The Atlantic Monthly shocks readers with its cover this month: A sculpted Bill Clinton with the headline “Post-President for Life.” Two lengthy articles follow: a far too deferential account of what he’s been up to and what he might try to accomplish by James Fallows, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of the vulgar appeal and carnival-like progress of the man George Will aptly branded the “worst man ever to be president,” by P.J. O’Rourke.
Clinton is of course again running for the White House, and Fallows’ refusal to analyze his every move in light of Hillary’s expected run in 2008 makes his account of Clinton’s past two years suspect.
I am beginning to believe that we just ought to repeal the 22nd Amendment and let Bill and W square off. Since that’s not likely, we at least have to admit that we are smack in the middle of the American version of the War of the Roses, which raged between the houses of Lancaster and York for more than 30 years in the 15th century. Our replay of a dynastic political death match got under way in 1992, and it has continued with only brief interruptions since.
(If the country was ever to undo the two term limit, proposed by Congressional Republicans in 1947 as a backlash against FDR’s dominance and ratified on Feb. 27, 1951, it would have to be now, when each major party has a figure of enormous appeal within its own ranks. There are powerful reasons to rethink that limit, as Ronald Reagan argued many years back. I think the GOP would take its chances on a W-Bill race, and so surely would Dems.)
The Bush-Clinton battles are usually carried on by proxies, but Clinton is increasingly taking to the field in his own right, as with a Larry King interview a week ago, and then with his astonishingly inappropriate recommendations on Iraq strategy last Thursday.
“We should let Blix lead us to come together,” he told an audience in Atlanta the night before the crucial Security Council meeting last week, adding that Blix is “a tough, honest guy who is trying to find the truth.” Clinton also agreed with the French that Saddam “needs to disarm or get out of town,” but warned that “he won’t do it unless the world is united.”
When Mr. de Villepin next presumes to lecture the United States on how to conduct its foreign policy, expect the French Foreign Minister to be quoting Clinton. The disgraced, impeached, pardoner-in-chief just keeps talking and talking, and desperate Democrats applaud him while the national news media eggs him on.
No former president has ever attempted to undercut his successor this way, siding with critics of the president just prior to a showdown on the international stage. But this is Clinton. He knows what he is doing.
Fallows apparently did not laugh when Clinton protested to him that he was careful not to dominate the Democratic stage because he didn’t want to “take up the oxygen.” Just like his famous Esquire cover didn’t want to take Al Gore’s oxygen. Just like his endless farewell speech on Bush’s inaugural day wasn’t intended to take up the new president’s oxygen. Clinton is nothing but other people’s oxygen. And when he assures Fallows that “Look, I can’t run,” you know he’s thinking about nothing else.
This bottomless ambition almost compels a Jeb-Hillary race in 2008, but there is still the intermediate question for the Democratic Party: Does Hillary get the second spot on the 2004 ticket? Not one of the Democratic would-be nominees doesn’t think about this at least weekly and probably daily. It is probably ordained. The persuasive portion of Fallows’ reporting is the still ongoing swoon that party activists are in over Bill/Hill. To pass over Hillary would doom a nominee from the start. She’d have to be offered and decline for the eventual nominee to avoid enraging the hard-core, and when has either Clinton ever declined anything that brought the spotlight to their feet?
So it will probably happen. The upside is obvious: Bill is back on the stump doing what he does best, talking past every inconvenient fact and driving the crowds wild. Hillary would be good for the money effort, and the Dems are expecting to get slaughtered in hard dollars for down-ticket races in 2004.
Alone among the Democrats she could stand a chance at not losing the gravitas battle to Cheney because she is so convinced of her own talent. Just last week she casually lectured Secretary Rumsfeld on a few of the finer points of running his Department.
Maddening as this is to her opponents, this Olympian-level arrogance is an asset in a presidential contest.
The downside for the Democratic nominee will be that he will almost certainly be diminished by the attention paid and the control exerted by the Clintons. Can anyone imagine Bill taking direction from John Edwards or John Kerry? Lieberman would be smart enough not to try, but the attempt to treat these two as every previous vice-presidential nominee would be doomed from the start. The Democratic nominee would go to bed every night wondering if his running mate really wanted to win, or just wanted to emerge in December 2004 as the candidate for November 2008.
We are six years away from any hope of exiling the Clinton shadow. If his conduct on the way out of office could not put a seal on his political grave, then nothing short of a loss at the hands of the voters ever will. O’Rourke compared him to the “nameless creature of Mary Shelley’s,” but that’s unfair to the creature who was incapable of lying.
For too many years, commentators like me have tried hard to find redeeming sides to Clinton, much to the dismay of his arch-enemies. Blind-siding President Bush on the eve of war, however, ought to have settled the issue of Clinton’s character for anyone not convinced after his pardon of Marc Rich. Like his pardons, this latest outrage was not “just about sex.” Former Presidents are supposed to know better on issues of war, to know that there is a lot going on that they don’t know, and if they are concerned, they communicate their misgivings and advice privately.
Clinton’s a menace to the national security because he knows all this and discards it because it is inconvenient to his ambition. He is incapable of putting the country ahead of himself, again.
When 2008 comes around we can only hope that finally the country gets a clear choice between a Clinton ticket and a Bush ticket without a third party pulling guard for Bill. A devastating loss wouldn’t shut him up for long, but our ears could use any rest they get, and the national security would be served by the cork-in-the-mouth effect of Hill-Bill loss.