In early 1992, the conservative revolution
begun by Reagan and Bush looked unstoppable. True, there wasn’t much
progress on social issues, but social change (especially positive
social change) tends to come slowly, and conservatives are reluctant
about using the government to engineer social change anyway.
On other fronts, the achievements of Reagan and Bush
were little less than spectacular. The sky-high inflation and
interest rates of the Carter era were left far behind. The
country had regained its place as the world economic leader, achieving
the highest GNP in history.
Even more spectacular, the successes in foreign
policy. Reagan’s military build-up paid off big time. The Soviets
simply couldn’t keep up, and the Soviet Union which had for years
looked like it truly did have a chance of burying the United States
simply fell apart…and the United States emerged victor in the Cold War,
the world’s only super-power.
What that meant was clearly shown by what came to be
called the Gulf War. Iraq invaded our ally, little
Kuwait. In the Carter years, the U.S. could have done little but
issue a feeble protest for fear that direction action on our part would
have led to direct action by the Soviets on the other side. But
now under Bush, American troops smashed the Iraqis, pushing them out of
Kuwait effortlessly—and, it was clear, that, had we wanted to, we could
have done much more, occupying Baghdad and removing Saddam Hussein
whenever we felt like it. In addition, we had the whole world
behind us. Bush had an easier time getting UN approval for the
Gulf War than getting the U.S. Congress to support it!
The Gulf War victory pushed Bush to the highest
approval levels of any American president since polling began—80% of
Americans voicing their support.
What could possibly stop the conservative
revolution? Could the Democrats put up any candidate to stop Bush
from winning reelection by an overwhelming margin?
Well, perhaps there were a couple of candidates with
a chance: maybe Mario Cuomo or Sam Nunn. But William Jefferson Clinton?
Bubba? That’s amazing—or, maybe, it’s not so amazing because, no matter
what one thinks of Bill Clinton as a statesman, he was certainly a
master politician—and an excellent illustration of the general
principle that nations get the leaders they deserve.
Bill Clinton’s political skills are particularly
apparent when one considers all the things he had to overcome to win
the 1992 election.
1. He was almost a complete unknown nationally. I am
something of a political junky, but I had never even heard of Bill
Clinton before 1992 and, outside of Arkansas, Clinton had virtually no
name-recognition at all—a great handicap.
2. And, speaking of Arkansas, Clinton had none of the experiences
typical for a presidential candidate. In general, a presidential
candidate must hold a position of great responsibility before they are
taken seriously. One has to be Speaker of the House, a prominent
general, or (perhaps) Governor of a state like California. But
attorney general of a small state? Not the background for a
serious candidate. Rounds? Daugaard? Big men in South
Dakota, but very unlikely ever to have a chance at a spot on a
presidential ticket without national-level exposure first. Have
to play a role like Thune or a Daschle first.
3. Suspicions about the way he avoided the draft. Clinton had
been classified as 1-A in 1968. He would have been drafted had he
not told his draft board he was going to join ROTC so he could have a
1-D deferment (typically, a one or two month deferment). Clinton held
the 1-D for a year, lucked out with a 311 lottery number—and didn’t
Clinton’s draft manipulations made him an easy target for those who
wanted to paint Clinton as a typical 60’s draft dodger. An
anti-Clinton book (Slick Willy) quotes Clinton as saying this:
The decision not to be a
resister and the related subsequent decisions
were the most difficult of my life. I decided to accept the draft
in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political
viability within the system. For years, I have worked to prepare
myself for a political life characterized both by practical politics
and concern for rapid social progress.
[One of the nice things about
the internet is that one can so easily confirm/refute stories like
this. The "Slick Willy" book was apparently right. PBS has
the entire letter here.]
4. Suspicions about his drug use. Clinton’s brother Roger was a
certainly a drug user, and he said his brother had a “nose like a
vacuum cleaner.” Clinton claimed to have tried marijuana “but I
didn’t inhale.” Clinton was also closely tied to Dan Lassiter, a
drug dealer pardoned by Clinton—and who donated generously to Clinton’s
campaigns. At the time, this was a serious negative.
Admissions of drug use (even if in one’s distant past) had shot down
the nominations of a Supreme Court candidate and other officials.
