Wag the finger

Posted: Sep 27, 2006 12:01 AM
Wag the finger

Did you just see what I just saw? That old comedy line has new meaning in the context of Bill Clinton's now-famous interview with Chris Wallace.

The answer is quintessentially Clintonian: It depends. In this case, what one saw depends on where one sits on the political fence.

Republicans saw a guilty, purple-faced ex-president desperately trying to deflect attention from his administration's failings. Democrats saw an overdue smack down of a partisan hack by a brilliant statesmen fed up with slanderous disinformation.

So who's right? Perhaps both by degrees.

Clinton was clearly angry when Wallace asked him why he hadn't connected the dots before 9/1l and done more to eliminate Osama bin Laden.

In response, Clinton leaned into Wallace's space, wagged his finger, poked Wallace's notepad and went off on a "tear," as Wallace later put it.

Clinton said that he did more than "some" to try to get bin Laden and urged everyone to read Richard Clarke's book, "Against All Enemies," for confirmation of the Clinton version of history. Clarke, a Republican, was a counterterrorism official for three presidents, including Clinton and George W. Bush.

Toss out an assertion like that in today's political environment and the blogosphere will shift into hyper-warp speed. Within hours, several reputable bloggers had dissected Clinton's claims as inaccurate (if true-ish), and the Republican National Committee had issued a point-by-point refutation with names, dates and sources.

Whatever Clinton did or didn't do as president, it's interesting to ponder what he's doing now. Why would he lash out at the amiable and (BEG ITAL)un(END ITAL)-partisan Wallace? Was it a strategic strike, as Democrats claim? Or did Clinton show more of his legendary temper than he intended?

As I've written before, Clinton has a right to be angry about distortions of his record as recently portrayed in the ABC docudrama "The Path to 9/11." There's no benefit to massaging the historical record for dramatic effect. Clinton's response to Wallace clearly was prompted in part by that recent episode of partly fictionalized history.

But Clinton's demeanor with Wallace betrayed something more than mere annoyance. His face assumed what the Irish called a ``warp-spasm,'' a transformative anger that revealed a repressed rage and the kind of sneer that gets schoolboys punched in the nose.

Before answering the question, Clinton attacked Wallace's journalistic credibility, saying: "You did Fox's bidding," and calling it a "nice little conservative hit job."

"You've got that little smirk on your face," Clinton said, "and you think you're so clever."

Clinton's hostility was surprising because it was so disproportionate to the query. Obviously, al-Qaeda and bin Laden were forces to be reckoned with during the Clinton administration. Why we didn't dispatch him before 9/11 seems a reasonable question. That said, Clarke is highly critical in his book of the Bush administration's failure to take al-Qaeda seriously.

There's nothing wrong with getting angry if you're right, as Chris Matthews put it. But when Clinton went after Wallace, he inadvertently allowed his mask to slip. America got a glimpse not just of a former president who feels mischaracterized, but of a man filled with contempt for the lesser mortals who would seek to undo him.

His inner Gollum was visible beneath a roiling rage.

Clinton, we are constantly told, is immensely charming and charismatic. Narcissists usually are. Their social and political success is owing to their ability to project what people want to see. Friends and foe agree that few are better at this than Clinton.

But narcissists also become enraged when things don't go their way, when the attention they covet is diverted. Experience tells us, too, that manipulators are always contemptuous of those they manipulate.

To be fair, Clinton deserves much credit for raising billions to fund his charitable work in the world's dirtiest trenches, from tsunami reconstruction to the fight against AIDS. Understandably, he wanted to talk about those issues, which comprise the legacy he is working so hard to create. His "precious," as Gollum would put it.

But his legacy also includes an iconic gesture -- the wagging finger. Clinton's marmish scolding of Wallace was a telling moment, much like another time he wagged his finger on television.

He did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. And he did not fail to connect the dots concerning that man, Mr. bin Laden.