While Al Gore was winning an Oscar for his film "An Inconvenient Truth," the people he once inhabited the White House with were showing the power of the convenient lie.
When Hillary Clinton's talented spokesman Howard Wolfson reacted to Hollywood mogul David Geffen's attacks on the Clintons last week, his initial statement calling on Barack Obama to apologize described Geffen as Obama's "campaign finance chair." This could only have been a calculated dishonesty, since everyone knows that Geffen has no formal role in the Obama campaign, even if he was hosting a Hollywood fundraiser for the Illinois senator. But nakedly mischaracterizing Geffen's role served the purpose of more closely associating Obama with his remarks.
It was a convenient lie, and it just might have worked. Much of the punditocracy declared Hillary the winner of the bout over Geffen, since the Wolfson statement baited Obama's above-the-fray campaign into responding in kind. Thus, the flap itself showed the merit in Geffen's original criticism of the Clintons: "Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it's troubling."
One of the points of the Clinton campaign's harsh counterattack was to keep anything related to Bill Clinton's misconduct in office off-limits. (Geffen noted Bill's recklessness in the Monica Lewinsky affair and his appalling pardon of international fugitive Marc Rich.) At the time, the Clintons labeled impeachment "the politics of personal destruction," and now even alluding to it as Geffen did is also the politics of personal destruction. This is defining destruction downward. Soon enough, even watching a Geffen-produced movie will be an out-of-bounds personal attack.
Distasteful though it might be, Democrats would be well-advised to revisit Bill Clinton's personal scandals from the 1990s, not for what they say about Bill (we already know all that), but for what they say about the political character of Hillary. She was present at the creation of the Clinton "ultimate fighting" style of politics. As George Stephanopoulos recounts in his memoir, when he and James Carville discussed creating a central clearinghouse for attacks during the 1992 campaign, Hillary quickly grasped the idea: "'What you're describing is a war room,' she said, giving us both a name and an attitude."
During Clinton's campaign and presidency, the war room got its truest test in beating back allegations of Bill Clinton's infidelities. The strategy was to deny no matter what, and if the allegations had merit, persuade the woman involved to lie about them or, if she didn't comply, destroy her. Hillary the feminist pioneer was an adamant supporter of and participant in this approach.
This has always been the corruption at the core of the Clinton team — Bill's heedlessness and the need to cover it up. It created a political ethic that has a rottenness at its heart, and Hillary has deeply partaken of it. She tacitly acknowledges as much. On the campaign trail, she says of Republicans, "I'm the one person they're most afraid of because Bill and I know how to beat them, and we have consistently." It's the war room as applause line.
Of course, Bill also always had an irresistible, lovable-rogue quality. With Hillary, voters will get all the bare knuckles with little of the charm. Howard Wolfson now refers somewhat dismissively to Obama "as someone running on a campaign of hope." Prior to Obama, the candidate most associated with hope in American politics was Bill Clinton. The enablers around him justified their hardball tactics on grounds that his Kennedyesque potential couldn't be wasted on some silly scandal or another.
In Bill, the Democrats had the entire package — a young, charismatic politician who was also an adept attack artist. Now, they have Obama, who represents the first tendency, and Hillary, who represents the second. Perhaps one of them will achieve a Bill Clintonesque synthesis. For now, their race is a test whether a self-described purveyor of hope can survive the rigors of running against a brilliant, experienced wielder of the convenient lie.