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 governor and 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 join ROTC.

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 1996.

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 difference.

1.  He used his lack of experience to advantage: I am no Washington insider.

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 what?” answer.

 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 college.

 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 to 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 Clinton?

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 law.  

 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 “comeback kid.”

 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. up.  Why?  Because for political reasons Clinton couldn’t afford American boys coming home in body bags.  It was no accident that we constantly hitting wrong targets: including the Chinese embassy, Serbian civilians, 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.

 Why? How?

 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 deserve 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 covetousness.

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.