Counterinaugural at the Clinton library

At the dedication of the Clinton library, the former president calls for transcending divisions, while Bush strangely muses that "a submarine could take this place out."

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published November 25, 2004 10:28PM (UTC)
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At the dedication of the Clinton library last week in Little Rock, Ark., Karl Rove and President Bush received separate tours of the dramatic building, a glistening silver suspended boxcar filled with light and offering a panoramic view of the Arkansas River. Across the river stands an old railroad bridge that symbolically represents "the bridge to the 21st century," President Clinton's reelection slogan in 1996. The library exhibits, year by year, detail specific Clinton administration achievements in social and international policy, highlighting not only the arc of progress but the entwined method of governing and politics. And in one display, about the Republican Congress' failed impeachment trial of the president, emblazoned "The Fight for Power," the library makes explicit that these accumulated changes were fiercely resisted and hard won.

The opening ceremony was biblical in its spectacle, length and rain. For more than four hours we huddled in thin ponchos under the unrelieved downpour, through many church choirs and a Colombian children's band, a jazz trumpeter and Bono, awaiting four presidents. Only on election nights, after Clinton's two victories, was Little Rock previously inundated with such a cast of thousands -- former advisors and Cabinet secretaries, the diplomatic corps and high school friends of Bill, Wes Clark and Barbra Streisand, Madeleine Albright and Robin Williams -- spilling out of the Capital and Peabody hotels and down the main drag, and milling in the bars and streets until the wee hours. For the assembled Democrats, beneath the nostalgic celebration it was an unofficial convention, a kind of counterinaugural, with rueful discussions of the recent defeat.


Sen. John Kerry entered to take his front-row seat to defiant cheering from the crowd. Then, when the presidents were announced, Bush tried to push his way past Clinton at the library door to be first in line, against the already accepted protocol for the event, as though the walk to the platform was a contest for alpha male.

In his speech, Clinton sought to clarify the present by his broad analysis of globalization -- "an age of interdependence with new possibilities and new dangers" -- and the offer of conciliation: "America has two great dominant strands of political thought; we're represented up here on this stage: conservatism, which at its very best draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which at its very best breaks down barriers that are no longer needed or should never have been erected in the first place."

In his effort to transcend the division of America into two nations, red and blue states, Clinton was applying his tradition -- the absence of dogma, the belief that good ideas can come from anywhere, and that solutions cannot be imposed but must be worked out in democratic politics by building coalitions, compromises and experimentation, of which he was leading practitioner and survivor, ever the Comeback Kid.


Offstage, beforehand, Rove and Bush had had their library tours. According to two eyewitnesses, Rove had shown keen interest in everything he saw, and asked questions, including about costs, obviously thinking about a future Bush library and legacy. "You're not such a scary guy," joked his tour guide. "Yes, I am," Rove replied. Walking away, he muttered deliberately and loudly, "I change Constitutions, I put churches in schools ..." Thus he identified himself as more than the ruthless campaign tactician -- as the invisible hand of power, pervasive and expansive, designing to alter the fundamental American compact.

On his tour Bush appeared distracted and glanced repeatedly at his watch. When he stopped to gaze at the river, where Secret Service agents were stationed in boats, the guide said, "Usually, you might see some bass fishermen out there." Bush replied: "A submarine could take this place out."

Was the president warning of an al-Qaida submarine, sneaking undetected up the Mississippi, through the locks and dams of the Arkansas River, surfacing suddenly under the bridge to the 21st century to dispatch the Clinton library with a torpedo that could travel on water and land? Is that where Osama bin Laden is hiding?


Or was this a wishful, paranoid fantasy of ubiquitous terrorism destroying Clinton's legacy with one blow? Or was it a projection of menace and messianism, with only Bush grasping the true danger, standing between submerged threat and civilization? Was his apparent non sequitur a reflection of his inner logic about American politics in a fog of war, where little is discernible in the miasma but fear? Or was this simply his way of saying he wouldn't build his library near water? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a submarine just a submarine. And sometimes we all live in a yellow submarine.

Clinton concluded his remarks with a challenge to Bush couched in terms of his own failure: "Where we fell short ... the biggest disappointment in the world to me ... peace in the Middle East ... I did all I could." He turned to face Bush seated behind him: "But when we had seven years of progress toward peace, there was one whole year when, for the first time in the history of the state of Israel, not one person died of a terrorist attack, when the Palestinians began to believe they could have a shared future. And so, Mr. President, again, I say: I hope you get to cross over into the promised land of Middle East peace. We have a good opportunity, and we are all praying for you."


At the private luncheon of distinguished guests afterward, in a heated tent pitched behind the library, Shimon Peres delivered a heartfelt toast to Clinton's perseverance in pursuing the Middle East peace process. Upon entering the tent, Bush, according to an eyewitness, told an aide, "One gulp and we're out of here." He had informed the Clintons he would stay through the lunch, but by the time Peres arose with wine glass in hand the president was gone.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush John F. Kerry D-mass.