5. Clinton was tied in to all sorts of shady deals in Arkansas,
accused of funneling state money to his wife’s law firm, and with very
suspicious ties to Tyson Chicken. More serious, the various
financial dealings that came to be associated with the name
Whitewater. Bill and Hillary partnered with Jim and Susan
McDougal on all sorts of deals. McDougal ran Madison Guarantee
Savings, an institution that collapsed. Where had the money
gone? Well, McDougal had been using Madison as a personal piggy
bank, spending much of the money to finance crooked land deals where he
bilked those who ultimately purchased the land. In addition, he made
illegal contributions to Clinton.
And if all this were not enough, there was Clinton’s
biggest potential problem, Hillary.
6. Hillary was a liability for all sorts of reasons. Her handling
of financial deals with extraordinarily suspicious. Typical, what
came to be called Cattlegate. In 1978, Hillary invested $2000
with commodity trader Red Bone—and, a few months later, pocketed
$100,000. How had this happened. “I read the Wall Street
Journal,” said Hillary.
Right. Well, what actually happened is that Red Bone
handled lots of and lots of accounts making lots of trades. He
took a high percentage of successful trades and attributed them to
Hillary’s account, distributing the less successful trades among other
clients. Why would he do this? Well, it’s an easy way to hide
bribe money, bribe money from Tyson or any other big Arkansas wheeler
dealer who would like it very much if the Arkansas attorney general (or
governor) would look the other way when it came to suspicious business
practices. Can anyone prove that’s what actually happened?
Well, yeah—but in a small state, the corrupt connections between big
business and government are seldom exposed. Once you’re a
national candidate, though, such things become more of a problem.
Investigative reporters at the national level can typically do a more
thorough job than the local media.
Another problem was that Hillary was not at all a
likeable person. Foul-mouthed and elitist, she had none of the
warmth, glamour, and graciousness of a Barbara Bush or a Jackie Kennedy.
And still worse, Hillary obviously was what Bill
pretended not to
be. My apologies for using the “L” word, but Hillary was a
liberal, and, outside of the press and academic circles, to be a
liberal at this particular time was a huge disadvantage.
But even worse is what Hillary was not.
Hillary was not a wife, the kind of woman who refuses to be a wife.
Now that’s not to say that Hillary should not have
had a career of her own or interests other than her husband’s.
But Hillary was obviously not the kind of emotionally supportive
companion a man usually needs to succeed in life. It’s a pretty safe
guess that Hillary despises Bill and holds him in contempt. A
popular bumper sticker in the 1990’s: I’d cheat on Hillary
too.” It might be too strong to say the Clintons have a
dysfunctional marriage—but it certainly functions in a very strange way.
And this led to another Clinton problem….
7. The “bimbo” factor. Now it’s hard to be sure when
extra-marital affairs will sink a candidate and when they won’t.
Kennedy and Johnson had numerous affairs and the press just winked at
it. But just four years earlier one of the leading Democratic
contenders, Gary Hart, had had to drop out of the race over just a
single affair. Clinton was a serial adulterer, and there were
dozens of women whose stories might have caused him serious
problems. Particularly a problem was the fact that he had
apparently used his position as attorney general and governor to
pressure women into affairs they really didn’t want. At the time,
feminists had insisted on strong laws against sexual harassment,
convinced, rightly in my view, that if men in positions of power were
allowed to use their that power to exploit women, it would cripple the
attempts of women to have successful careers. During the Reagan and
Bush era, charges of sexual harassment had been enough to torpedo
nominees to cabinet-level positions. Clinton’s behavior in this
area, then, a particular danger to a candidate who had to have the
support of groups like NOW.
Now, with all this going against him, how did Clinton pull off
his victory in 1992? Well, he has several things going for him.
1. The rest of the Democratic field was weak. The stronger
Democrat candidates thought Bush was unbeatable and were waiting until
2. Ron Brown, the head of the Democratic National Committee, a
superb strategist was pulling strings for Clinton, convinced that only
a moderate-appearing Southerner had any chance at all.
3. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge.
4. A man named Ross Perot started an independent campaign,
attacking Bush right and left and attractive a good share of the “none
of the above” vote.
But it was really Clinton’s own political skill that made the most
1. He used his lack of experience to advantage: I am no
2. He mastered the art of defusing embarrassing issues.
Slander your accusers (Paula Jones is trailer trash; Ken Starr is a
pervert). Give misleading (though technically true) answers. Lie. But,
above all, delay, delay, delay, delay—and then say, “so what?”
