IN THE MIDST OF ALL HIS OTHER ACTIVITIES, one thing continues to preoccupy Bill Clinton: his frantic attempt to remake himself and rewrite history. Consider some of his more recent statements.
On June 25, President Clinton held a news conference during which a reporter asked if he took any personal responsibility for polarizing the country and generating antagonism. The president accepted none. Instead, he said, "I think generally in our country's history, that people who are progressive, people who try to change things, people who keep pushing the envelope, have generally elicited very strong, sometimes personally hostile, negative reaction. You read some of the things people said about President Roosevelt -- in retrospect, because of the magnificent job he did, and because of the historic consequences of the time in which he served and what he did for America, we tend to think that everybody was for him. That's not true."
In a June 11 interview, PBS's Jim Lehrer asked Clinton about Senator Chuck Hagel's assertion that the president has debased the currency of trust and that he'll never get it back. In response, Clinton said that "elements of the other party" have devoted the better part of the last seven years to "attacking me personally because they knew the American people agreed with my ideas." About his critics he said, "they have just been mad ever since I won because a lot of them really never believed there would be another Democrat in their lifetime." They are left with nothing but "personal attacks" when the country does well, "but that's not good for America. I don't attack them personally." The president went on to say that "on one occasion, much to my eternal regret, I gave them a little ammunition. But I have been trustworthy in my public obligations to the American people. And I have been trustworthy in my dealings with them."
In a March 31 interview with CBS's Dan Rather, the president declared that he wasn't troubled at all by the fact that he was impeached. "I do not regard this impeachment vote as some great badge of shame," he said. He then cast himself as a defender of the Constitution against those who would dishonor it. "I am honored that something that was indefensible was pursued and that I had the opportunity to defend the Constitution."
During a March 19 press conference, Clinton, when asked about his legacy of lying, said young people will learn from his experience that "even presidents have to" tell the truth. He then added this: "But I also think that there will be a box score, and there will be that one negative, and then there will be the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times when the record will show that I did not abuse my authority as president, that I was truthful with the American people; and scores and scores of allegations were made against me -- most of them have already been actually proved false."
What is the president saying?
He made one minor mistake. The president insists that the Lewinsky scandal was an isolated incident, a personal failure that was inappropriate but ultimately unimportant, and that it should certainly not affect how we view the rest of his presidency. (Clinton's reference to the Lewinsky scandal as "that one negative" calls to mind a comment by former Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry, who said that if you set aside the district's record high murder rate, it was a pretty safe city.)
The president of the United States had a squalid affair with a young intern. Instead of admitting to it, he lied repeatedly to his wife, daughter, aides, cabinet, party, lawyers, and countrymen. He sent out his defenders to spread his lies and attack those who told the truth. He dragged the country through impeachment hearings, divided the nation, and tarnished the presidency. Far from being an aberration, the Lewinsky scandal in many ways embodies Clinton's private and public character.
He has expressed his remorse. Last fall the president gave a speech in which he said he had sinned. In his mind that admission was sufficient. Now the matter should be closed; after all, it was time to move on.
It is now manifestly clear that last September, when the president spoke at the Prayer Breakfast, he was telling a poll-tested lie. He said on that occasion that his sorrow was genuine, he had repented, he was a man who possessed a broken spirit and was moved to deep contrition. Yet everything he has said and done since that speech has been (legally and politically) defiant. President Clinton has no remorse, no contrition, and no regrets, and, but for the dress, he would never have admitted the affair. In his apology the president was exploiting for his personal political advantage the language and symbols of Christian forgiveness.
The president is a victim of personal attacks by hateful right-wingers who resent him because he is among the century's most successful and progressive presidents. Bill Clinton portrays himself as a historic agent of change, comparable to Franklin Roosevelt, who has guided the nation through a difficult, challenging transition period. His critics are his critics not because of anything bad he has done, but because of all the good he has accomplished. He would have us believe that he is the victim of that famous "right-wing conspiracy," comprised of ideologues whose allegations are politically based and groundless.
The president is attempting to discredit responsible conservative critics by tying them to fanatics on the fringe. Of course Bill Clinton has a few irresponsible critics; so did Richard Nixon. So has every president. It doesn't follow that because some people make irresponsible charges against the chief executive, all charges made against him are irresponsible. The notion that most of the president's critics are driven by an irrational rage against this good and decent man is risible. It turns out that allegations made by his most prominent critics were demonstrably true and well grounded.
Nor is it plausible to argue that animus toward Clinton is ideologically driven, or that conservatives deeply resent him for his success in advancing "progressive" ideas. For one thing, this cannot explain why many of the president's former top aides have been extraordinarily tough on the president's character, to the point of some of them saying that if they had known what kind of man Bill Clinton was they would never have gone to work for him. Nor can it explain why some of the most scorching criticisms came from congressional Democrats.
In addition, the Clinton presidency has been (at least in terms of public policy accomplishments) largely inconsequential. And arguably his most important policy act was to sign welfare reform legislation -- which was an idea advanced by Republicans. The president has, on a number of fronts, moved the Democratic party in a more conservative direction. All of which is to say that Bill Clinton has earned the distrust and contempt he elicits not because of his "progressive" politics but because of his squalid acts.
His enemies engage in the politics of personal destruction, something he refuses to do. The president preaches against "the politics of personal destruction," warns his political opponents that they are doing great damage to the country, and insists that he refuses to sink to their level.
The record shows that this administration employs vicious and intimidating tactics. The president and his defenders have regularly used private investigators against his accusers; savaged women with whom the president has had affairs; declared "war" on a duly appointed independent counsel; and made common cause with pornographer Larry Flynt in his effort to intimidate Republicans in Congress. Rather than standing against the "politics of personal destruction," they have made promiscuous use of it.
Bill Clinton is a defender of the Constitution and the presidency. This is the most fantastic claim of all, utterly self-delusional and completely severed from reality. The president of the United States lied in civil litigation, before a federal grand jury, and in response to questions posed by the House Judiciary Committee. He obstructed justice. He violated his oath to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." He placed himself above the law. He did everything he could to obstruct Kenneth Starr's investigation. He subverted the Constitution and degraded the office of the presidency. These are stubborn facts which even Bill Clinton -- a slick, glib, and accomplished rewriter of history -- cannot change.
Peter Wehner is executive director for policy at Empower America.