) at the press, was saved by an ironic slant on life and an objectivity about himself." (page 770)

On October 28, 1994, President Clinton called Schlesinger, to ask his help on an upcoming speech to the United Nations. Schlesinger said he would be glad to help. "Then he digressed into his general situation and went into a rambling attack on the media." Clinton told Schlesinger that he had been treated worse than any other President in US history. Being a presidential historian with a keen interest in the role of the media, Arthur Schlesing was able to correct Clinton on this; he mentioned, for example, FDR.

"But the air of incipient paranoia in Clinton’s wail of exasperation is a little disquieting," he wrote. Schlesinger continued to take note of what he called President Clinton’s "Nixon-style paranoia about the ‘media’." (pages 774 and 789)

In November, 1995, when the press confronted him about an inconsistency in a speech about economics, President Clinton replied, "My mother told me I should never make a speech when I am tired." A few days later, at a ceremony at the Truman Library, Schlesinger made an attempt at humor when he quietly said to President Clinton, "Don’t forget what your mother told you."

He wrote that this "seemed to irritate him greatly, and he went into an annoyed and defensive account of how he had been misrepresented, etc. I tried to move on (we were in a receiving line), but he held me by the arm and continued an angry and largely incomprehensible explanation." (page 793)

A few days after that, President Clinton called neoconservative journalist Ben Wattenberg, and had an hour-long conversation in which he explained that he had been "too liberal" in his first two years, and had decided to "reform and take the Democratic Leadership Council line." (page 793)

Schlesinger would continue to support Clinton, and was among the experts who testified before Congress that the efforts to impeach the President were unjustified. However, he noted that there were times when it was unclear "what Clinton stands for, if anything." He concluded that Bill Clinton lacked one of JFK’s strengths: "Kennedy made mistakes but generally learned from them. Clinton generally repeats his mistakes."

For many liberal and progressive democrats, Schlesinger’s descriptions of Bill Clinton seem to apply to Hillary Clinton. It’s not that we started off with an anti-Hillary agenda, and we certainly recognize that she would be 1000 times better than John McCain as president. But we see areas where we think she is more like her husband, and where Barack Obama is more like John Kennedy.

In response to the concerns about Rev. Wright, Obama delivered one of the most positive and powerful speeches in our lifetimes. In response to the misrepresentations of her Bosnia trip, Senator Clinton responded much like Schlesinger describes her husband. These examples illustrate the differences that we see between the candidates, and why the liberal and progressive democratic communities are supporting Senator Barack Obama.


Post a Comment

<< Home