It’s an amazing but effective trick. With political scandal, the
dangerous moment is right as the scandal hits: people are
shocked. But if you can drag things out in the way Clinton did,
eventually people go into scandal overload: and they’ll buy your “so
Clever also was the way Clinton handled the Hillary issue.
Bill talked of her as a co-partner in his presidency: vote more me, and
it will be like having Hillary as president too. Imagine! A
woman president! And any criticism of Hillary he dismissed as
anti-woman backlash: men who didn’t want women to have real careers
resented “powerful women.” Bill created a situation in which many
women who had of course faced real obstacles to their life goals, ended
up identifying with Hillary. In addition, since questions about
Clinton financial shenanigans always led to Hillary in one way or
another, Clinton could duck the questions: How dare you attack my wife!
But none of this is really what gave Clinton the
1992 election. What did?
If you asked the Clinton campaign, no doubt
they would have said "economics." Banner: it's the economy
stupid. But this is absurd: highest GNP in history--certainly
better than the Carter administration! True, there had been a
slight dip in 1991, but during the 1992 campaign season, the economy
was recovering rapidly.
No--what won Bill Clinton the election was his
incredible skill at figuring out exactly what people want to hear and
then saying just that. He read the polls, figured out what concerned
people, and then told them what they wanted to hear: "middle class tax
cut" "lower deficit" "reform welfare" "reduce crime." Anyone could do
that? Not a chance.
"Clinton's an unusually good liar. Unusually good. Do you realize
that?" said Sen. Bob Kerry, D-Nebraska.
Well, Clinton pulled of the great upset, beating the man all the
other Democrats thought was unbeatable. He won 43.0% of the vote to
Bush’s 37.4% and Perot’s 18.9%, with a 370 to 168 win in the electoral
But not surprisingly, Clinton's first months as president were
disastrous. What works as a campaign strategy does not always work well
when one tries to actually govern. Clinton’s inexperience,
coupled with the fact that he really didn't know what he wanted to do,
and made worse by his hyper-sensitivity to the winds of public opinion
caused him to drift from fiasco to fiasco.
In foreign policy, it was quickly obvious that a poll-driven
policy wasn’t going to work too well. We sent troops into Somalia
in response to TV coverage and then quickly got out in response to TV
coverage. In Bosnia, we didn’t get involved until it was too late
to do any good, and, when we finally did send troops, we kept them in
the barracks so they won't get killed! A less obvious (but more
serious) mistake was that we threw away the splendid chance the Gulf
war victory had created to bring about lasting peace in the Middle
East. Clinton seemed to be doing his best to throw away our Cold War
victory too, crippling our military, giving away our military secrets
to the Chinese, and allowing Russia to drift into crony capitalism
rather than a true free market so that his businessmen friends (like
brother-in-law Hugh Rodham) could make millions off the deal.
Clinton's appointees were incompetent/corrupt/unstable.
Clinton's people totally mishandled the Waco affair. Jocelyn
Elders, surgeon general, whose job it is at least in part to try to
fight against drug abuse, advocated a study of the legalization of
drugs--and we soon found out that her son was a cocaine dealer: he went
prison for 10 years. (She can't even keep her own son off drugs:
why should we listen to her?). Anyway, she was pressured to
resign after maintaining that kids should be taught to
masturbate. Ron Brown, commerce secretary, was about to be
indicted for corrupt business deals when he was killed in a plane
crash. Web Hubbell (Hillary's Rose Law Firm Partner) and an
assistant attorney general (really more important than Janet Reno) had
to resign when it became apparent he was going to be indicted for
fraud. Vince Foster, another Rose Law firm partner, apparently
committed suicide: Clinton staff ransacked his office and removed
papers that would probably have incriminated the Clinton's in
Whitewater crookedness. The papers later mysteriously turned
up--with Hillary's fingerprints all over them.
Further, the Clintons, especially Hillary turned out to be the
kind of people who use power ruthlessly. Hillary ordered the
firings of White House travel staff (legal enough) but turned them out
at a moments notice. To try to justify the firings, the Clinton's
then used the vast resources at their disposal to try to discredit and
ruin one of the fired staff members--Billy Dale.
And how did they do this? Well, they went to the FBI and
got Dale's FBI file. Later, when congress began
investigating how they got this particular file, it turned out that
Clinton staffers had obtained more FBI files. How many?
