Thursday, September 28, 2006

Is he or isn't he? A retro '90s debate

The flap over Bill Clinton’s Fox News flareup has now entered its fifth day, and in some ways I see it as a perversely nostalgic exercise, a return to the days when Americans of all ideological persuasions spent a fair bit of time trying to fathom and explain the president’s psyche.

And here we are again, this time debating whether Clinton was faking his indignation last Sunday when he railed against Fox News, accused host Chris Wallace of engineering “a conservative hit job” against him, as well as smirking at him. Was he genuinely and spontaneously angry at Wallace for asking him what was, quite frankly, a journalistically legitimate question about his failed pursuit of Osama bin Laden – or was he just acting in cold calculation, seeking merely to rally Democratic voters, employing the legendary skills that ought to be taught to every student at the Actors Studio?

In other words, it’s the old question visited anew: how authentic is this guy, anyway? There are apparently two schools of thought:

Bill Clinton, master thespian. People in this camp believe that he knew exactly what he was doing. William Kristol, the conservative commentator and Iraq war promoter, says: “Bill Clinton is a smart and calculating politician….(His spouse) has been having problems with the left wing of the Democratic party. With this interview, Bill Clinton has the entire left wing of the Democratic party rallying to him. Some of this solidarity can presumably be transferred to Hillary.”

Newt Gingrich, who frequently sparred with Clinton during his days as House Speaker, tells ABC News, “I think that as the most experienced professional in the Democratic Party, he didn’t walk onto that set and suddenly get upset. He probably decided in advance he was going to pick a fight with Chris Wallace. I think as a calculated political decision, it’s reasonably smart.”

Bill Clinton, authentic inner loon. People in this camp believe that the former president was betraying his true self, the self he normally keeps hidden from public view. For instance, his former pollster, Dick Morris, writes, “There he was on live television, those who have worked for him have come to know – the angry, sarcastic, snarling, self-righteous, bombastic bully, roused to a fever pitch….the volcanic rage beneath the surface of this would-be statesman.” Morris, who helped craft Clinton’s ’96 re-election strategy, experienced that behavior; in his political memoir, he recalled the time, way back in the Arkansas era, when he and Clinton had an argument in Clinton’s kitchen – whereupon the young governor grabbed Morris from behind, Morris slipped to the floor, Hillary had to help him get the idea.

Another supporter of the spontaneous wig-out theory is Jonathan Alter, the liberal commentator. Interviewed the other day at Brown University, and asked about the Fox incident, Alter said, “I thought he lost his temper. Yes, it rallies the Democratic base, but he talks a lot about bringing people together and trying to win the election without rubbing raw a lot of old wounds. He has a temper. He was right on the merits of (what he said), but ... if he had to do it over again, I don't think he would have insulted Chris Wallace that way.”

And Wallace himself buys this theory. In recent days he has said that the atmosphere in the studio stayed tense after the cameras were shut off, and that Clinton and his entourage were arguing about the encounter as they were leaving the premises.

Bill Clinton, shrewd but undisciplined. This hybrid theory posits that he arrived at Fox determined to put up his dukes if necessary, in a polite but firm manner befitting a former president, but that his inner demons got the better of him and he wound up going too far. Mark Davis, a Dallas columnist and radio host, writes: “I don't believe the former president sat down intending to lose that much cool. But I do believe he was spoiling for a degree of conflict that would bolster his anti-terror credentials and energize Democrats to ‘get tough’ with anyone doubting the party's national security credentials.”

In the end, what probably matters most is that, either by accident or design, Clinton cranked up base Democrats who have been thirsting for inspiration in an election year (maybe he also cranked up the conservatives, reminding them why they should vote GOP, but that’s another issue). Here’s the bottom line, according to one of my email pen pals: “Clinton is the only Democrat on the planet who could do what he did and get away with it. He's got the requisite gravitas. Besides, the Democrats have become a political party of geldings, scared (wit)less by anything even remotely GOP. I found that Clinton having the (guts) to successfully stare down Chris Wallace on his Fox home turf, was not only a good thing that could serve to energize his party, but a necessary move - one that was way overdue!”

By the way, here’s one last assessment of Clinton. Yesterday, Fox News chief Roger Ailes said: “I frankly think the assault on Chris Wallace is an assault on all journalists.”

That’s pretty rich, coming from Ailes – the same guy who, as Richard Nixon’s 1968 TV producer, pioneered the tactics of isolating a presidential candidate from the inconvenient questions of political journalists. Ailes kept his client in TV studios, where he staged Q&A sessions between Nixon and “average citizens,” a format that, in its time, was widely viewed as an assault on all journalists. Asked at the time why the journalists were being barred from the studio tapings, Ailes (as reported in The Selling of the President), replied, "(Screw) 'em. It's not a press conference...the press has no business on the set."


But enough about Clinton. Last I checked, he has a successor. And that president provided some interesting fodder of his own last Sunday; fortunately for him, Clinton got most of the attention.

In case you missed it, President Bush uttered a head-scratching remark that day on CNN. In the interests of full context, here was his exchange with Wolf Blitzer:

Q: “Let’s move on and talk a little bit about Iraq. Because this is a huge, huge issue, as you know, for the American public, a lot of concern that perhaps they are on the verge of a civil war--if not already a civil war. We see these horrible bodies showing up, tortured, mutilation. The Shia and the Sunni, the Iranians apparently having a negative role. Of course, al Qaeda in Iraq is still operating.”

BUSH: “Yes, you see you see it on TV, and that’s the power of an enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. But there’s also an unbelievable will and resiliency by the Iraqi people. Admittedly, it seems like a decade ago. I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is - my point is, there’s a strong will for democracy.”

Pick your way through the presidential verbiage, and ignore the fact that U.S. officials these days are openly questioning that supposedly “strong will for democracy,” and you can easily spot the key line: Bush’s contention that, when future Americans look in the rear-view mirror, the bloodshed in Iraq will be seen as “just a comma.”

Just a comma…not the kind of remark that is likely to comfort the families of slain and wounded U.S. soldiers. We can assume that he didn’t intend to convey that particular message. So we’re left to wonder, if he wasn’t trying to be dismissive of the current (and increasing) brutality in Iraq, how and why did he come up with that phrase? Well, here’s where things really get surreal:

Greg Mitchell at Editor & Publisher went googling, and came up with this conclusion: Bush was borrowing from a line that often appears in Christian teaching and sermons (“Don’t put a period where God puts a comma”), and Christian leaders in turn – I told you it gets surreal - seem to have adopted that line from…the late comedienne Gracie Allen, who is purported to have said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Anyway…On more earthly ground, there are reports today that Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, will expose efforts by Bush and his war team to cover up the true extent of the violence on the ground in Iraq. If true, Bush at some point may need to change his comma to an exclamation mark.