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Clintonian Déjà Vu


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The Hillary Clinton presidential campaign is getting louder and uglier by the minute as racial and gender politics threaten to fracture the Democratic base, and even those media outlets that in the past had defended or at the very least tolerated the Clintons give every indication of having finally lost patience with the shopworn act.

But did anyone expect anything other than a three-ring circus, particularly with a publicity-seeking missile like Bill Clinton launching himself at any available microphone or television camera?

Really, was there ever a president quite like Bill Clinton? The Oval Office has seen more than its share of questionable characters, but rarely had one embodied so many of the traits we normally abhor in a low-level political hack, let alone a president of the United States.

There is no need to recite here the dreary and extensive litany of Clinton’s flip-flops on both domestic and foreign policy. Suffice it to say that the man is a political chameleon who, as the editors of National Review once put it so memorably, “has been ruled ineligible for Mt. Rushmore because there isn’t room for so many more faces.”

Nor is it necessary to revisit the sordid details of all the controversies and scandals that came to attach themselves to a man for whom the word “shameless” always seemed the mildest of sobriquets.

The wonder of it all is not that Clinton twice managed to get elected president – he failed, after all, to garner a majority of the vote in both 1992 and 1996, and his victories owed much to the ineptness of his Republican opposition and the unbridled ego of Ross Perot.

No, the remarkable thing about the Clinton years is the narcotic effect they seemed to have on Americans, large numbers of whom were content to sleepwalk their way through the accumulating detritus of White House sleaze.

Jews in particular were enamored of Bill Clinton, and his approval ratings in Jewish strongholds from Great Neck to Beverly Hills were positively Rooseveltian. It was said in the 1940’s that for American Jews there was di velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt; in that sense Clinton was FDR revisited, a man who could do no wrong in Jewish eyes, facts – and Israel – be damned.

The fact is, Clinton left office with Israel’s situation considerably more precarious than it had been at the end of the first President Bush’s lone term. And while Israeli leaders bore a considerable portion of the blame, it was Clinton who pulled, prodded and pressured Israel – and directly intervened in the Israeli political process – whenever he felt it necessary to sustain the mirage of Oslo.

And Hillary of course always was the perfect sideshow to Bill’s Main Event, someone who simply by opening her mouth in public during the Clintons’ White House years made the pundits cringe, her poll numbers plunge, and general chaos ensue.

It was Hillary, as author Sally Bedell Smith reminds us in For Love of Politics, her recently published account of the Clinton presidency, who almost single-handedly ran national health care into the ground. It was also Hillary whose behind-the-scenes machinations resulted in Travelgate and Filegate, among many other such Clintonian hijinks.

And, as Smith convincingly relates, it was Hillary’s insistence that her husband ignore the advice of his attorneys that necessitated the court depositions which eventually led to Bill’s impeachment.

By the time Hillary gave an excruciatingly embarrassing 1999 interview to Talk magazine (since defunct), once-sympathetic observers like the liberal columnist Richard Cohen were beginning to see the unflattering truth behind the first lady’s carefully cultivated veneer.

Describing Hillary as a “bit of a ditz,” Cohen asked, “What can we make of a woman who talks the language of afternoon television – an amalgam of psychobabble and fortune-cookie wisdom, with a dollop of religion here and there?” The Talk article, Cohen conceded, “raises real questions about her sagacity, her knowledge of how she sounds to others and – not least – her political wisdom.”

Later in 1999, the Suha Arafat imbroglio (Hillary had embraced Mrs. Yasir Arafat moments after the latter accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian women and children – and then offered up a series of excuses and explanations for her behavior) threw into sharp relief all the weaknesses exhibited by Hillary throughout her career as a public figure.

Those weaknesses were overlooked or forgotten as Hillary rather deftly settled into her role as U.S. senator from New York. But apparently they were always under the surface and have now reemerged: the transparent posturing, the dissembling and denial whenever her actions or statements blow up in her face, and the political spinning – always the political spinning.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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