There he was again, making a cameo appearance at another historical commemoration, grabbing a sliver of the limelight before it moves on. He's become the man who's always in the background but so clearly, achingly would rather be in the forefront: The Hon. William J. Clinton, former president, former governor, former everything but straight-shooter.
He was still as slick as ever when he got to speak for a few minutes on the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington.
Age has not withered nor custom staled his fine clintonesque touch, which consists not just of knowing what to say but, more important, what not to say, what parts of his long, long record not to mention, what truths to avoid at all costs, lest they mar the handsome Portrait of William Clinton he has so painstakingly created, having relegated the real unexpurgated one, with all its cracks and blemishes, to some dusty attic where the fashionable people would never venture.
The man never seems to miss an opportunity to do a little moral preening -- well, moralistic preening -- when real heroes are being celebrated. Whatever his actual record on the subject being discussed. This time it was the cause of civil rights. By now he's attached himself to it with barnacle-like devotion. Bill Clinton was never one to desert a good cause in its hour of victory.
How little Bill Clinton has changed was demonstrated last Wednesday when, brow furrowed in that familiar, oh-so-sincere, finger-pointing way, every gray hair in place, he posed as some great champion of civil rights. Happily, no one seemed to notice the irony of having Bill Clinton talk about civil rights, a cause he studiously avoided supporting when it could have used a stalwart supporter in the Governor's Mansion.
But why go into detail? It might spoil the effect. Anyway, what good, red-white-and-blue, historically amnesiac American bothers to remember the specifics of the past? This is the country of the future, dude. As for the past, as the current awful phrase goes, it's history -- meaning it's over, finished, gone, irrelevant, as in, "he's history." Or as Clinton femme put it so memorably not long ago when she was being asked about her responsibility for some more recent history, "What difference at this point does it make?"
Lest we forget, painful as memory can be, and the more accurate, the more painful, the Hon. Wm. J. Clinton never did find the time (or courage) to get a civil-rights or fair-housing law passed here in Arkansas when his not inconsiderable influence might have really helped. It wasn't till he ran for president that Gov. Clinton discovered he was for a state civil-rights law after all. There's nothing like running for president of the United States to open a politician's eyes. Or at least his mouth.
Let there be no doubt: Bill Clinton is all for civil rights -- now. Now that just about everybody claims to have been. But while he was governor, this great champion of racial equality had no problem defending voting districts drawn to protect white incumbents. And even after his more than a decade as governor, Arkansas remained one of only two states in the Union without its own civil-rights law. That measure of simple justice had to wait till after he left the Governor's Mansion.
Not that his modus operandi changed all that much when he moved to the White House. For this was the president whose greatest contribution to the cause of equal rights was his Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy for homosexuals serving in their country's armed forces. Free translation: We'll respect your civil rights if you don't talk about 'em.
How possibly justify so weasel-worded a substitute for real civil rights? Maybe he'd say he designed it to preserve his "political viability," his favorite excuse for sheer opportunism. But being the Hon. Bill Clinton, he needn't offer any explanation at all. For no one from the national media was so uncouth as to bring up his actual record when citing him as another hero of the civil-rights movement as he stood there at the Lincoln Memorial last week alongside real freedom fighters like John Lewis. (No one ever said William Jefferson Clinton lacked nerve.)
Only those who have lived through a little Arkansas history might bother to distinguish fact from self-celebrating fancy on so happy an occasion. A sharp instrument, historical memory, and a painful one for those who'd just as soon forget it.
The moral genius of Martin Luther King Jr. half a century ago, the gift of grace he made full use of, was that he loved his enemies. Baptist preacher that he was, he realized he had an ally in their conscience, and never ceased appealing to it. And so united instead of dividing us, for we all have fallen short.
But like the president who got star billing last Wednesday, Bill Clinton was so busy presenting a political agenda in the guise of a moral one, he wasted a grand opportunity to bring us together, lift us up, and move beyond our paltry divisions. He was so busy hectoring and posing that any lesson he had to teach was lost in the glare of his own self-regard.
Mr. Clinton's was not an isolated miscalculation on the day's program. So much of it was a sad illustration that history can happen twice -- in this case, once as triumph and, 50 years later, as parody.