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.