300, they said. Then 400. Then in turned out they had over
900 files (but nobody really looked at them and they were all there by
mistake.) Only they happened to be files of prominent Republicans
and people the Clinton's might have wanted to destroy
politically. (Charles Colson: Nixon administration had gone to
jail for possession of a single improperly obtained FBI file!).
But the Clintons were doing such marvelous things for the nation,
right? Well, maybe from a certain perspective. He pushed
through congress the largest tax increase in American history--and
there was certainly no middle class tax cut.
But Clinton failed to deliver on the big issues. He had
made vague promises of health care reform, and, once elected, really
did put a lot of effort into that one area: Hillary's probably
illegal task force came up with a recommendation that would have given
us the worst of both worlds: all the disadvantages of socialized
medicine with none of the benefits. Even though the Democrats had
large majorities in both houses, Clinton get health care reform enacted.
But Bill Clinton did have one great accomplishment to his
credit. He did something the Nixon hadn't been able to do.
Something Bush hadn't been able to do. Something even Reagan
hadn't been able to do. Do you know what Bill Clinton did?
He managed to help Republicans take over both houses of Congress
(something they had not done since 1954). Clinton was so
unpopular, that in 1994 the American people showed their displeasure by
turning out the democratic rascals in droves. And not just at the
national level. State governorships, and state legislatures (many
of which had been in Democratic hands for decades) went
Republican. And in the wake of this tremendous rebuke, many
democrats that had won switched parties. Senator Shelby of
Alabama, Ben Knight Horse Campbell of Colorado and dozens of others
switched to the Republican Party.
And after bringing this disaster on the Democrats, Bill Clinton
was finished as a politician--at least he should have been.
But almost immediately he began his plans to win
re-election. Behind the scenes, he and Al Gore began raising
tremendous amounts of money. But who would give to the unpopular
Well, Clinton showed his political skills here. He tapped sources
no other American presidential candidate had been able to tap
before. Indonesian businessmen and the Chinese government were
happy to pony up. Illegal? Sure, but there was, in the words of vice
president Gore “no controlling legal authority” no one to enforce the
This money would later buy the T.V. time that allowed Clinton to
blacken Dole and the Republicans enough to help him win again.
And then there was the old strategy of dealing with scandal: smear your
accusers: Paula Jones is trailer trash, Ken Starr is on a Republican
witch hunt (and besides he once worked for the tobacco companies), Gary
Aldrich is a liar and all these people are "only in it for the money."
When 1996 rolled around, Clinton got a bit of help from the
Republicans. The 10 Republican candidates bashed each other
around so much that, when Dole finally emerged the winner, he was a
battered and tarnished candidate.
But that's not what allowed Clinton to pull his second great
presidential upset. What won the 1996 election for him was a bit
of public relations magic that I would never have believed
possible. With the help of Dick Morris, Clinton dramatically
changed his public persona. He disassociated self from liberals
in administration, kept Hillary in the background, and went back to
being a "New Democrat." He admitted that he had raised taxes too
much. And, on issue after issue, he himself switched over to the
Republican side, taking all their popular issues for himself and
claiming credit for what was actually achieved by a Republican congress.
And he got away with it, once again earning his knickname as the
But Clinton’s problems weren’t over. What to do with a
second term? The news magazines speculated over and over again on
the Clinton legacy: what would it be? Clinton himself didn’t know
what the legacy would be, but he very much wanted to have one.
Well, he got his legacy, but not quite the one he wanted.
In August 1997, special prosecutor Ken Starr was about to give up
what was called the Whitewater investigation, an investigation of all
sorts of scandals surrounding Clinton. Starr had had some initial
successes when the probe began in 1994, uncovering all sorts of
corruption in Arkansas and sending (among others) Clinton’s successor
Jim Guy Tucker to jail. But Clinton’s stonewalling worked. Susan
McDougal went to jail for contempt rather than testify. Webb Hubble
(who was about to turn state’s evidence) clammed up when Clinton
friends got him lucrative consulting contracts—just as he was about to
go to jail. Jim McDougal, the one who could probably have fingered
Clinton, died under mysterious circumstances in prison. Hillary
developed amnesia claiming she couldn’t remember working on a case for
which she had billed the Rose law firm for more than 50 hours. And
Starr, a decent and honest man, found himself the target of some of the
most vicious slanders imaginable. In August 1997 Starr was about
to give up and take a job at Pepperdine, but he was talked into
sticking around a bit longer.
