Monday, September 25, 2006

Bill Clinton attacks the messenger

Bill Clinton’s meltdown yesterday on Fox News was fascinating. Clearly, the former president is extremely concerned that the ongoing debate over his anti-terrorist policies could seriously taint his legacy; and that any suggestions that he was soft on Osama bin Laden during the ‘90s might help George W. Bush and the GOP win the ’06 congressional elections.

If you haven’t heard about Clinton’s Sunday outburst – in his first appearance on Fox, he assailed host Chris Wallace for asking him some tough questions about his pre-9/11 terrorist policies – then you can read the transcript. Clinton is generally painted these days as a serene and happy warrior, but yesterday, after Wallace asked “why didn't you do more, connect the dots and put them out of business,” Clinton wigged out to the point where he even accused Wallace of smirking at him.

I don’t intend here to revisit whether Clinton deserves major or minor blame for failing to kill bin Laden during a decade when few Americans (and congressional Republicans) were focused on that goal; actually, I dealt with that issue here two weeks ago. Instead, just a few observations:

On the merits, Clinton was right when he complained that Wallace hasn’t asked Bush administration leaders equally tough questions about their own conduct. Clinton pointed out that al Qaeda’s ties to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole weren’t confirmed until the early days of the Bush era, yet Wallace has never asked Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, or Condolleezza Rice why no retaliatory actions were taken during their nine months in office prior to 9/11. Clinton went after Wallace on this: “You never asked that, did you?” And Wallace just dodged the question: “With Iraq and Afghanistan, there's plenty of stuff to ask.”

But Wallace did point out, accurately, that Clinton’s performance is critically assessed in both the bipartisan 9/11 Commission report and the new, widely praised book The Looming Tower. (According to the New York Times book review, author Lawrence Wright "argues that the Clinton administration’s reaction to the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa — launching cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in a failed effort to kill Mr. bin Laden — helped turn the terrorist into a global celebrity and enabled him to mythologize himself further.") Yesterday, Clinton acknowledged to Wallace that his performance could have been better, simply because the record shows that he failed to kill bin Laden – but then he went back to attacking Wallace and Fox News.

I would bet that a lot of Democratic base voters, long frustrated by the timidity of party leaders, were thrilled yesterday that Clinton played smashmouth with the enemy. Here’s a sampling of what Clinton said, at various intervals:

"So you did Fox's bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me…You set this meeting up because you were going to get a lot of criticism from your viewers because Rupert Murdoch's supporting my work on climate change. And you came here under false pretenses and said that you'd spend half the time talking about -- you said you'd spend half the time talking about what we did out there to raise $7-billion-plus in three days from 215 different commitments. And you don't care…it set me off on a tear because you didn't formulate it in an honest way and because you people ask me questions you don't ask the other side…And you've got that little smirk on your face and you think you're so clever.”

For partisan Democrats, this is satisfying stuff, the equivalent of an end-zone dance by their favorite football star. Here’s the political problem, though: Whenever President Bush and his top surrogates react with hostility to questions, and seek to disparage the press questioners by impugning their motives, and seek to convey the impression that ideological enemies are plotting hit jobs against the administration, Democrats generally cite that behavior as further proof of the GOP’s mendacity. Yet here was Clinton doing much the same thing, trying to paint himself as a victim, and using that as a shield.

In other words, I don’t see how Bill Clinton’s outburst could possibly help his wife’s prospects as a presidential candidate. By losing his cool and lashing out, he basically sent the message that he remains a strongly polarizing political figure. Which is precisely why many Democrats remain worried about handing the ’08 nomination to Hillary Clinton. They are asking themselves whether independent swing voters, wearied by our polarized politics, are really enthused about a presidency that would inevitably spark an ideological refighting of the 1990s.


By the way, Clinton also appeared yesterday on Meet the Press, where he performed with greater equanimity. But I can't resist sharing this eye-rolling moment:

At one point, when the topic of Hillary's prospective candidacy came up, he said that "we shouldn't be talking about it or thinking about it now...I don't know if she's going to run, I--and I don't want to talk to her about it, and I don't want her thinking about it."

Does he actually expect people to believe that the Democrats' best strategist isn't talking presidential politics with the apparent Democratic presidential frontrunner? Hillary Clinton has already raised $50 million this year, most of which will not be needed for her Senate re-election race, and she has already hired ex-Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe as her fundraising vaccum-cleaner -- and we're supposed to believe that Bill doesn't want her to be thinking about 2008?

Maybe his new finger-wagging line should be, "I did not talk politics with that woman."