The Agony of Bill Clinton

Rich Lowry

6/2/2008 5:51:01 PM - Rich Lowry

Few things are sadder than former greats past their prime. A bloated Elvis Presley in a sequined suit; a diminished Michael Jordan making one last comeback with the Washington Wizards; and, we can add, a gaunt Bill Clinton desperately plugging his wife's doomed presidential campaign -- the Big Dog in winter.

With his media enablers gone, with his most faithful constituency (African-Americans) lured away by another, with the prospect of again attaining the commanding heights of American politics lost, with his magic touch in abeyance, Bill Clinton has been whittled down to a long, self-pitying plaint.

For a man blessed with so much talent, fame and riches, Clinton has always had an unparalleled ability to see himself as beset by cosmic unfairness. In his telling, the 2008 Democratic primaries are the fruit of another vast conspiracy against the Clintons, who have struggled against a biased media, cheating unions, unfair rules and malevolent left-wing pressure groups.

There's some truth in this. But, given all the advantages the Clinton machine brought into the primary season against the tyro senator from Illinois, Bill Clinton is in a poor position to whine, except he doesn't have the willpower or grace to resist it.

The usual audience for Clinton excuse-making isn't listening. Witness the long, scathing profile of the post-presidential Clinton in Vanity Fair by former New York Times White House correspondent Todd Purdum. Purdum writes that it once was "easy enough to retain an enduring affection" for Clinton, despite "his indiscipline" and "his shortcomings." Not anymore.

What changed? Clinton has been campaigning against the great, young liberal hope that he himself represented back in 1992. Now that he's on the wrong side of history, liberals can see all the shortcomings they formerly looked past because Clinton had all the right (in every sense) enemies.

Purdum writes of Bill Clinton's post-presidential money-grubbing, dubious associations, eyebrow-raising connections to women and spectacularly sophistical self-justification as if they are some kind of departure. Was he not paying attention during Clinton's 12 years as Arkansas governor and eight years as president? The exact circumstances may have changed -- Clinton used to raise funny money for his campaign coffers rather than vacuum it into his bank account and foundation - but poor character and judgment are enduring.

Clinton's office released a wounded memo responding to the Purdum piece, complaining -- among other things -- that the journalist didn't talk to "two Nobel Prize winners who have praised the President's foundation." Please. These Nobel Prize winners aren't hanging out with Clinton late at night and paying him millions. Purdum focuses on Clinton wingmen like the good-time billionaire mogul Ron Burkle, who paid Clinton more than $15 million from 2003 to 2007 for general advice and rainmaking.

African-Americans have bailed on Clinton just like elite journalists. Clinton had a special bond with blacks, which he used as a moral bludgeon. He couched his fight against impeachment as almost a civil-rights struggle, with the Congressional Black Caucus dutifully playing along. Noting Clinton's hardball tactics against Barack Obama, Rep. James Clyburn said, "I think black folks feel strongly that this is a strange way for President Clinton to show his appreciation." As if Clinton were ever moved by anything deeper than an instinct for self-preservation.

Bill Clinton has always been a man threatened to be swallowed by the yawning maw of his own ego. Even as he has tirelessly stumped the country on behalf of his wife, he's given the impression that it's all about him. His rage at the process -- his temper tantrums at reporters and twisted attempts to make himself always the victim -- speaks to an aggrieved sense of entitlement, that for all his good fortune he's owed even more.

That abiding sense will ensure his post-presidential career continues to be a restless, cringe-making affair. When he comes around to supporting Obama, who can doubt that he'll compare the candidate to himself, in the highest of all possible praise?