And then—the legacy. The Lewinsky case. Early in
Clinton’s presidency, a woman named Paula Jones found herself depicted
as one of Clinton’s bimbos. Fearing the affect on her marriage,
she had asked Clinton for an honest account of what had happened
between them and an admission that the inappropriate behavior had been
all on his side. Clinton refused, and eventually Clinton’s
enemies decided to back Paula Jones in a lawsuit against Clinton.
The lawsuit alleged the Clinton’s impositions on Jones were part
of a consistent pattern, and, as a result, Clinton and many of his
suspected sexual partners/victims were asked for testimony.
In early 1998, Starr was tipped off. There was proof
positive that Clinton and at least one of the women (Monica Lewinsky)
had perjured themselves.
Clinton played his usual game.
“I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again, I did not
have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. I never told
anybody to lie,
not a single time -- never. These allegations are false."
Hillary went into attack mode, blaming all the problems on a vast
right wing conspiracy.
“When the truth comes out this, like all the other allegations
that have been leveled against us over the years, will fade away and
all the good work my husband has done will stand.”
Well, the truth never really did come out completely, but enough
of it did to make Bill Clinton the second president ever to be
impeached. Clinton’s defenders claimed it was “only about sex,”
but the charges were serious. Perjury. Obstruction of
justice. Suborning of perjury.
Had the whole truth come out, Clinton might not only have been
impeached but convicted. The House managers who presented the
case against Clinton said that a trip to the evidence room and a look
at some of the material not made public would convince anyone that
Clinton had to go. What was the evidence? Maybe the
evidence connected with Clinton’s rape of Juanita Broaddrick.
Maybe something even worse.
In any case, Clinton escaped. 50-50 on the obstruction of
justice, 45-55 on the perjury.
Clinton was never formally charged with his real obstruction of
justice—things like the bombing a Sudanese aspirin factory right after
he finally had to admit his earlier lies about Lewinsky or the bombing
of Kosovo which began the week Clinton would have been impeached.
No business being there: violation both of the Nato treaty, of U.S. law
(remember the War Powers Act?) And if that wasn’t bad enough,
we fought the war entirely from the air, bombing from 15,000 ft.
Why? Because for political reasons Clinton couldn’t afford
American boys coming home in body bags. It was no accident that
constantly hitting wrong targets: including the Chinese embassy,
the Albanians we were supposed to be protecting.
And even this wasn’t the end of the Clinton scandals. Just
before he left office, Clinton issued 176 pardons for his friends and
cronies, drug dealers, swindlers, and corporate criminals. Mark Rich
donated 1.5 million to the Clinton library and got his pardon. A
terrible example of corruption and abuse of power.
And yet, despite such things, and despite the fact that people’s
thought less of Clinton as an individual than they had of Nixon,
Clinton’s approval ratings remained high.
Well, my kids once asked me how a man like Bill Clinton could
ever be elected president of the United States.
Unfortunately, the answer is easy enough. People get the
leaders they deserve. Who a nation chooses for its leaders tells
you exactly what that nation values and what it is. And we
Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was the first president from my
generation, and he is exactly what my generation deserved.
Why? Because, in many ways, Bill Clinton is us. We are
Bubba. Just look at us:
Back and forth on issue after issue: for
intervention in places like Somalia one minute, against it the
next. For tax cuts one minute, against them the next. For
welfare reform one minute, against it the next. For government
solutions to our problems one minute/against them the next.
That's Bill Clinton. That's us.
Wanting to see a return to traditional family values
one minute, wanting to see an end to the divorce epidemic, and to
teenage pregnancy, and to venereal disease--and the next minute
cheating on our wives and ignoring traditional sexual standards
completely. That's Bill Clinton. That's us.
One minute wanting to find something in our lives
beyond materialism beyond the never-ending quest for stuff, stuff, and
more stuff, hating the greed we see around us--and the next minute
turning money into our god and giving ourselves entirely over to
That's Bill Clinton. That's us.
My generation is often called the Baby
Boomers. Our old nickname is more appropriate: the “Me”
generation. We’re the most narcissistic generation in history,
and it’s no wonder we produced the most narcissistic president.
We’re the Bubba generation, and most of us haven’t the courage to be
anything other than Bubbas.
Yes--Bill Clinton is the president we deserve.