IN A CLASSIC episode of the "Twilight Zone," a woman driving cross-country by herself keeps encountering a sinister-looking hitchhiker. No matter how fast she drives, no matter how many extra hours she travels at night, somehow, the hitchhiker manages to catch up with her--he reappears again and again, causing the poor woman to feel ever more terrified.
That gives you some sense of how many conservatives feel about the post-presidential odyssey of Bill Clinton.
It's been a whirlwind first year out of office for the ex-president, who certainly hasn't strained to avoid the limelight. He's been hanging with his Hollywood toadies; explaining why he spent his final days in office pardoning low-lifes and fugitives; trying (and failing) to rent exorbitantly priced midtown Manhattan office space on the taxpayers' dime; and moaning to friends how he wished the September 11 attacks had happened on his watch.
Now, as if there weren't other pressing news, Newsweek has decided to devote this week's cover to the post-presidential life of The Man from Hope. You can read the interview with Clinton here and the companion article by Clinton sycophant Jonathan Alter here.
There's plenty of material in both to make the average Clinton-hater foam at the mouth. You've probably heard some of it already--how the Marc Rich pardon wasn't wrong, just "terrible politics . . . It wasn't worth the damage to my reputation"; or how it "was fair enough" that Osama bin Laden attempted to kill Clinton, since "I was trying to get him." But I'd rather not spend much time parsing every idiotic statement; many other fine writers have already been on that case. (See Andrew Sullivan's brilliant riff, for starters.)
Instead, I'd like to examine the whole question of whether it's necessary or even legitimate to criticize Clinton now that he's out of office. Last October, I was one of several conservative journalists who wrote pieces denouncing various self-serving Clinton statements and actions in the wake of September 11. In response, I was chastised on the website of the liberal American Prospect, and I received more than a handful of e-mails from liberal readers tarring me as just another Clinton-obsessed right-winger who couldn't leave the poor man alone. "It's time to move on," as they are so fond of saying.
But there are good reasons why some of us on the right can't give up: First, he won't let us. The man simply won't go away. I would like nothing better than to never hear another thing, or write another word, about Bill Clinton. As Alter notes, however, people infuriated by the self-absorbed post-White House Clinton "better learn to live with it. Anyone hoping he'll just fade away for good, like John Wayne Bobbitt or a busted dot-com, is bound to be disappointed."
And if Clinton's going to remain in the public eye, it's still necessary to hold him accountable for what he says and does. When Alter asks him why he thinks the right "still beats up on you when you're not in power anymore," Clinton says that "I'm having a really good time, so if they're concerned about me, I feel bad for them because I think they're wasting a lot of time. Life is short. This is fleeting, man." As usual, Clinton thinks it's all about him. But the right's beef has never been just with Clinton himself; it's more about what he represents: a degradation of the role of truth and honor and good character in our political life. And that degradation has not been so "fleeting, man." We saw in the chaotic election crisis of 2000 what can happen when Clintonism permeates American politics--when everything becomes about polls and spin and "we'll just have to win, then" and deconstructing the meaning of simple words like "is." It's important that we do whatever we can to purge this nonsense from our public life.
Which, in turn, means continuing to zing Bill Clinton as long as he continues to justify his mistakes and misbehavior (both political and personal) in his usual petty and self-righteous fashion. It's in the generous nature of Americans to give someone a second or even a third chance to redeem himself. Sooner or later, journalists will be itching to write yet another "Comeback Kid" story about Bill Clinton. And he deserves a chance to resuscitate his reputation. But if Clinton's good name is restored, it should be because he has earned it through humble and statesman-like behavior--not just because it's no longer considered chic to spoil Bill's Excellent Post-Presidential Adventure.
Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.