There is an Asian proverb that says "sit by the river long enough and you will see the body of your enemy float by." Something like that must be going through the head of George W. Bush these days, and he probably chuckles at the charge made this week by former President Bill Clinton that Sen. Barack Obama is using the press to funnel smears against his wife, New York's junior Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
How soon the Clintons forget the despicable lows to which they themselves sank in casting aspersions on the honor of George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) in the 1992 presidential campaign.
During that campaign Clinton's artful dodging of the Vietnam draft was contrasted with the fact that Bush 41 had served his nation as a naval aviator in the WWII Pacific Theater, having been the pilot of TBM Avenger as part of VT-51 squadron aboard the San Jacinto aircraft carrier. The elder Bush flew 58 combat missions by the time he was 20, making him one of the youngest pilots in naval aviation. At about the same age Bill Clinton was writing letters about how he needed to preserve his future political viability, Lieutenant JG George H.W. Bush was dodging anti-aircraft fire in order to reach his assigned targets and drop a load of 500-pound bombs.
In a 1985 article written for Naval Aviation News one of Bush's squadron mates, Jack Guy, was interviewed and told the author "I can't say anything but good things about him. In WW II we all felt we could depend on George to do his job. We never had to say, 'Where's my wingman?' because he was always there."
This article was written three years before Bush became president and seven years before the 1992 campaign. In other words, at a time when there was little attention focused on Bush 41's war record and quite some time before the controversy about Bill Clinton's having avoided conscription gave cause for the Clinton campaign to try and denigrate Bush's own war record to divert attention from the issue of how the Arkansas Governor had stayed out of the draft.
Maybe you remember what happened next. A poison-pen trashing of Bush 41's wartime exploits appeared a month before the election in the New Republic. Did the Clinton apparatus have a hand in that? You make the call. The author was Sidney Blumenthal, then still nominally a journalist, but before long a valued Clinton retainer specializing in trashing the Clintons' critics.
Now Bill Clinton himself has assumed the hatchet man role, which is usually the purview of vice presidential candidates. But, with the family business as stake, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
The Washington Post reported today on an exchange Clinton had with CNN correspondent Jessica Yelin regarding the current war of words between his wife and Obama. "They are feeding you this because they know this is what you want to cover. This is what you live for. They just spin you up on this and you happily go along." As aides steered him away, he scolded: "Shame on you."
Interestingly enough, it is not just conservative commentators or Republicans who are experiencing Clinton attack mode fatigue and do not want to see a return to blaming all the world's ills on a "vast right-wing conspiracy." People in the Clintons' own party appear to be fed up and generally dismayed as well.
"That's beneath the dignity of a former president," Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy was quoted as saying in the same Post article. "He is not helping anyone, and certainly not helping the Democratic party." Having one of the senior leaders in his own party more or less tell Bill that he has become a modern-day reincarnation of Lee Atwater is like--well--if I were Bush 41 I would indulge myself and ring up the former president Clinton and remind him in a Ricardo Montalban voice of the Klingon proverb that "revenge is a dish best served cold."
Here in Kiev, the politics of personal name-calling and political mud-slinging are a bit more simple. During a recent meeting of the Ukrainian National Security Council (RNBO), Interior Minister Yuri Lyutsenko and the mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetskiy, got into a heated argument that was carried out into the corridor outside the council chambers where it turned into a fist-throwing free-for-all--each one claiming that he had to resort to blows to restore his sense of manly honor.
The two are aligned with different political parties, Lyutsenko being part of President Viktor Yushchenko's Orange Revolution Nasha Ukraina and the Kiev mayor being more or less aligned with the Party of the Regions of pro-Russian former PM Viktor Yanukovich. Personal, as well as political, animosities are at work here.
I would never suggest that the publicly disgraceful behavior of politicians here in Kiev--or of the flamboyant and inflammatory Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Moscow--are appropriate for the U.S. political arena. However, if those doing the slandering in the United States were--every once in awhile--given the invitation "you wanna take this outside," maybe some of this pathetic mud-slinging and whinging might be minimized.
All of which has me asking the same question about the politicians in both countries. Given the enormous problems the world faces, just when and where are we going to see some adult supervision?
Reuben F. Johnson is a regular contributor to both THE DAILY STANDARD and THE WORLDWIDE STANDARD.