Monday, March 05, 2007

Clintons and Coulter and an obituary worthy of note

A bunch of things…

After writing yesterday in my Sunday newspaper column that “a sizeable number of Democrats” are afflicted with “Clinton fatigue” and fear that Hillary as the ’08 nominee would be burdened by Clinton family baggage, some Clinton fans sent me angry emails. They essentially made two arguments: (1) There is no Clinton fatigue among Democrats, and (2) There is no “package deal,” because President Hillary would not make any decisions that would benefit Bill politically, just as President Bill did not make any decisions that benefited Hillary politically.

I disagree, obviously. The candidacies of Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden, and the yearning on the left for an Al Gore candidacy, are proof of Clinton fatigue in the Democratic ranks. It might not be sufficient to deny Hillary the nomination, but it persists in many quarters as a low-grade virus.

Many of those who exhibit the symptoms are quick to contend in private conversations that they’re not fatigued by Bill’s private behavior. They insist that their main concerns are about policy and ideology. It’s not sexy or exciting to talk about, but the (overlooked) fact remains that many liberals have long been miffed by the Clintons’ centrist political instincts, and have no desire for eight more years of the same.

They complain that Bill basically governed like an Eisenhower-style moderate Republican (signing free trade agreements that screwed domestic organized labor, balancing the budget as a sop to Wall Street, paying down the federal debt as a top priority, expanding the federal death penalty, building more prisons), failed to lead on health insurance after the Hillary’s ’93 plan blew up (the number of uninsured Americans rose from 37 million to 42 million on his watch), and that he junked some important pledges (such as campaign finance reform). Indeed, it’s noteworthy that Hillary’s two top rivals, Obama and Edwards, are positioned to her left.

At the moment they are using Iraq to draw restive liberal primary voters away from Hillary (Obama was against the war before it began, and Edwards apologized for his ’02 Senate vote, whereas Hillary has not), but the bill of particulars against the Clintons goes way back to the early ‘90s. That’s the fight that many Democrats have long been seeking to wage. It will play out over the next 11 months, until the nominee is likely decided in the big state primaries on Feb. 5.

As for those Clinton fans who argue that Hillary-Bill will be no more of a package deal than Bill-Hillary was, I would like to refresh their memories about one particular incident in August of 1999. (I’m not arguing that a package deal is necessarily a disqualifier. I am just biased against amnesia.)

On Aug. 11 of that year, Bill made a decision that was opposed by the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, federal prosecutors, and a number of senior Democrats. He offered clemency to 16 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group, FALN, that had been responsible for six deaths and dozens of injuries in more than 100 bombings on U.S. soil between 1974 and 1983. Fourteen of the 16 were still in prison on weapons and conspiracy offenses. He said, in essence, that they could go free if they promised not to do it again, and not to associate with each other.

A debate ensued: Why had Bill made this decision? Why had he approved clemency for only the third time of his presidency, out of 3000 petitions? Did it have anything to do with the fact….naw, it couldn’t be…that his spouse had set up an exploratory Senate candidacy, and would need to build bridges to New York’s 1.3 million Puerto Ricans, a key voting group in the 2000 race? Was it possible that he was bending public policy to politically aid the spouse who had stood by him in tough political times?

Hillary at the time insisted that she had known nothing in advance about her husband’s decision. Unfortunately, she had just told a magazine, weeks earlier, that she and Bill talked policy and politics all the time. (“We talk in the solarium, we talk in the bedroom, in the kitchen it’s just constant conversation.”). But, in this one case, we were supposed to believe that Bill had decided to rule on a terrorist clemency case without giving Hillary any heads-up on how it might impact her own Senate bid.

Anyway, the controversy raged for weeks, especially in New York, until finally Hillary publicly distanced herself from Bill’s decision. I remember discussing the whole flap with former Clinton White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers, who said, “I’ve kind of given up trying to make sense of what happens over there.”

Well, that’s what the next 11 months are for.


There are hundreds of ways to rebut the lazy charge that the mainstream media is “liberal” – starting with its general failure to question the Bush administration’s prewar WMD claims – but the latest Ann Coulter incident provides fresh grist.

On Friday, as most of you probably know by now, Coulter spoke to an audience of conservative activists. She said: “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I -- so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.”

So let us review: A best-selling conservative author, delivering the day’s keynote speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, arguably the most prominent organization of rightward grassroots activists, declared in public that a major Democratic presidential contender was a “faggot.” And (after a few surprised gasps), she was greeted with widespread applause from the audience of thousands…..

Yet The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press all failed to mention the incident in their CPAC reports.
The nightly network broadcasts also failed to report it.

The print folks basically got around to reporting the incident 24 hours later, only after the Democrats, and some of the Republican presidential candidates, voiced their objections to Coulter. That’s the dance of objectivity; as long as somebody takes “the other side,” a reporter is on safe ground to write something “balanced.” This way, there is no need for a reporter to exercise his or her own best professional judgment on whether a remark is newsworthy.

Howard Kurtz today, while also deploring the MSM omission, suggested one possible reason: "A collective shrug that, well, you know, it's Coulter, there she goes again, what do you expect? And it's that attitude that lets her off the hook."

So I’m just wondering: if Michael Moore, or some other left-leaning flamer, had keynoted a national liberal conference, and had called a major Republican contender a “faggot,” would these mainstream media outlets have failed to mention that?


Thomas Eagleton died yesterday. His passage is worth noting, if only because he demonstrated the perils of allowing personal ambition to cloud political judgment at a critical moment in history. He was also responsible for the introduction of a phrase that has since become synonymous with political dishonesty – even though he wasn’t the one who said it.

In 1972, as some of you older readers may remember, Missouri senator Eagleton was tapped to be George McGovern’s running mate on the Democratic ticket, in a year when President Nixon was mired in Vietnam and working to minimize the Watergate scandal. Eagleton was so anxious to get the nod that he failed to tell McGovern’s people about a few incidents in his past that might be viewed as problematical – namely, that he had been hospitalized three times for depression, and twice undergone electroshock therapy. (There was no Lithium in those days, assuming that would have helped Eagleton.)

Anyway, the truth came out, in the usual dribs and drabs, and it put McGovern on the spot. Finally he felt compelled to declare that he stood behind Eagleton “1000 percent” – even though, at the time he said it, the McGovern camp was already moving to dump Eagleton. (As McGovern told CBS’ Bob Schieffer many years later, “After saying I was behind him 1000 percent, it made me look like a damn fool, but I decided we had to ask him to leave.”)

We all know that straying “off message” is a cardinal sin, so imagine if something like this happened today: On a Sunday in August of 1972, Eagleton went on Face the Nation and declared that he intended to stay on the ticket – while, over on NBC, at virtually the same hour, McGovern’s handpicked Democratic national chairwoman was telling Meet the Press that Eagleton would best serve his party by stepping down. This would be blogger bliss. (Complicating things further, McGovern told Eagleton later that day that he, McGovern, had not asked the chairwoman to say what she had said.)

Within a day, Eagleton stepped down. Decades later, I bet you will never hear a candidate claim that he or she supports somebody or anything “1000 percent.” Yet I wonder if a candidate afflicted with depression today would share the same impulse to hide it. Up-front honesty is generally the best strategy.