Former President Bill Clinton last week inadvertently demonstrated Karl Marx's shrewd observation, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." The historical event in question is the attempt to deter by smearing a broad-based, popular, American anti-high-tax, anti-big-central government movement as likely to induce seditious violence against the government.
The historic example of this calumny was Alexander Hamilton's slander against Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's emerging Republican/Democratic Party. The first repetition, as tragedy, was Bill Clinton's attack on the Republican Contract With America rhetoric following the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 -- which resulted in deflecting the upward progress of conservatism from the summer of 1995 onward.
The second repetition -- this time as farce -- occurred last week as, once again, Mr. Clinton went back to his once-trusty playbook and implied that this time, the Tea Party rhetoric might result in political violence.
By coincidence, I have found myself involved in both of Mr. Clinton's attempted repetitions. As Newt Gingrich's press secretary in 1995, I received the calls of reporters asking me to respond to Clinton White House-generated accusations that our Contract with America rhetoric had caused Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Oklahoma City government building. As preposterous as the charge was -- advocating constitutional, limited government is inherently non-seditious, nor did we ever call for violence of any sort -- the charge had its intended effect and put Mr. Clinton back in the political driver's seat in Washington after the drubbing he took the previous November.
Being a shrewd student of history, Mr. Clinton doubtlessly got the idea from Federalist Hamilton's initially successful effort to tar anti-Federalists Jefferson and Madison's effort to squelch a big federal government from overwhelming American liberty.
Backcountry resistance to Hamilton's new excise tax on distilling and selling liquor was over-characterized as a violent rebellion (the famous Whisky "Rebellion"). Hamilton and his people warned darkly that thousands of rebels were going to march on Philadelphia. America's first large standing army was raised while Jefferson was being slandered by Hamilton for encouraging "rebellion."
As Jefferson wryly observed at the time: "An insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against, and marched against, but could never be found." Does that sound familiar? Were unrecorded rude words really uttered at the Tea Party event on Capitol Hill last month? No matter. Those who made the claims hoped even the unproved charge would help the government against the Tea Party movement. Don't bet on it.
Back in 1794, after the fact, Hamilton said: "The insurrection will do us a great deal of good and add to the solidity of everything in this country." In fact, as historian Gordon Wood has written, "so much did the rebellion redound to the benefit of the national government that some thought the Federalists were behind the entire uprising."
Eventually, the Federalists fell because, inter alia, the vast public they slandered turned out not to like being lied about by their "betters." So was born -- then -- the Democratic Party.By chance, I was on CNN's "Situation Room" on Friday to comment on Mr. Clinton's latest attempt to smear anti-tax, anti-big-government grass-roots efforts. Unlike in 1995, now I had the advantage of being familiar with subsequent statements by Clinton aides and others. So, on the show, I quoted from Mr. Clinton's chief speechwriter in a 2000 interview on PBS' "Frontline."
Michael Waldman said, describing Mr. Clinton's words immediately after the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, that "he also very skillfully used the moment to begin the process of making people wonder about the Republican revolution on Capitol Hill. ... And very subtly and appropriately, by planting the national flag in opposition to that (GOP rhetoric and the McVeigh bombing) began to turn the political tide as well."
To which the PBS correspondent, Chris Bury, correctly asked: "Couldn't (Clinton) be accused of manipulating a terrible tragedy in order to do that?" Indeed.
How closely the Clinton strategy paralleled Hamilton's. Consider the description of Hamilton's method by Jefferson's ally Madison: "The game" Madison explained in a letter, "was to connect the democratic societies (those accused of encouraging the insurrection) with the odium of the insurrection -- to connect the Republicans in Congress (Jefferson, Madison, et al.) with those Societies -- to put the President ostensibly at the head of the other party, in opposition to both."
And just as some Americans came to suspect the Federalists of provoking that of which they accused Jefferson, I went on to note that accusing your political opponents of causing a murderous tragedy is a dangerous game.
I quoted from a 2001 Associated Press article about McVeigh's execution, which included his own words: "The siege at Waco (ineptly carried out by Mr. Clinton's Justice Department) was the defining event in his (McVeigh's) decision to retaliate against the government with the bombing. ... 'If there would not have been a Waco, I would have put down roots somewhere and not been so unsettled with the fact that my government was a threat to me. Everything that Waco implies was on the forefront of my thoughts. That sort of guided my path for the next couple of years.' " Ouch.
Of course, as I completed my on-air comments, I didn't blame Mr. Clinton for the deaths of more than 160 men, women and children in the Oklahoma City bombing because no one should be blamed for the conduct of a murderous lunatic like McVeigh (even though the evidence is conclusive that McVeigh bombed because of the actions of Clinton's top aides in Waco).
Over the weekend, others started pointing out Mr. Clinton's cynicism last time. (See Byron York's excellent review of how then-Clinton aide Dick Morris described the Clinton method.) And the public begins to giggle rather than tremble at the false accusations of sedition.
Here is a case where our opponents should pay more attention to the teaching of Marx -- at least when it comes to committing a historic farce.
First tragedy, next farce and then, perhaps like the Federalists, extinction.