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What Happened To Bill Clinton?

I know what’s happened to my feelings about Bill Clinton, so I assume that the same change has taken place in others.

I’ve been a fan of Bill Clinton’s since his first presidential campaign, I voted for him twice and felt for him deeply when the Congressional lynch mob Clarence Thomas took unto himself ganged up to throw him out of office. In one of Philip Roth’s novels there are pages about the sanctimony and hypocrisy of those days; a former student of ours (Roth’s and mine), a young writer named Isabel Cole wrote me from Berlin, “Why are Anericans surprised that they voted a man into office?” The louder the sanctimonious racket, the angrier I got about the smirking, virtue-sellers who raised it. I found the “Depends on what ‘is’ means” testimony an exhibition of strength and courage unique in presidential annals and delighted in the great public’s forgiveness and “None of our business” response to the congressional and journalistic hypocrites. I enjoyed the subsequent years of Clinton’s popularity, relished the quiet intelligence as he, say, gave a brilliant tour d’horizon of world affairs or refreshed debate by giving down to earth translations of difficult economic or political problems.

Now in the winter of 2008, Clinton’s speeches for his wife and against Barack Obama have infuriated me. They have the simplistic, insinuatingly suggestive stupidity he used to counter. They are devious in the way his accusers accused him of being. They are mean-spirited in an “I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-anything-else” mode, “anything else” standing for the Democratic Party and whoever becomes its candidate. He black-baits as if an older, meaner Arkansas voice was let loose in him; he distorts Obama’s remarks about Republicans and Reagan as if he were the liar the impeachment-mad Republicans claimed he was.

What the psychological explanation is, I don’t know. Some have suggested that he’s making up to Hillary for his liaisons with Monica Lowinsky et al. Some say he’s trying to sink Hillary’s candidacy because he can’t bear the public displays of marital solidarity he goes through on every platform on which they both stand, or because, for many years, he’s disliked her forcefulness, detailed knowledge and Clintonesque grasp of matters small and large. I don’t know and don’t care about his motives. All I know is that the charming, decent, empathetic, learned, hard-working, sincere human being I once thought so wonderful, is now covered with the marble dust of the statue he himself has been daily demolishing.

--Richard Stern