Last week, while concluding a Brookings Spreecast about my book The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, I ran out of time before I could answer a great question. The questioner wondered whether Hillary Clinton was similar to Bill Clinton in not being able to avoid getting herself into trouble. This tendency, combined with the irrational anti-Clinton hatred, made this young voter wonder whether a second Clinton White House would be as scandal-prone and contentious as the first.
Despite living in polarized Washington, wherein Republican and Democratic truths seem mutually exclusive, this questioner recognized both parties’ guilt for the 1990s scandal wars. Just as paranoids can have real enemies, persecuted politicians can be guilty too. Moreover, fears that Clinton “Round 2” will be a prolonged partisan bout are reasonable, considering how vicious American politics has been since the 1990s.
Bill and Hilary Clinton are talented, idealistic, political reformers who have not always lived by the values they champion. An intrusive, sensationalist press fed by conservative partisans who never accepted President’s Clinton’s legitimacy certainly harassed them. Neither as pure as they claimed, nor as guilty as their enemies believed, the Clintons are not bad people. However, their ethical blind spots and an instinct to lie when pressed metastasized in the rancorous 1990s media environment into cascading scandals that clouded his presidency.
While mudslinging predates stumping in American politics, partisan ugliness in the 1990s became institutionalized and intensified. Part clown, part gladiator, the talk radio king, Rush Limbaugh, led the conservative cranks who viewed Bill Clinton’s election as a cultural coup d’etat, and who believed any lie about the Clintons, no matter how absurd. When confronted for spreading one rumor about Vince Foster’s death that had been disproved, Limbaugh shrugged, “That’s what it said in the FAX.”
During the nineteenth-century’s “Dark Ages of Partisan Journalism,” partisans only believed the smears they read about their rivals. Clinton triggered a similar polarization. Richard Behar, Time’s investigative reporter, conclusively debunked tales that charged Clinton with murder, corruption, and CIA-related drug smuggling for Contra forces in Arkansan airfields. Nevertheless, the story persisted. “We entered into this bizarre era when certain stories had legs—even when you cut them off,” Behar told me.
The Clinton-bashing industry proved lucrative, making media celebrities of perma-critics like Ann Coulter. In Congress, Republicans assembled the modern politician’s torture chamber of overlapping congressional and criminal investigations.
A political Pied Piper who loved to be loved, advised by many young staffers overly sensitive to the 24-hour news cycle, Clinton caved into pressure and authorized a special prosecutor to investigate Whitewater and related transactions. The White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum argued that the politicos were “clueless about the dangers of putting into place institutions that, yes, may calm down the press for the next 24, 48 hours, but would act as a knife in your heart for the next eight years.” Nussbaum understood that special prosecutors keep searching to justify their mandates. “The main thing I want to do is have this turned over to him so that we can get back to work,” Clinton said. Instead, this decision doomed the Clinton presidency to seven more years of relentless investigations. Clinton later called authorizing the special prosecutor “the worst presidential decision I ever made.”
Most moralists usually condemn the Lewinsky sex scandal, Whitewater, Travelgate, the missing files after Vince Foster’s suicide, or, lately, Hillary Clinton’s rules-are-only-for-the-little-people special Email server. The way they left the White House summarizes them all, demonstrating a surprising sloppiness. Clinton issued 176 pardons and sentence commutations. He pardoned his brother, Roger Clinton, as well as Marc Rich, the fugitive financier charged with 51 counts of tax evasion, whose ex-wife Denise Rich donated more than $1 million to the Clinton presidential library and the Democratic Party. The New York Times called pardoning a fugitive “indefensible.” Mickey Kantor, a close friend, would call the Rich pardon “the single most inexplicable, devastating thing” Clinton did. Clinton “was at the top of his game . . . and just like he’s always done,” sabotaged himself.
The Clintons also accepted $190,027 worth of gifts to help furnish their two new houses, in Chappaqua and Georgetown, while taking some furniture donors had deeded to the White House not to its temporary occupants. Despite his pending $10 million book deal and her $8 million advance, despite six-figure post-presidential speaking fees looming, the Clintons felt “broke.”
In 1999, watching M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Sixth Sense, millions felt chills when the psychologist played by Bruce Willis was revealed to be a ghost administering to a child who told viewers all along, “I see dead people.” Many Americans experienced a similar revelation, the Greeks call it anagnorisis, as the star reveals his true self. Bill Clinton, a brilliant politician, clearly was more morally tone deaf and personally hollow than many admitted; while his wife was often co-conspirator, not just victim or enabler. In 2002, when Newsweek asked him if he had second thoughts about pardoning Rich, Clinton answered obtusely, acknowledging: “It was terrible politics.”
I am an historian. I am not a prosecutor, a defense attorney, or a fortune-teller. My role is not to re-litigate the past, or predict the future. Still, the evidence legitimizes the questioners’ fears. The Clintons’ corner-cutting and Republican Clintipathy continue.
If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will have to try to prevent more Republican scandal mongering. But regardless of who wins, most Americans are fed up with all this mudslinging. Rather than consulting polls justifying this partisan charge and that personal attack, both Republicans and Democrats must view the polls showing minimal faith in our government as a vote of no confidence in them and their partisanship.
Democracies need the people’s faith as fuel to progress. The nation’s leaders must take this bipartisan repudiation of the way they do politics seriously, and start addressing it, not just to win a news cycle but to protect our Republic.