It's not exactly a man-bites-dog story when someone accuses Bill Clinton of stretching the truth, but when it's a president of his own party, and when what he calls Clinton is a "bald-faced" liar, and when that president happens to employ Clinton's wife as the Secretary of State, well, yes, that's kind of newsworthy.
That's one of the juicier morsels in Renegade: The Making of a President," a new campaign book by Richard Wolffe, who covered the 2008 presidential race for Newsweek. Wolffe also quotes Barack Obama as referring during the campaign to former President Clinton as "a loose cannon."
These quotations are sourced directly to Obama himself, and come out of interviews the author did with "the candidate," as Wolffe calls him in a conscious emulation of Kennedy campaign biographer Theodore White. That Obama cooperated with Wolffe is obvious; in fact, it appears that the idea for the book may originally have been Obama's. Revealingly, the tension in Wolffe's narrative is elevated when he's writing about the nomination fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton more than when he chronicles the runoff between Obama and John McCain. This is as it should be. Not only was the Obama-Clinton contest closer than the Obama-McCain duel, it was longer, more bitter, more interesting, and more historic.
One of the factors spicing it up was the frantic effort by Bill Clinton to help his wife. These exertions were so inartful that they chipped away at Bill Clinton's reputation as a master political tactician. They also, invariably, hurt Hillary's cause -- so much so that a few amateur psychologists in the punditry and political classes offered the opinion that deep down he wanted her to lose. This was wrong, of course. Clinton wanted her to win so badly that he could control neither his emotions nor his temper. Bill Clinton's unedited thoughts have never been overly delicate, and last year, he had a lot at stake.
As 2008 unfolded, two likely scenarios presented themselves relating to Bill Clinton's legacy. In the first, Hillary is installed as the 44th president of the United States -- and the first woman to hold that office -- and Bill Clinton is remembered as the man who made it happen, who presided over a strong economy in eight years of relative peace, and whose tenure had been marred only by a naked power grab by jealous congressional Republicans who impeached him over purely private behavior of the same sort engaged in by their own leaders. That was one possibility.
Here's another: Voters elect someone else in 2008, choosing to finally put behind them the Clintons' soap opera marriage, the corruption that started with renting out the Lincoln Bedroom in the first months of the administration and ended with selling pardons on their way out the door. In that second scenario, the Clinton administration might be seen as long on self-congratulation and short on accomplishment -- one that failed to get universal health care or the Kyoto climate accords, and dithered as Al-Qaeda planned 9/11.
With the stakes for his legacy that high, the obvious source of Bill's frustration, then, became the Democratic senator who stood between him and the first scenario, the only candidate with any realistic chance of defeating Hillary. His desperation was understandable. And it showed whenever he talked about Barack Obama.
After Obama won the South Carolina primary, Bill Clinton said dismissively that Jesse Jackson had won there, too, essentially implying, that, oh, it was some kind of black thing. Then, when his racial sensitivity was questioned, Clinton claimed incongruously that the Obama campaign had "played the race card on me." Weeks later, Clinton termed Obama's oft-cited (and well-documented) assertion that he was the only major candidate to oppose the Iraq invasion as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." And as the campaign wound down, Clinton complained, weirdly, that "they" (Obama? The media?) were engaged in some massive "cover-up" to hide public opinion surveys demonstrating Hillary's potential strength in a general election campaign.
"We had to figure out how to deal with a former president who was just lying, engaging in bald-faced lies," Obama told Wolffe. When the author asked if Bill Clinton had gotten into his head, Obama replied, "Yes, but I got into his."
True enough, and, according to Wolffe, that consideration entered into Obama's thinking when it came to choosing a running mate. Obama instructed his aides to consider Hillary -- if and only if they thought she'd help the ticket win in November. "But," Obama added, "I'm concerned about Bill Clinton being a loose cannon."
That seems an odd choice of words, considering whom Obama settled on: Blooper-prone Joe Biden. And considering her foreign policy gaffes during the campaign, Hillary Clinton's selection as Secretary of State seemed equally unlikely. But then, there was a political consideration here, too. In choosing her, Obama simultaneously moved Hillary inside the Obama tent and moved her out of the running for a Senate leadership post.
As Wolffe writes: Obama's aides believed that many Senate Democrats thought Clinton had extended her presidential campaign far beyond the point where she had lost the election. Her negative advertising wasted Democratic money, threatened to undermine the party's nominee and suggested that she was disloyal to the party. They were unwilling to offer the junior New York senator a position ahead of her lowly rank, and she stood little chance of becoming majority leader. "There was a lot of encouragement from inside the Senate to get her into this job," said one senior Obama aide. "They wanted her out of there..."
If this is true, then Senate Democrats got their wish. Although anyone who thinks he's heard the last of Bill or Hillary Clinton, doesn't know them very well.
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