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.
For Bill, it’s all about Bill. It was obviously the same desperate competitiveness with Obama that led Clinton, for instance, to concoct his revisionist history of their respective positions on the invasion of Iraq. He, Bill Clinton, “opposed Iraq from the beginning,” while Obama’s bona fide claims of opposition are “the biggest fairy tale that I have ever seen.” I don’t think the “fairy tale” remark was racist, or meant as a dismissal of Obama’s Cinderella rise; it was simply untrue.
Bill Clinton is our great living exemplar of Sam Goldwyn’s great epigram: If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. The joke, of course, is that sincerity is supposed to be more or less synonymous with honesty—truthfulness with a buttery frosting of earnestness. And although the honesty we want our presidents to embody isn’t merely (or even mainly) the literal Jimmy Carter kind (“I will never lie to you”), it’s an important part of the package.
Telling the truth, or not, has turned out to be a leitmotif of this election. “[Bill] Clinton’s an unusually good liar,” his fellow Democrat (and Hillary endorser) Bob Kerrey said of the president back around the time the First Lady was visiting postwar Bosnia. Thanks to the news footage of her unremarkable, sniper-free landing on the tarmac in Tuzla, we now know that Hillary Clinton is an equally brazen but unusually bad liar. (And her gratuitous fibbing has also served to turn one of her husband’s most significant accomplishments, imposing peace on the former Yugoslavia, into a setup for a joke.)
It was the stink of falsehood as well that queered the candidacies of Rudy Giuliani (the fakey public phone calls from his wife, the security-budget monkey business when she was his mistress) and Mitt Romney (the rightward flip-flops, the wholly synthetic gestalt). But just as striking have been this season’s startling outbursts of candor, which have alternately damaged and propelled the various campaigns.
On the one hand, as Jack Nicholson shouted in A Few Good Men, we can’t handle the truth—at least when it’s vitriolic. “She is a monster,” Obama’s foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power said of Mrs. Clinton. Power was immediately obliged to resign. The Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s disturbing theory of the 9/11 attacks as imperial blowback was no more untrue than Susan Sontag’s formulation of the same idea at the same time in The New Yorker. And the snipe by Geraldine Ferraro that required her purge last month from the Clinton campaign—“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position”—was graceless, but not untrue.
Yet on the other hand, a different sort of surprising honesty—displays of vulnerable, please-don’t-hate-me candor by the candidates themselves—has worked like a charm. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is probably still alive thanks to her moment of choked-up honesty the day before the New Hampshire primary. Just as Obama’s latest comeback is due to the complicated, carefully wrought honesty of his speech about racial mistrust and misunderstanding.
A couple of days after that speech, when some Fox News hosts, of all people, got all p.c. about Obama’s glancing, benign (and inarguably true) bit of stereotyping of his grandmother as “a typical white person,” their colleague Chris Wallace couldn’t abide the intellectual dishonesty. “It seems to me that two hours of Obama-bashing on this ‘typical white person’ remark is somewhat excessive,” he said to them on the air, “and frankly I think you’re somewhat distorting what Obama had to say.”
In fact, there’s been a heartening uptick in face-the-facts honesty among Republicans during the last few years, as the incompetence and bad faith of the Bush administration have come to look more undeniably like an M.O. rather than accidents. I knew something strange and beautiful was astir eighteen months ago, when The Washington Monthly published “Time for Us to Go,” a portfolio of essays by prominent conservatives on the inexcusable failures of the Republican regime. That was about the same time that Republican senator Chuck Hagel’s criticism of the war in Iraq blossomed into passionate, scabrous condemnation. John McCain, given the burden of his Vietnam past, seems tragically unable to admit that Iraq is not “winnable,” but it’s telling, I think, that the GOP nominated the candidate (unelectable Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul aside) who seems least inclined to dissemble.
Maybe we can handle some truth. Maybe the reality-based fractions of red and blue America are reaching a sort of consensus: Just as Republicans are beginning to get why George Bush makes so many Americans want to rip their hair out, a lot of Democrats have finally, viscerally come to understand Clinton-loathing. Mutual, symmetrical disillusionment; it’s a start.