Not since Edith Wilson was in the White House has there been a First Lady who accumulated so much experience at governing. But that was only in the last year and a half of her husband Woodrow's term, when he had begun his slide to a massive paralytic stroke and, as it was whispered finally to be, cerebral thrombosis, without speech and without movement on his left side. Mrs. Wilson took over the day-to-day running of the presidency. Had the women's suffrage amendment passed before 1920, one might imagine a hardened Edith Wilson campaigning for the Democratic nomination--against such lightweights as newspaper editor James M. Cox, the eventual nominee, A. Mitchell Palmer (!), John W. Davis, and that blowhard, William Jennings Bryan--and claiming to be the most experienced of the lot.
We now have Hillary Rodham Clinton actually running on just such a pretense. Not because of her husband's physical incapacity--but, in a way, his psychological incapacity. Here is the inner stress of Bill's narrative in support of his wife: It tries to deny his preoccupation with Monica and with impeachment, the time he was actually AWOL, while presenting an autobiographic tale at once egocentric and photo-perfect. There is not a hesitation in either of their sagas. To alert citizens, this seeming hyper-confidence translates into yarns.
Actually, if I were Hillary, I would not be so happy having my hubby extolling my virtues. That is because he cannot keep from extolling his own. Everybody recalls the criticisms leveled at Al Gore for not using Bill Clinton more in the 2000 campaign. I vividly remember Clinton's speeches. They were full of "I" and "me." And, as if he were Al's father, "I am so proud of Al Gore. " Gore did not want a referendum on Bill Clinton.
Clinton is something of a monomaniac, and his monomania goes back decades. But take one of his latest raptures, a conversation with Charlie Rose on December 14, 2007. The exchange begins with Clinton praising all the other candidates but Barack Obama:
Clinton: The others ... have done great things. I think that counts for something. You know, I'm old-fashioned, I think it really--I think a president ought to have done something for other people and for his country when you--when you pick a president. But ...
Rose: But ...
Clinton: But Obama is a person of enormous talent, you know, staggering political skills.
Rose: Ready to be president?
Clinton: Well, the voters have to make up their mind. But what I'm saying is ...
Rose: But you sat in the office.
Clinton: In my--yeah, but--but what I'm saying is in my experience, what I know about the job and what I know about the world--and I've been to ninety countries since I've been out of office. I want a president next time who has a good vision and has great programs, but understands that even vision and programs don't necessarily change people's lives. And Hillary, ever since--ever since I knew her--has been the best I ever saw at seeing a problem and figuring out what to do about it. And that's--that's--so I have nothing bad to say about him and any of the others.
Here Clinton starts ridiculing Obama with irony. But Clinton is not good at irony: "What we want is somebody who started running for president a year after he became a senator because he is fresh, he is new, he has never made a mistake, and he has massive political skills. And we're willing to risk it."
A bit of hauteur, the eternal "I": "And I--even when I was governor and young and thought I was the best politician in the Democratic Party, I didn't run the first time I could have ... '88. And I had lots of Democratic governors encouraging me to. I knew in my bones I shouldn't run. That I was a good enough politician to win, but I didn't think I was ready to be president." Take that, Barack.
Aside from Obama, what about the other candidates and their readiness for the nomination? Edwards? "He started running for president two years after he was in the Senate full time, but when he left the Senate he made a serious study of poverty." Biden? "Absolutely." Dodd? "I think he is." Richardson? "I think all of them ..." All of them except Obama and, by omission, Kucinich. But, by the way, none of these aspirants whom Bill has deemed qualified has the slightest chance of wrangling the nod from Hillary.
Many commentators have observed that, in his many speeches for his wife, he speaks much more about himself than about her. In truth, this means that he is making Hillary's race for the nomination a referendum on himself. It follows, then, that, if she wins the designation of the party, the election will also be a referendum on Bill, and in a context where there is much more hostility, even rancor, toward him than among forgiving party loyalists. This is bad news for Hillary, very bad news.
The fact is that, except for the slightly populist trope from John Edwards, there are few policy differences among the real candidates, at least no policy differences that a more-than-average enthusiast for one aspirant would be able to discern from another's. Try it for yourself: Enumerate the differences between the new Hillarycare and the designs of Obama or Edwards. In international affairs, which is still the most stressful stage on which the country's future will be tested, they are all children of the Davos dispensation. They live in a borderless world that, in truth, no one lives in at all.
But one cannot go back to the '90s with too much nostalgia. For Islamic terror against America erupted all over the world from the beginnings of the Clinton administration onward: the first attack on the World Trade Center, the assault on Khobar Towers, the simultaneous bombings of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and, then, the successful targeting of the U.S.S. Cole. What was the Clinton response to these atrocities? Basically nothing.
The link between his presidency and her bona fides as candidate is porous matter. But they do share certain values. They are pleased as punch that they've made millions. Yet they can't leave well enough alone. Bill and Hillary do the tax-reform two-step. Both of them bemoan that, with the money they earn and have, their tax rates should not be as low as they are. They ought to be higher. OK. Yet their purpose in saying so, I suspect, is to tell us that, for the first time in their lives, they are really rich. Maybe they can't believe it themselves.
One of the sources of their wealth is the fortune of supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, on whose payroll Clinton has been for years. Apparently, Clinton is about to break this bond, not least because its terms may embarrass Hillary. It is hard to imagine what real services he might have provided to Burkle, save for introductions and cheery deal closings. But all of this mystery-cash glitz cannot but hurt Mrs. Clinton. Bill Clinton has had written for him a book called Giving. Now, it is true that his foundation does some good works. It brokers agreements, facilitates programs, persuades for-profit enterprises to cut prices, etc. Very admirable, but also not the salient lesson from the precise lives of the Clintons. The book should have been called Getting. The Clintons aren't experts in giving but in taking. This is something of which Barack Obama cannot be accused.
By Martin Peretz