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Remembering Clinton and the Episodic Apologists

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Frankly, I did not think of Chris Matthews as an episodic apologist until I watched his MSNBC documentary this week, "President of the World: The Bill Clinton Phenomenon." The episodic apologists are a familiar fixture of the Clinton administration, much as the court historians are a fixture of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whereas the court historians always could be relied upon to spin history FDR's heroic way, the episodic apologists always end up slobbering all over the Clintons -- albeit with a twist.

The court historians were always pretty straightforward. They adored FDR from the beginning to the end. The episodic apologists' lives are endlessly more complicated and melodramatic, as the Clintons are more complicated and melodramatic. There seems to be a script prepared for them. The apologists begin with high hopes and admiration for Bill and Bruno. Then Bill and Bruno fail them. The Clintons lie before grand juries or filch White House property while exiting for Chappaqua, or they are caught in Troopergate, in Travelgate, in Filegate or renting the Lincoln Bedroom. Of a sudden, the apologists suffer blighted hopes. First they become indignant. Then they feel used and abused. Some cry in public. Finally, hope springs anew.

In 2005, John F. Harris, then of The Washington Post, wrote in his book, "The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House" -- after years of such humiliating scandals -- that the Clintons are "the two most important political figures of their generation." Perhaps he forgot about George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich. By the way, Harris was tapped by Matthews to shill for Clinton the other night.

However, I would have expected more of Matthews. To be sure, he was always a reliable Democrat on most public matters and public figures, but on Clinton, he was often skeptical. During the Monica Lewinsky, shall we say, exposure, and subsequent impeachment proceedings, he seemed impatient. I always suspected that it was his Catholic sense of right and wrong that was triggered by the Clintons' amorality. Apparently, enough time has elapsed for him, too, to join the episodic apologists.

This week's documentary was hagiography for a rogue. If it ever raised an uncomfortable question for the "World President," I missed it. His scandal-plagued presidency, its "Animal House" exit and the reckless way he has amassed his fortune got not a nod of interest. "Bill Clinton's position in the world continues to grow," hymned Matthews. "He's part dignitary, part humanitarian, part politician, part international statesman and somehow greater than all of them." Well, he has done some good of late, but few presidents have been more self-absorbed and mediocre, and in fact, he piffled away almost a decade as the Playboy President when America needed a competent chief executive. I always have compared him to Warren G. Harding, right down to his love of golf and the bossy wife, though Mrs. Harding was relatively honest and did not make such a thing of her hair.

Halfway through the hourlong gush of celebration, there was one name mentioned, I think by way of criticism. It came fast and without much elaboration: Marc Rich. He was the most notorious of the 140 pardons and 36 commutations granted by Clinton in the hours before leaving the White House. Actually, there were many more miscreants in Clinton's back-of-the-hand insult to federal prosecutors, including money launderers, drug dealers, murderers and even Susan McDougal, whom Clinton had said he never would pardon. The Clintons' brothers were discovered arranging pardons for cash, along with former White House aides. Then there was the White House property, for which the Clintons finally made a minimum payment, the office equipment that their staff sabotaged and the property stolen from Air Force One on its last flight with the Clintons. Finally, Bill began his fundraising campaign for a comfortable retirement, $43 million in the first four years, much of it from very dubious sources, such as the Red Chinese. The fundraising continues.

The Clintons' White House exit led even Democrats to inveigh: "totally indefensible" (Joe Biden); "disgraceful" (Jimmy Carter); "terrible," "devastating" and "appalling" (William Daley); "Clinton is utterly disgraced" (Robert Reich, secretary of labor under Clinton); and "some of Mr. Clinton's closest associates and supporters are acknowledging what his enemies have argued for years -- the man is so thoroughly corrupt it's frightening" (The New York Times' Bob Herbert). I could continue, but you get my drift -- and all would be back on board in a couple of years.

Two editorials stick in my mind from these early years of Clinton's presidency of the world. The Times called for congressional investigations, lamenting that the "former president ... seemed to make a redoubled effort in the last moments of his presidency to plunge further and further beneath the already low expectations of his most cynical critics and most world-weary friends." The New York Observer noted that the Clinton critics "were right, after all. Mr. Clinton was, in fact, an untrustworthy low-life who used people for his own purposes and then discarded them." As for Hillary, the newspaper explained that New Yorkers had "made a terrible mistake, for Hillary Rodham Clinton is unfit for elective office. Had she any shame, she would resign."

Oh, and by the way, on the day of the MSNBC documentary, a headline in The Washington Post read, "Several big donors to Hillary Clinton now facing criminal allegations."

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