The Magazine

You Go, Geffen!

Hillary Clinton's very bad week.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

We know from the philosophers that a true statement is true without regard to the reliability or sagacity of the person who utters it. We have it on good authority that the truth shall set us free. David Geffen spoke truth to Maureen Dowd last week. And he may have triggered a series of events that will set the Democratic party free from its Clinton captivity.

Here is what the Hollywood mogul told the New York Times gossip columnist:

I don't think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is--and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton?--can bring the country together. Obama is inspirational, and he's not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family. . . .

I don't think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person. . . . I think [Republicans] believe she's the easiest to defeat. . . .

It's not a very big thing to say, "I made a mistake" on the war, and typical of Hillary Clinton that she can't. She's so advised by so many smart advisers who are covering every base . . . that machine is going to be very unpleasant and unattractive. . . .

Marc Rich getting pardoned? An oil-profiteer expatriate who left the country rather than pay taxes or face justice? Yet another time when the Clintons were unwilling to stand for the things that they genuinely believe in. Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it's troubling.

There it is, in black and white. Will it set the Democrats free? It could. Hillary Clinton was cruising along, raising big money, triangulating on Iraq, rounding up supporters who felt they had little choice but to sign on. And then Geffen spoke up. Suddenly Democrats all over the country may be thinking to themselves, "Well, what about that? Why exactly do we have to be for Hillary anyway? Shouldn't we consider some alternatives?"

Once unleashed, this series of thoughts is subversive. So much of the Hillary Clinton candidacy depends on an aura of inevitability, supported by oodles of money and a fear of retribution if you're not on board. But what if she's not inevitable? And what if the retribution isn't so all-powerful?

That's what is now being tested. Now that it has been raised, the thought that Hillary isn't the ideal nominee might spread. Hence Team Clinton's need to enforce omertà. Hillary's attack dog, Howard Wolfson, couldn't even take the time to do some basic fact-checking before rushing out an attack email demanding Obama denounce the remarks of Geffen, "his campaign's finance chair." But Geffen is not and has never been Obama's finance chair. He has no official role in the Obama campaign.

Obama's aides pointed out the falsehood. Obama himself commented, "It's not clear to me why I'd be apologizing for someone else's remark." (Notice he didn't exactly disavow the remarks.) And Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs fired back: "The Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when [he] was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln bedroom."

Then the next day, Obama convinced a credulous Adam Nagourney of the New York Times that he personally hadn't been aware of his aide's statement. After all, he got himself quoted saying on page 1 of the Times, "I don't want us to be a party to these kinds of distractions because I want to make sure that we're spending time talking about issues. My preference going forward is that we have to be careful not to slip into playing the game as it customarily is played."

Nicely done. Geffen's comments get repeated in three days' worth of stories--because how can you report about the spat without reporting the remarks that started it?--and Obama gets to rise above the fray. And consider the original response by Gibbs. He went out of his way to respond not to Hillary Clinton, and not to Howard Wolfson, but to "the Clintons": "We aren't going to get in the middle of a disagreement between the Clintons. . . . The Clintons had no problem . . . "

Very nicely done. Is Sen. Clinton not her own person? Are we again getting two for the price of one? Hillary Clinton's popularity soared after the Monica affair, when she achieved a kind of political separation from her husband. That's what made her Senate race possible, and her current presidential candidacy plausible. Relinking her to Bill makes her political life more complicated.

Obama is running an impressive campaign. But if he ultimately falters because voters think him too inexperienced--then the experienced, antiwar-from-the-start, and environmentally prophetic Al Gore is waiting in the wings. It was a bad week for Hillary.

--William Kristol