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Falling Out of Love With Bill

Could Democrats and Republicans be finding new common ground—in seeing the ugly truth about their erstwhile heroes?

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Illustration by Jack Unruh  

Until he was an ex-president, I never felt any special fondness for Bill Clinton. From the start, he seemed a bit skeevy to me. On the night in 1992 that he accepted the nomination, as he dined in midtown with Hillary and the Gores, he was introduced to a reporter from Spy, of which I was then editor. The future president smiled, popped to his feet, and ushered the reporter off for a private chat. Spy had just published a cover story called “1,000 Reasons Not to Vote for George Bush—No. 1: He Cheats on His Wife.” “I want to thank you guys,” Clinton told the man from Spy, “for leveling the playing field with that piece you did on Bush’s girlfriends.” But were there more women? he asked repeatedly in the course of a several-minute-long chat.

Nor did my admiration increase, six years later, when he obliged me to answer questions from my daughters, then 8 and 10, about semen stains—“How did the stuff get on the dress, Daddy?” and “But why didn’t she take it to the cleaners in three years?” (And people wonder why the latest generation of Democrats is not bedazzled by Clinton nostalgia.)

Yet despite all his sleazoid tendencies, he was, of course, a pretty good president—and he turned out to be an absolutely exceptional ex-president, the best of our lifetimes. The William J. Clinton Foundation is an ambitious, effective mega-NGO, with pragmatic approaches to tackling the problems that beset the poorest countries—HIV/AIDS, tropical diseases, foul water, undercapitalization. It is to the U.N. what HBO is to PBS, nimble and exciting instead of elephantine and ungovernable.

Each of the last three summers, I saw Clinton interviewed live onstage, and each time I was agog. The breadth and depth of his extemporaneous command of information and nuance—about green economics and technology, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, electoral politics—were extraordinary. He was supersmart, nuanced, witty, casually eloquent.

In other words, so not George Bush. Clinton’s Energizer Bunny philanthropism since he left office would have rehabilitated him on the merits, but by comparison to his successor he seemed like some golden demigod, a living reminder of what an American president could be.

Until this year. For me and most of the people I know, the postpresidential love for Bill Clinton has evaporated completely and breathtakingly fast. No matter how many mosquito nets and microloans he helps supply to the Third World, I’m out of love. I found Bill Richardson’s endorsement of Obama two weeks ago especially gratifying not in spite of its fuck-you to his former patron but because of it.

And this swing of sentiment isn’t just some elite coastal phenomenon. According to NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling, from Clinton’s impeachment until the end of his presidency, his approval number never sank below 44 percent, but in the latest survey it’s down to 42 percent—and his “very negative” number, 32 percent, is nearly at an all-time high. The other polls tell similar stories: People feel more negatively toward Bill Clinton than at any time in at least the last five years.

For me the clarifying moment of disgust was his dishonesty concerning one of Barack Obama’s refreshing moments of truth-telling. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” Obama told a newspaper editorial board, “in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. [Reagan] put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think the Republican approach has played itself out, [but] I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there.”

Bill (and Hillary) Clinton distorted and demagogued this bit of plain truth to try to cast Obama as some kind of crypto-Republican. The former president has since gone on to besmirch Obama as a merely black candidate (“Jesse Jackson [also] won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88”) and as less patriotic than his wife and John McCain (“two people who love this country”).

Bill may believe sincerely that Hillary would make the better president. However, I agree with the suggestion that what’s driving him is not so much spousal loyalty as his own desperate narcissism, less a determination to get Hillary in the White House than to keep Obama out of it. How dare Obama say, he whined, that Reagan “had a more lasting impact on America than I did”? Indeed, an Obama presidency would be an unacceptable affront to Bill Clinton’s sense of his own historic gloriousness, for Obama is the new, highly improved version of Bill Clinton. Like Clinton in 1992, Obama is the thoughtful, oratorically brilliant 46-year-old new-style progressive who seems more pragmatist than ideologue. Whereas Clinton in 1998 was called “the first black president” in a metaphorical, mack-daddy sense—for his pleasure-loving appetites that had run afoul of the Man—Obama would be the post-ironic real thing. Obama’s speech about race was, among other things, a sublime and successful feat of political triangulation—which no doubt redoubled Clinton’s jealousy about the new guy’s stealing his act.


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