President Clinton: Thumbs down!

In his eight disgraceful years, he's squandered our time while lowering the standards for all public officials.

Published August 12, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

If it were not for William Jefferson Clinton, that overrated and under-written speech by George W. Bush in Philadelphia would have been over before it began. Imagine: An ignorant and spoiled mediocrity opens his acceptance address by comparing himself to George Washington! Only a few years ago, such a comparison, even offered in jest, would have invited ridicule and contempt. (Recall what happened when even the popular Ronald Reagan described the Contra bandits in Nicaragua as the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.) But this time, no one dares to challenge such a piece of flagrant profanity. George W. is free to taunt away because he knows the Democrats dare not raise the issue of character or stature. And he is free to drape his dismal program in the camouflage (part Special Olympics and part gorgeous mosaic or Rainbow Coalition) of correctness. Why not? It worked for the last cynic who tried it. Like Clinton, Bush hopes to get good press for getting good press.

It's almost impossible to distill all one's dislike of Clinton into one valedictory article, but this is the moment to try. In the past eight years, he has hugely shrunk the area of the possible while greatly expanding the area of the thinkable. When he took office, there was everything to play for with Russia and China, and a real chance for serious disarmament. Our first post-Cold War president now faces us with a renewed missile race, even more expensive and inefficient than its predecessor, and a sterile confrontation with post-Communist authoritarians with whom he is otherwise on much too easy terms.

But then, when he took office, the idea that a sitting president would rent the Lincoln bedroom to the nearest bidder was also a remote one to most people. Washington was to belong to those who worked hard and played by the rules, not to the Riadys and Tamrazes and the other riffraff to whom (through the agency of the lovely Dick Morris) this president repeatedly sold his office.

In between, and taking up much more of his real commitment and energy than any reform program, we have had a president who, while in office, has had to settle a sexual harassment suit to the tune of nearly a million bucks, has had to face disbarment for lying to a federal judge, has been cited by another judge for a criminal violation of the Privacy Act, and has been plausibly accused of rape. To the suggestion that he induced the aforesaid Mr. Riady, emissary of the Indonesian military dictatorship, to use some of his funny money to pay off a disgraced and imprisoned deputy attorney general, the former master of detail and king of the briefing book now pleads total amnesia.

This is how our time and opportunity has been squandered since 1992. There are those who might want to plead that the economy is sound, but they have Alan Greenspan's policy to thank for that, as Clinton is, by his endless deference to the man, the first to admit. And if you wanted Greenspan, with all his orthodoxy about unemployment inflation and corporatism, you could have voted for George W(ashington)'s daddy to begin with. Only he would not have asked you to keep quiet, lest you jeopardize his plan for national health care.

Covering Clinton in New Hampshire in 1992, I concluded (and wrote) that he was stop-at-nothing ruthless, that he was exorbitantly lousy about political money, that he was a near-pathological liar and that he was exceptionally foul in his relations with women. I haven't had to take anything back. Three things about his record still strike me as monstrous. And the silence of liberals on these three points still strikes me as degrading:

1) The execution of Rickey Ray Rector. Lobotomized by his own bullet, this disabled black convict did not understand either his trial or his sentence. Executed by Clinton to draw attention from the Gennifer Flowers flap (about which he also lied) Rector outdoes Willie Horton by every definition of racist grandstanding. His snuffing was not just an election tactic, bad enough though that would have been. In power, Clinton fast-tracked capital punishment to the point where even Republican governors and legislatures have had to try and slow it down.

2) The wag-the-dog bombing of Sudan. Nobody in the political, military or intelligence establishment any longer pretends that the target hit by Clinton in August 1998 was anything but a medical facility. And few pretended even at the time. But something had to be hit in the week of Monica Lewinsky's return to the grand jury, and Clinton borrowed the movie lines of Michael Douglas from the film "The American President" in order to justify the atrocity. A truly chilling Strangelove moment.

3) The rape of Juanita Broaddrick. This woman's allegations check out at every point where they can be tested (and are corroborated, in my recent book, by the similar testimony of at least two other women). Clinton refuses to comment, and refused even to help NBC when it tried to establish his alibi for the relevant day. Again, he seems to have counted -- successfully -- on decent people's reluctance to face the possibility that such a thing could be true.

The president needs therapy, as even his awful wife has conceded. But this does not excuse the gruesome apologists who have told us that his problems should be kept private. The Oval Office private? It belongs to the people. The Lincoln bedroom, private? The Justice Department, a private law firm? Those who defended Clinton in this way did not just avert their eyes from corruption, violence and injustice, and to the use of state power to slander and defame female witnesses who turned out to be telling the truth. They invented excuses for power that we can be sure his successors will eagerly employ. Did you see the White House claiming that George (W)ashington had borrowed Clinton's vapid lines for his successful speech? Are these hacks so dumb that they don't know what they are acknowledging? The fact is that Clintonism has set a lower bar for political obscenity of all kinds, and that we are all the losers for it. All this -- and Starr wars, too.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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